Album Review: Protomartyr – Ultimate Success Today

The Breakdown

Detroit post-punks finally unleash their noisy streak.

My relationship with Detroit post-punk quartet Protomartyr is a complicated one. I first heard of the band in 2015, when they supported Canadian noise punks METZ on their autumn UK tour. I discussed the upcoming tour with a friend of mine with whom I’d recently seen METZ, and he told me he really liked Protomartyr and that I should check them out. Given that this was a friend with whom I frequently agree on music, I listened to their then new third album, ‘The Agent Intellect’ (2015). I found the album consisted of some moderately listenable but overly bland post-punk songs that often teased snatches of the sort of explosive noise rock that is my jam but never embraced it. I felt much the same way about fourth album ‘Relatives in Descent’ (2017), which followed a couple of years later.

So I approached Protomartyr’s fifth album, ‘Ultimate Success Today’, with some degree of trepidation. I can happily report that my misgivings about the band have, for the time being at least, been displaced. On this album, for me at least, the band have finally demonstrated their full potential, giving Greg Ahee free reign to let loose with noisy guitars, rather than just showing brief snatches of those tendencies as something they can do before reverting to playing soft, non-threatening post-punk songs, as I felt was the case with their previous two LPs.

‘Day Without End’ is a misleadingly subdued opening track. Ahee’s trebley guitars take a back seat to a large extent, allowing the song to be dominated by some impressive saxophone work from guest performers Jemeel Moondoc and Izaak Mills. The album really takes flight, though, on powerful, driving lead single ‘Processed by the Boys’. The bass clarinet and aforementioned saxophones bolster Ahee’s heavy, noisy, and hypnotic guitar sound, perfectly exemplifying what Raincoats co-founder and friend of the band Ana da Silva describes in the album’s press release as “exquisite, subtle gifts from other instruments that always heighten the guitar, instead of fighting with it … they help to create a harmonious wall of sound all of its own … Ahee wanted to use different textures other than pedals, and the drone quality of some of those instruments colours the guitar and the whole sound with a warm, rich in reverb, yet all-consuming landscape for Joe Casey’s voice.”

Indeed, another reason why I feel ‘Ultimate Success Today’ is a far stronger piece of work than Protomartyr’s previous albums is the increased power in Casey’s voice. He sounds far more world-weary here than he ever has done previously. He sings the album’s title in several songs and each and every time he does it, it sounds incredibly bitter and sardonic. This makes sense when you read a statement from the band accompanying the album in which Casey says he now views the “urgency” of Protomartyr’s early work as “an inverse of my current grapple with how terribly ill I’ve been feeling lately. Was that sick feeling colouring how I felt about the state of the world or was it the other way around …. this panic was freeing … it allowed me to see our fifth album as a possible valediction of some confusingly loud five-act play.” 

The more discordant edge to ‘Ultimate Success Today”s songs is further signalled by the feedback-laden intro to ‘I Am You Now’. Ahee’s guitars then get as heavy as they have done on virtually any song recorded by Protomartyr to date around two-and-a-quarter minutes into the song. The dark lyrical themes alluded to by Casey in the aforementioned statement are explored more fully on ‘The Aphorist’ as he intones “narcissism is a killer” before Ahee’s guitars start to dominate proceedings at around the same point as they did on the previous track.

‘June 21’ features guest vocals from Nandi Rose. Her voice is softer than Casey’s, but no less sinister; the way she sings about a “summer in the city” of Detroit that will “bring me low” makes it sound like a period to be dreaded rather than looked forward to. The guitars on this song retain the double-tracked sound they had on the previous couple, so it will be interesting to see how Greg Ahee (as the band’s sole guitarist) intends to recreate this sound in a live setting. This is not an issue that Protomartyr will have to address for some time now, as their entire 2020 touring schedule has been cancelled due to COVID-19.

Side two kicks off with ‘Michigan Hammers’, where the guitar takes on a more angular sound than it has done previously and works in closer synchronicity with Alex Leonard’s drums and Scott Davidson’s bass than it did on any of side one’s songs. The first minute or so of ‘Tranquilizer’ begins with Casey crooning “the pain, the pain” in his trademark intense, Nick Cave-esque bark while Moondoc’s and Mills’ horns lend the song a jazzy edge. The guitars then kick in, propelling the music to a dark, hypnotic level that (for my money, anyway) most post-punk albums released this year will struggle to reach.

Ahee continues this mode of alternating between discordance and angularity on ‘Modern Business Hymns’, while Casey sings about the tragic paradox of the way in which trying to make a living can cause many people to die prematurely (a theme that has now perhaps assumed an additional relevance to that which Protomartyr intended). The album’s title sounds like a very dark joke when Casey sings it at the song’s end, as it did when he sung it near the conclusion of ‘Day Without End’.

Ahee’s guitars and Casey’s vocals do a weird kind of duet with each other on ‘Bridge & Crown’ as the latter lists the “four types of patients” that reside at the titular institution while Ahee hammers out riffs that reflect those varying personality characteristics. The ominous sound of the guitar in the song’s instrumental passages is bolstered considerably by the low, dark tones of Mills’ bass clarinet in a way that you wouldn’t expect from a mostly young post-punk quartet from a city with a veritable garage rock tradition but that is undeniably effective nonetheless.

Second single ‘Worm in Heaven’ closes ‘Ultimate Success Today’ and hearing it within the context of an LP that Protomartyr’s frontman has described as “a possible valediction of some confusingly loud five-act play” indeed makes it sound so much more valedictory and melancholic than it ever did as a standalone song. Casey sings: “It’s time to say goodbye … the grass has grown over me long before now … I was here … or never was.” Placing lyrics like these at the end of an album is a provocative move and is possibly intended by the band to reflect how, in many cases, the album’s overarching theme (the unbearable harshness of day-to-day life) leads to one result: death. The question of whether the narrator’s death is self-imposed or brought about by external circumstances is left unresolved. On a musical level, I appreciated the way in which Ahee’s guitar drones along with Mills’ clarinet during the song’s verses before exploding to life in its chorus far more when hearing the song as an album closer than I ever did when hearing it as a single.

With this album, Protomartyr have surpassed all my expectations of them. The reservations I previously had about them as an ostensibly pedestrian post-punk band have now been vanquished and with ‘Ultimate Success Today’, they have proven themselves capable of expanding their existing fanbase to include admirers of more abrasive noise rock bands like Daughters, METZ, and even the metal-leaning KEN mode. This album could well win them scores of new fans, and I am one such convert. Guitarist Greg Ahee emerges as its real star, and the abrasive edges to his playing style, of which listeners were offered tantalising glimpses on previous Protomartyr albums, are fully let loose here.

Another addition to the band’s sound that works surprisingly well and is an essential ingredient of the gloomy, ominous mood underpinning the entire record is Jemeel Moondoc’s and Izaak Mills’ horn-playing. ‘Ultimate Success Today’ is, for my money, Protomartyr’s best album yet by some considerable distance and the best post-punk album of 2020 so far. Whilst it does deal with depressing themes and is resolutely non-uplifting, it beats the band’s previous full-lengths into a discordant, noisy, cocked hat. Fans of Bambara, Mission of Burma, and USA Nails won’t want to miss it. ‘Ultimate Success Today’ is available via Domino Recordings from July 17th. Pre-order it here.

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