Protomartyr: Ultimate Success Today review – abstract post-punk poetry timed for the end of everything

Challenging times call for challenging albums and the Detroit quartet have stepped up to the brief, producing eerily accurate observations of a world plunged into disorder

★★★★☆

Protomartyr’s fifth album arrives imbued with a sense of finality about it. Days before release, the NME found frontman Joe Casey, caught up “thinking about how long bands can last”, drumming up hype by claiming he “wanted the album to sound like a final statement”, appearing to suggest the band’s future may be in doubt: “Whatever comes next, if anything comes next, can have a fresh approach … the world may decide that, actually, this is our last album”. Quite a perverse, counterintuitive way of talking up your latest record, but Ultimate Success Today sounds less like the potential end of one band’s chapter than the end of the world as we know it.

It ends with the elegiac Worm In Heaven, upon which Casey appears to read out his own obituary over a grand, funereal backing: “So it’s time to say goodbye/ I was never too keen on last words,” he sighs at the beginning, his thoughts a mixture of enlightened gratitude and sympathetic encouragement (“May you find peace in this world and, when it’s over, dissolve without pain”) before turning back to himself, chilled by anxiety: “Remember me how I lived/ I was frightened, always frightened”. As far as closing tracks go, it’s incredibly moving and sobering, suffused with a sort of poignance you don’t get often in rock music. Then again, by that point, after spending time in the company of the preceding nine tracks, you’ve spent more than half an hour being told that it’s the end of the world as we know it.

Much like Ultimate Success Today’s predecessor, the breathtaking Relatives In Descent, plainly inspired by the Trump presidency, the mood here is defined by world-weary angst. But unlike many alt-rock lyricists warning about or surveying the wreckage of a world in complete, unfathomable disorder, Casey’s tone is more subdued and elliptical: he’s not the mad preacher yelling about an oncoming Armageddon (indeed, a lot of time, he seems to suggest it’s already here, we’re just living through it), but the disquieted observer, writing from the eye of storm like he’s seen it all before. Maybe he has. During Processed by the Boys, you’re repeatedly floored by Casey’s eerie foresight. Amid all the oblique references to militarised law enforcement and police brutality (“Everybody’s hunted with a smile”), he appears to have predicted not just the civil unrest in America – after the killing of George Floyd – and elsewhere, but even, chillingly, the coronavirus epidemic, specifically in the opening lines: “When the ending comes, is it gonna run at us like a wild-eyed animal? A foreign disease washed upon the beach?”

Granted, some of this, to the cynic, might resemble non-specific doom-mongering. Those who’ll remain unmoved with arms folded by mentions of “a cosmic grief beyond all comprehension” and “a riot in the streets” will probably feel a strong twinge of discomfort when talk turns to “shut-ins” and “built-up respirators” elsewhere – a twinge of discomfort equal to what Casey calls the “dull ache turned sharp” on Day Without End. Anyone who chooses to dismiss the lyrics, however, will be missing out. They’re poetic without being showy, tending to the abstract and surreal, managing to be deeply engrossing as a result. For some reason, Michigan Hammers breaks into a bit of history, mysteriously citing when US troops threw their horses overboard during an amphibious attack on Veracruz during the Mexican-American war. There are, at best, two blackly comic jokes. The first, on The Aphorist, concerns a “failed lawyer haunting teen-punk shows” who’ll “explain his top 5 for 09 and what to eat”, while the second, on Modern Business Hymns, takes a dig at the super-rich feasting on “zebra mussels broiled in plankton”.

Otherwise, the album’s sound further compounds the bleak sense of all things ending. I Am You Now’s bassline weaves through a morass of corrosive guitar feedback. Both the guitar and bass riffs on June 21 circle each other, locked in an anxious, unresolved loop. Throughout, cymbal crashes and staccato snares crowd around these tunes – which are, by turns, claustrophobic, twisting and, most intriguingly, stadium-ready – with the addition of saxophone. Rather than a voguish affectation, drawing from jazz’s renewed appreciation on the back of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly or Kamasi Washington’s cultish rock-star-level fame, the incorporation of free-jazz honking sounds fresh, immediate and natural. Clearly, Protomartyr are pulling from the spirit, not necessarily the sound, of post-punk. You can hear this in practice on Michigan Hammers: chunky punk chords thrashing against a sombre, climbing melody informed by rhythms that defy intuition; there’s something faintly proggy about the racing hook.

In fact, there’s something faintly proggy about Ultimate Success Today more generally, however slight. Seconds before it hardens into a black-metal squall of reverb-washed distortion, there’s a knotted guitar phrase on I Am You Now that mildly recalls early King Crimson. Not exactly neat or concise, The Aphorist still wears shades of a band-practice sketch, but ambitiously disregards verse/chorus/verse structure altogether. Bridge & Crown might be episodic, yet each evolving passage possesses a magnetic power. Meanwhile, the way Day Without End holds on the same melodic sequence for three minutes, subject to curious dynamic shifts, is absorbing in another way, gradually swelling into a wave of fury and panic: “Short breath, never caught,” Casey bellows above the pressing, clattering din.

Amid all the gloom, they can still rock – Michigan Hammers, June 21 and Modern Business Hymns are solidly enjoyable and, particularly during the former’s palliative midway lull, quite beautiful. None of this is an easy, unchallenging listen, though. In one ear, you’ve got Casey shouting stuff like “the future is a cruelty / resign yourself” and, in the other, a raging noise against the dying of the light. Even so, rare is the band in 2020 that makes the guitar/bass/drums triumvirate both exhilarating and intelligent. If this is to be Protomartyr’s final statement, it’s a potent full stop.

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