“False happiness is on the rise/ See the victims piled high!” These are the first words from “Why Does It Shake?” Protomartyr’s lead single off their latest release, The Agent Intellect, a perfect excerpt from the diabolical diary of Protomartyr’s discography. As a band highlighted for being one of Detroit’s most promising artists, Protomartyr has released three bruising records in the last four years, each more dark, urgent, and disturbing than the last. The story of Joey Casey is fascinating in and of itself. The frontman for this post-punk rock quartet is a decade older than the rest of his bandmates, at the ripe old age of 35. His age is worth noting, as most people in their mid 30s have long given up their bubble gum daydreams of starting a rock band, but not Casey. He needed an outlet, and Protomartyr would be that release for him.
Protomartyr has always had a way of telling a story on their albums. Their songs often depict fables in first or even third person perspectives of twisted tales, drawing tenebrous metaphors to real life, especially American suburbia. Of course, they are not the only ones to use suburban living as a vehicle to describe some of the darker sides of American society, but Protomartyr doesn’t pull any punches. They’ve never been known as a band to put things lightly. On The Agent Intellect, Protomartyr makes it very clear from the beginning that they have a pressing and purposefully despairing message. The first character introduced is the Devil himself, on “The Devil In His Youth.” It’s quite possibly the most disturbing and unsettling song on the record, which if you knew Protomartyr, you would understand why it is the leadoff track on this album. Casey’s drawn out wails are spit out with despairing urgency, “I’ll corrupt them ‘til they think the way I do!” and “You’ll hurt the way I do!” It is through these jolting, up-and-down lyrics that Casey pummels the listener into feeling what he feels and seeing what he sees. Post-punk has often been an outlet for musicians like Casey to bring out some pretty despairing things, but it is the way Casey and Protomartyr articulate themselves that stands out. His words are one thing, but the way he speaks and shouts more than sings them on songs like “Pontiac 87” draw listeners much as a storyteller draws young children to the fire for a scary story. Only the story in “Pontiac 87” is about real life anecdotes of despondency and abandonment. The Pope (John Paul II) had spoken in Pontiac, Michigan in 1987 and Casey recalls this momentous occasion with a perspective that probably wasn’t the common disposition of those who witnessed the event. Not surprisingly, Casey speaks to the negativity under the immaculateness of the circumstance. “That fall from grace knocked me on my knees/ Don’t tell anyone, it’s what I wanted,” Casey howls repetitively, then finishes with “There’s no use being sad about it/ What’s the point of crying about it?” The turning point in this tour de force is “Ellen,” the crown jewel of the record and quite possibly in all of Protomartyr’s discography. Love songs are not easily done well, as cliche acts of infatuation are commonplace in art, but Protomartyr surprises us all with this statuesque composition. It’s a heartfelt message from Casey’s father to his mother, Ellen. “I will wait for Ellen/ I’ll pass the time.” Casey had lost his father earlier to a heart attack and later his mother to the agony of Alzheimer’s while he was still working on The Agent Intellect. “Ellen” is a testament to his parents’ undying love as much as it is to the development of Protomartyr’s musicianship. On the final throes of Intellect, the story behind the namesake of the band, St. Stephen, is explored. “They can stone me ‘til I fall asleep/ The Feast of Stephen/ Yeah!” As the first recognized martyr of Christianity, St. Stephen is known as the “Protomartyr” and there are references to his day of commemoration, the Feast of St. Stephen (December 26th), throughout the record.
The Agent Intellect is huge in nature. It’s an album impossible to digest in one sitting, and an album to be respected for that reason. Protomartyr has made monumental steps in their musicianship, giving them an impressive magnetism over those who choose to listen to their records. Intellect flows from track to track with an ease and fluidity reminiscent of chapters turning by in a book. Yes, the songs seem to meld together as one which may sound like a criticism, but on this record and in the way it is executed, it is more of an achievement. There is something to be said for an album as whole and as dense as Intellect, especially coming from a band whose discography is still small. If the product from this fledgling post-punk group can be so much improved over three albums in four years, one can only hope for a bright future from this dismaying band. Despite the disparity in the message, Detroit has something to be proud of in Protomartyr.