Joe Casey, frontman of Detroit’s Protomartyr, is a true punk poet. Just watch any video of him performing, and you’ll see it. He’s stage front wearing a suit jacket and sunglasses, perhaps holding a glass of whiskey and a cigarette, shuffling awkwardly about and crooning in that marvellous baritone voice. Saying something profound and verbose and unsettling which you can’t quite pin down, but you know is brilliant.
‘Not by my own hand / Automatic writing by phantom limb/ Not with my own voice…Thats how I bar my door / In this age of blasting trumpets / Paradise for fools’. This is Casey’s opening gambit on ‘A Private Understanding’, and it’s a bit of a misleading one. While this record is certainly full of storytelling and voices that are not Casey’s own, it isn’t an album that turns to poetry as a means to escapism.
No – Relatives in Descent contains tales of uprising, the afterlife, imaginary migrant towns, and all manner of obtuse subject matter in between. But it all feels like a grimy reflection of what Casey describes in ‘Here is the Thing’ as ‘Dread 2017, 18 / Air horn age / Age of horn blowin’ / Mental corkscrew’. In other words, a reflection of the increasingly mad and unbelievable world we found ourselves living within in the year 2017.
But you could choose to ignore it all, and Relatives in Descent would still be magnificent. Protomartyr’s greatest strength is their ability to bring Casey’s strange poetry roaring to life with explosive post-punk songwriting. And on Relatives, they do this with more refinement than they ever have before.
The rhythms are steady and groovy, plodding basslines and roaming drum fills. Guitarist Greg Ahee plays some truly destructive riffs on tracks like ‘Don’t Go to Anacita’ and ‘Up the Tower’. But the band are capable of moments of beauty, too, like ‘Night-blooming Cereus’, which transitions seamlessly and brilliantly into ‘Male Plague’, the album’s loudest and possibly best track.
The instrumental palette has widened, the structures of the songs become more complex, and the topics become both more immediate and more mysterious than they ever have been. Protomartyr’s latest is a level-up by all accounts, and easily walked punk album of the year in my books.