Somewhere from the deep, dark recesses of Detroit, Joe Casey and his band have emerged once again with another message packaged between paper and stamped in wax. Protomartyr has returned, yes, with their fourth LP, Relatives In Descent, a truly despairing record full of confusing themes that somehow all revolve around a somber sonic bulletin of uncertainty.
Though they are often known to produce anthems of despair and anxiety, Protomartyr reaches for something even stranger on this record; a mysterious circling cloud of negativity portrayed in a style more prose than poetry. Casey conjures mythical images of talking horses and patriarchy—all within the confines of “side B.” “Side A” takes its jabs at a Trump-themed America in a plethora of sometimes-vague mentions and even a tale of religious realization involving the King of Rock and Roll himself. Truly this is an album of obscurity, as past Protomartyr LPs have been, but not on this level. Not even in this dimension. Maybe it’s the pulsating, visceral life plowed into the middle of this record from the rhythm section, but something about Relatives is different; something that’s entirely darker in its own right.
Despite the resounding doom and gloom, there are upbeat tracks to cling to, even if they continue to project disappointment and melancholy themes of family. The driving chants of Casey on “My Children” help find the pulse among the steady pounding beat of the bass drum. “My Children” is the kind of song you can rage-drive to while speeding down the freeway on your way to work amidst your fellow rush-hour goons. “Catriona” is constant fuzz, guitars bleeding through the speakers while Casey winds tales of the despondent dead, broken only by an eerie riff. Perhaps the most haunting track on the record is “Windsor Hum,” referencing the strange sonic phenomenon “across the river” in the Canadian town for which it’s named after. It begins by crackling off my turntable like the intro to some deranged 1970s horror flick. Now, Casey is full-on shouting, “It says want want want want want what you are given / Need need need need need what you’ll never have.”
Depressing enough yet? Relatives only gets more outlandish as it progresses. On “Up The Tower,” Alex Leonard’s drums pound out the staccato beats of a band of angry villagers whose footsteps stamp up the stairs of a fictional tower, seemingly hell-bent on overthrowing some greedy overlord. Then, things take a quieter, more ambient approach as Casey begins to croon on “Night-Blooming Cereus”—“Only in darkness does the flower take hold.” It seems, quite possibly, this song is the only light available to cling to as you are thrashed against the walls of despair and confusion so eloquently built throughout Relatives. Then, violently once again, the album slams back to themes of arrogant masculinity, perhaps a take on a patriarchal society that feels threatened by any progress made by those who are different in any way.
As the album closes, there are a variety of criticisms available to draw. The droning prose Casey spits and chants can seem daunting, drawn out, even lost at times in nonsensical babbling. On the other hand, this is half the appeal. If you are looking for a record to draw you away from the present or maybe drag you back through it, Relatives can deliver you. While they may have perfected their sound and image—that of a reverberating fuzz perpetually emanating from a dimly lit dancehall somewhere in Detroit—Protomartyr may have lost their listener in the fictitious folds of their fourth LP. But for me, getting lost in the numbness of space between my couch and the hi-fi system is exactly what I need to continue on in this not-so-certain world we live in.
By: Nick Fief