The Agent Intellect: Protomartyr’s Textbook of Post Punk

Protomartyr. Photo Zac Bratto Protomartyr. Photo Zac Bratto

I’m not the only one to notice it. Recently, post-punk has come to the fore again. I won’t drop names but the sound’s instantly recognizable: dark, grimy, face-chewing rhythm guitars, clear bass, half-sung vocals, a razor-thin production. It’s a refreshing break from the run of the mill records that whether self-consciously or not try to reach the holy grail of Catchiness. Protomartyr is one such band, exuding a listless cool yet singing about things that are intimate and personal. On their third album in four years, the Detroit band up the ante on everything.

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First single from The Agent Intellect ‘Why Does It Shake?’ is a classic Protomartyr cut, with stinging guitar notes, reverb on eleven. The guitar fuzz and screech is as aggro as a horde of wasps on LSD. On the quieter moments, driven only by drummer Alex Leonard’s toms, lead singer Joe Casey asks why the body shakes and the fear moves. Of course, he’s asking about the times in which we have no control over ourselves, mind wrecking havoc over matter like nobody’s business.

The album reads like a philosophy textbook sometimes. Second single ‘Dope Cloud’ explores nihilism, slamming down all escape routes. Not dedicating your life to prayer, not the spoils of being a pizza magnate, or even the riches of a bank. It’s pretty bleak. On ‘Cowards Starve’, Casey spits in the verses, ‘social pressures exist and if you think about them all the time you’re gunna find that your head’s been kicked in.’ Yet, like a run up in slow motion to a long jump, the band kicks up the tempo, and Casey extends his hand to be your mentor, big brother, and best friend all in one: ‘I had to show him that the weakest hands could still make impressive fires.’ In the post-chorus, ‘I’m going out in style’ couple with the shimmer of the guitar chords that hang in the air like Michael Jordan in full flight. That is to say it’s majestic, affirming in the fists-in-the-air kind of way.

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Then there’s the middle of the road points of view, neither about triumphing nor buckling. ‘Pontiac 87’ has Casey confessing that sometimes being the loser is alright, just don’t tell anyone that it’s what he wants. In the bridge, he argues that ‘there’s no use being sad about it, what’s the point of crying about it?’ You can’t tell if it’s a plea to live and let live or another way of giving up. As usual, the guitars angle up and down, yanking here, jerking there. Three records in, we know this as Protomartyr’s bread and butter. Yet, it hasn’t dulled and still sounds urgent and exhilarating. The band isn’t catchy in MTV (or should I say Vevo?) terms but they continue to offer an escape route from folk and pop, opening up a space for introspective lyrics with a sound that’s reflective of the 21st century person’s head. It’s sometimes dark up there and it’s as congested as L.A. Protomartyr don’t have the antidote but it’s nice to hear someone who identifies.

The Agent Intellect is out October 9. Protomartyr plays with Growwing Pains in Montreal on October 12 at Bar Le Ritz PDB (179 Jean Talon W). 9 p.m. $13.