Album Review: Protomartyr – Ultimate Success Today

[Domino; 2020]

Protomartyr frontman Joe Casey must read quite a lot. On the band’s 2014 track “Maidenhead” he retold a dark tale from a 1941 novel by British author and playwright Patrick Hamilton called Hangover Square. The book’s narrative follows a crippling alcoholic with an identity disorder whose problems escalate when his dissociative states – or “dead moods” – become violent. As a nice cherry on top, Hamilton works in themes of fascism, class, and pre-war England. It wasn’t just the characters suffering, it was an entire society. Sound familiar?

It’s not dissimilar from Casey’s take on the tale. Protomartyr’s “Maidenhead” represents a release from the dregs of the underclass, but the hope provided turns out to be false. Class and greed also underscore Casey’s prose throughout the band’s discography, bubbling just between the surface of angry guitars and odd rhythms. There are few modern bands that depict social instability amidst art as well as Protomartyr.

After signing to Domino, releasing their impactful 2017 album Relatives In Descent and re-issuing their debut All Passion No Technique, the band had some looking back to do. A new LP is always a daunting venture, and the ill feelings Casey had during the writing process almost turned against him. “This panic was freeing in a way. It allowed me to see our fifth album as a possible valediction of some confusingly loud five-act play,” said Casey about the writing of Ultimate Success Today. Although panic and socioeconomic struggle are still ever-present in Protomartyr’s music, this album proves to be their most concise yet.

Lead single “Processed By The Boys” is a fantastic return. Soaked in propulsion and dread, the song imagines a handful of apocalyptic scenarios. “When the ending comes, is it gonna run at us like a wild-eyed animal?” Casey questions at the outset. There’s so much macabre quality to the lyric, it kind of sticks out in the band’s catalogue, which is saying something. It’s worth watching the video accompaniment with its bizarre humor and tackiness: a small crowd enjoys a karaoke version of the song while trying to ignore a petty fight going on in the same room. Casey’s hilariously-cast doppelgänger is professional and unfazed despite the violence going on in his crowd.

While the fight itself is a rather simple take on a Brazilian meme video that the band became infatuated with while writing, there’s poetry under the surface. The show goes on, but people can’t help but be distracted by the fight happening just a few feet away. This is the same way that, throughout the record, Protomartyr discuss the state of the world without beating the listener over the head with the themes – indeed, the pounding ache we all feel is easily tackled by the instrumentals alone.

So yeah, Protomartyr are a politically-charged punk band, but damn did guitarist Greg Ahee ever nail it with this record. Opener “Day Without End” has an incredible build to it; where previous album openers gave the listener a nice release in the chorus, this track has no intention of being so accommodating. We’re held over the edge of a cliff as Ahee’s tones become more and more lamenting and loud, while free jazz saxophones round things out perfectly, like a swirling collection of neurons trying to operate under extreme duress and anxiety. Keeping with its title, “Day Without End” doesn’t end so much as suddenly stop.

Another Ahee highlight is “June 21”, where his guitar takes a reprieve from its usual distorted cries to work in more of an angular early-80s punk aesthetic. Half Waif mainbrain Nandi Rose kicks off the vocals and does a fabulous impression of Casey’s cadence, before he retakes the helm. The riffs are disorienting and awkward, perfectly matching his mumbling gait as he tells a bleaker summertime story than a breakup album. “Don’t go to the BP after dark,” he bemoans about a lonely corner of Detroit where even his enemies aren’t keeping him company.

“Michigan Hammers” opens up the second half of Ultimate Success Today with gusto, and it’s perhaps the finest showcase of the band’s rhythm section to date. Scott Davidson’s basslines are bleating and cruel, never warning the listener before climbing up the neck to Carlos D levels of treble, while Alex Leonard on drums smartly lets Ahee and the horn section hold the foreground of the song. “What’s been torn down can be rebuilt / What has been rebuilt can be destroyed,” Casey cries from the end of the bar (after observing that only some of the other drinkers are on pills). The choppy editing of explosions, police brutality, corporate success, and a hammer crashing through glass in the video are another no-frills addition to the narrative.

“Tranquilizer” and “Modern Business Hymns” are exhaustingly aggressive at this juncture, but there’s more poignant prose to hold things together: “Eating dirt and growth from built-up respirators / While the rich sup on zebra mussels broiled in plankton.” We’ve heard Casey take much-needed digs at the super-wealthy dozens of times before, but this is 2020 and the band will express anger where it’s due.

Protomartyr bed down the tensions incredibly well with closing track “Worm In Heaven” – but gosh is it ever a drag to get through. Like revisiting his feelings around All Passion No Technique, Casey seems well aware that any moment could be the band’s last, and takes the opportunity to say goodbye. Although the song is mired in a retrospective of a frightened existence, he has bittersweet things to say to those he’ll leave behind: “Be as needed as the nail / As neat as the pin… I wish you well, I do.” This farewell works best on a thematic level, and solidifies his idea of Ultimate Success Today being akin to the denouement of a five-act play.

Ultimate Success Today is the closest the band have come to a perfect front-to-back experience. Even if your ears may feel they need a break from the towering walls of instrumentation, the lyrics and style will keep you coming back; spend some time with the lyric sheet and you’ll continue to ponder and explore the literature that inspired Casey. Almost any song here would fit well with Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky’s Dmitri fits many of Casey’s depictions to a tee) or 1984 as a companion. Also, given that they’re natives to Detroit, there is a sense that the band feel a duty to talk about how recent years have affected their community. It’s a cautionary tale we can all learn from.

On Ultimate Success Today, Protomartyr have made essential jams for a genre that’s been passed around dozens of times over. It’s nice to know that, five albums deep, the band haven’t lost any ferocity, and that they continue to be a mouthpiece for so many feelings we all share.