by Ian Thomas
For an album hyped as transcendent of genre and era, Under Color of Official Right, the sophomore effort of Detroit's Protomartyr is very much of its time, an immediate and visceral reaction to the city that spawned the band. While the claims of relevance in perpetuity may not yet be proven out, Protomartyr makes a case for that possibility by making it clear, at least, that the band is not drawing from the playbook of their contemporaries, who do not take as firm a position on the subject matter of their songs.
Protomartyr’s gravitas does not amount to joylessness, however. To the contrary, the band's passion is refreshing. As the album’s title implies, Protomartyr is unwavering in their convictions and assured in the virtue of their fight.The band’s attitude is that its success hinges on nothing less than total acceptance of their message. At this moment in time, that message is one that speaks to the importance of preserving Detroit as a viable- albeit working class-base of operations for creatives as the city is threatened by gentrification and johnny-come-lately trendiness.
Protomartyr's sound is inherently at odds with itself. It makes comparisons to post-punk outfits like Mission of Burma not altogether inappropriate. For example, singer Joe Casey's dry declarations serve to mute the brightness of guitarist Greg Ahee's ringing chords. But, as with Mission of Burma, the dissonance is a driver, not a distraction. More than any band or sound, past or present, Protomartyr seem to draw inspiration from Detroit, itself, with Casey’s deadpan as the voice of things as they are and Ahee’s guitar as they could be under the best of circumstances. Though the sum of this sound is spare and economical, it’s also touching. In portraying through music Detroit's rusty edges and beaten frame, Protomartyr is also portraying the city’s vital, vulnerable heart.
In this way, the band acts not only as the city’s conscience, but also it’s cheerleader.This is best exemplified on “Tarpeian Rock,” which finds Casey spending half of the song listing every strata of the population contributing to the population. His list includes “greedy bastards, emotional cripples, looming fascists,” and “alt-weekly types,” to name just a few.
Perhaps most interesting and endearing is the band’s acknowledgement of their role as performers. “Hello there / you are the witnesses / of a kind of confrontation / between myself and these three men,” Casey sings on album opener “Ain’t So Simple”. This approach serves a dual purpose. On its surface, the acknowledgement is an act of humility. As a small band, merely playing songs, Protomartyr’s sphere of influence is limited. However, the reach of creative acts do not determine their value. The degree to which those acts affect the audience within that reach determines the value. Artists who value a place that allows them to do that, such as Detroit, should be willing to fight to keep such a place. As the album’s triumphant closer, “I’ll Take That Applause,” indicates, anyone willing to take up that fight, in however small a form, is worthy of the spoils. “I’ll take that applause, ‘cause I deserve it,” Casey sings.
PROTOMARTYR with OUAIS, DUMPLINGS, NE-HI, SPRAY PAINT. 8 p.m. Wed., April 9. Howlers Coyote Cafe, 4500 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield. $5.