“Shit goes up, shit goes down,” barks the disgruntled frontman of Protomartyr on the opening number of their rollicking sophomore album Under Color of Official Right, recorded in three days last June at the Key Club in Benton Harbor, Michigan. The A-side features guitar lines that favour forlorn melodicism over harrowing noise rock cacophony. But there are moments on Under Color of Official Right when the intensity augments and the roiling energy feels like it might capsize. It never does.
What can be said about this truly gruesome album artwork? A dog baring teeth midst a murky backdrop of blacks and browns, smothering the canvas in a chilling veil. From the cover, you’d be forgiven to think that Detroit’s Protomartyr are a hardcore band. There’s a striking bleakness to their music that, I’d like to imagine, perfectly animates the state of Detroit’s bankruptcy: boarded up shops, littered streets and all that goes with it—the antiquated decadence, the filth. The vocal guts are emptied above jerky, overdriven guitar sounds resonant with 1984’s Zen Arcade or Roger Miller’s Mission of Burma. The flimsy lead guitar in “Come & See” demonstrating a keen ear to Sumner’s itchy clangs that decorated the sound of Manchester’s illustrious post-punk deities. The equally ragged guitar dashes contrary to this post-punk chime, fizzing and spitting in ways, pays its dues to fellow Rock City natives MC5 and the Stooges from all that time ago.
Protomartyr’s production values—although observably more sanitary than recording tools would allow in the ‘70s—a raw energy fathomed in its gritty construction and blood red yelp. The 14 tracks drag you by the scruff of the neck over hobbled streets, hurdling one in and out of shrill guitar rings and swashing drum spasms, dynamics teared in two and then haphazardly re-assembled. These fleeting dynamics establish a wrathful urgency, soon to be thinned by a sullen howl, reminiscent of Ubu’s David Thomas. The lyrical content is of an angry design, bawling frustration at this vile world with infuriating yelps to the night from vocalist Joe Casey. His stream of conscious prose often worn and weathered as a millenium-aged hangover, listing personal grievances of “adults dressed like children” and “credit card users” in the fiery “Tarpeian Rock.” Guitarist Greg Ahee and drummer Alex Leonard conceived Protomartyr as a more self-serious deviation of the duo’s band Butt Babies, and Joe Casey perfectly negotiates their muddled blend of industrial garage rock.
“Scum, Rise!” is acutely distressing, a passive-aggressive thrasher spliced with balmy surf-rock digressions, settling on an oddly satisfying mantra: “Nothing you can do/ Nothing you can do.” On “What the Wall Said” all those previous grievances are retracted for a walloping, drop tempo semblance of aerated post-punk, anchored dubiously by Cole’s truncated emotions. There are moments of darkness, but they never serve to suppress the overwhelming sense of hospitality throughout, illuminated by easy-to-miss phrases like, “Come and see the good in everything.”
Under Color of Official Right was released April 8th via Hardly Art. Stream the album in full below.