Protomartyr – ‘The Agent Intellect’

Detroit punks hone their ample strengths on a third album that's pure rock 'n' roll

Protomartyr don’t seem to consider themselves a ‘successful’ band, if interviews are any indicator. In fairness, it’s safe to assume they’ve not yet been made wealthy by playing sharp-angled, sardonic-vocalled jangling postpunk. Still, since the quartet’s second album ‘Under Colour Of Official Right’ emerged last year, they’ve enjoyed far more overground attention than groups this abrasive and uncommercial can usually expect.

‘Under Colour…’ exhibited the bleak blare of late 70s/early 80s greats – The Fall and Joy Division, primarily – and was possibly the most British-sounding record ever to have come from Detroit, a city which revolutionised American music in the second half of the 20th century. ‘The Agent Intellect’ is no idle rewrite of its predecessor, but it avoids the path of other recent crossover punk notables, from Fucked Up to Tenement – bands who aimed for the conceptual or grandiose. Meanwhile, Protomartyr sound happy just to hone their ample strengths.

The stall is largely set out early on with ‘Cowards Starve’, powered by Greg Ahee’s dramatic goth guitars and Alex Leonard’s military-rigid beat-keeping. On ‘I Forgive You’, Protomartyr frontman Joe Casey alternates between drawled, wordy verses and slurred, seasick choruses. His vocal ancestry very clearly includes Mark E Smith, a vocal affection ramped up on ‘Boyce Or Boice’. ‘Dope Cloud’ is an album highlight, under three minutes but packing in at least three corking riffs and a lyrical tack in which Casey appears to be arguing with himself (“It’s not gonna save you, man!” he keeps repeating).

Among these icy blasts of noisy guitar and scowling subject matter, however, there is tenderness. The first signs of wistfulness creep in with ‘Pontiac 87’ by virtue of an elegant, Cure-ish guitar line, while ‘Ellen’ is reputedly personal to a degree previously unexplored by Casey, named after his mother and concerning her battles with Alzheimer’s disease. Epic by their standards at six-plus minutes, its structure is typical enough of a Protomartyr song, but they use space to build tension to sterling effect. If these guys don’t have the loftiest ambitions ever, it needn’t matter when ‘The Agent Intellect’ makes post-punk feel like purest rock’n’roll.

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