Joe Casey sings with determination. He grips the microphone and barks and growls in a defiant manner that suggests he’s not backing down.
Fronting the band Protomartyr, Joe is joined by three men who sound as seasoned as he: guitarist Greg Ahee, bassist Scott Davidson, and drummer Alex Leonard. Collectively, they produce guitar-driven music that is occasionally shimmery, occasionally pounding, and always a bit sardonic.
Sounding quite grim compared to some of their fellow post-punk standard-bearers, the prolific quartet from Detroit — three albums in four years! — dropped by the Black Cat on Sunday night to play a very full set dominated by their latest record, The Agent Intellect, released last October via Hardly Art.
And grim is the name of the game from the start as Protomartyr open with one of the first songs they rolled out from the new album, “Cowards Starve.” The lyrics tell us the singer is “gonna tear that mountain down” and “go out in style,” but they are belied by a snappy hook and warbling strings that sound a little brighter.
Watch Protomartyr perform “Cowards Starve” at the 2015 Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago on July 18, 2015, on YouTube:
Guitarist Greg and bassist Scott flank Joe in steady formation as he sings in a voice that truly does remind me of fellow Detroit musician Iggy Pop. As they perform, I imagine Joe slip into Iggy’s 1979 single “I’m Bored,” and it seems perfectly natural to me. Fixed behind the three others on drums, youthful-looking Alex has a particular talent for getting maximum volume out of minimum percussion.
As Protomartyr move through a 19-song set, the new songs get the biggest reaction from the crowd as they play “I Forgive You,” a shout-out to repeatedly fucking up, and “Boyce or Boice,” an apparent allusion to getting foreign ideas or illicit “smut” at home via the Internet.
Our DC crowd really gets into the new song “Dope Cloud,” which references the album title as “agent intellect knocks.” The song is about washing out with its refrain “I’m wrung out,” repeated as a mantra. Given the warm reception to the song at the Cat, I was surprised to see the song appears on the new album, as I supposed initially (not having yet heard it) that it was being received as an old favorite from an earlier album.
Personally, I’m taken a little later by the sinister “Uncle’s Mother,” which materializes sonically to my ear like a dark “Pretty in Pink” by the Psychedelic Furs. It’s apparently a song about neglecting children as the “old folks” gather “in the kitchen” and share something that will “consume you.”
Protomartyr close the main set with the excellent song “Why Does It Shake?,” a defiant declaration of yourself — staying alive and staying focused. The rhythm section of Scott and Alex set the tempo of the song, and Greg brightens it up with surf-guitar licks that turn to rockin’ shrieks around the chorus of “never going to lose it.” The song is a masterstroke, terribly brilliant, gripping and at turns feral.
Watch Protomartyr perform “Why Does It Shake” live at the concert venue Villain on Aug. 29, 2015, in Brooklyn:
Protomartyr wrapped up a five-date run with DC punk quartet Priests on Sunday as a subset of their nationwide tour promoting The Agent Intellect. They continue on with other bands tonight, Feb. 16, in North Carolina, then spend the next month swinging across the United States, wrapping up in time for a spring tour of Europe.
The band is in good form, and well worth seeing. Vibrant yet philosophical, their music strikes a great post-punk chord that has deservedly drawn comparisons to UK forebears Wire.