Golly gee, am I an angsty emo. The only clothing I own is black. Black like my soul – my heart, which screams constantly in writhing agony about the horrors of the human condition and the bleakness and depravity of our dismal existence. Sometimes, when I’m really moody, I walk to the park and let black mascara be washed down my face by my own salty tears, as I talk to a withered oak tree – “the only thing that understands my suffering.”
And what is an angsty emo without angsty emo music? This week, to free my inner 14-year-old who nobody understands, I listened to The Agent Intellect, the third album from the Detroit-based post-punk project Protomartyr.
At first, these guys ticked all the boxes on the ‘forgettable and generic’ checklist: weird name, faux-intellectual album title, and cover art “with an, um, grim aesthetic that… uh, like totally reminds us of the cyclicality of history or something, man,” their producer reminds them while sucking down the third doob this hour (seriously, how does he afford all that weed? Broke students want budgeting advice).
Casey is positively overflowing with existential torment
Then I sat down and listened to it. And again. And again. Oh, shit, it’s good.
Greg Ahee spins slow guitar lines, favouring single notes over chords. The normally-thin sound is overdriven and smeared out by a cranked-up reverb pedal. The result is an ominous wall of swirling sound that fits in elegantly over the drum and bass.
Speaking of the rhythm section, they seem to be straight Joy Division. Drummer Alex Leonard has the same plodding rhythm as Stephen Morris, but will occasionally lapse into something more aggressive and animated. To be frank, there’s nothing especially interesting, but he definitely gets the job done.
On first listen, I wasn’t particularly taken by Scott Davidson’s bass guitar. Lines fit into the background well, but didn’t do anything on their own – it seemed. My first impressions don’t match up with reality – take ‘Pontiac 87’, where the nifty-sounding descending line serves as an excellent counterpoint to the guitar. On ‘Dope Cloud’, the bass felt as if Davidson was literally pulling the rest of the band towards the end of the song – very cool.
The niftiest groove, worthy of special mention, came at the beginning of ‘Uncle Mother’, and featured an excited bassline with splattered drumming and one hell of a guitar hook – it almost felt like they got drunk and forgot they weren’t the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Very cool indeed.
The most distinct part of the album is probably Joe Casey’s baritone half-singing. Casey is positively overflowing with existential torment and a pent-up rage – opting to sing about topics like Satan as a teenager and specious ideologues in the audience of a papal visit to Michigan in 1987 (witnessed by the frontman himself). Ominous warnings are interspersed – on ‘Dope Cloud’: “You dedicated your life to prayer / That’s not gonna save you, man.”
Casey’s delivery is one of the most striking sonic elements of the album. The singer’s baritone is reminiscent of Ian Curtis – but the delivery differs. Casey’s delivery is half-spoken, an understatement that seems to underscore the album’s thesis of disaffection.
So, the album is technically alright, but how does it feel? To answer that, one night, when I felt particularly melancholy, I got drunk, hit up a park, and slumped under a tree to listen to it front-to-back. We vibed, Protomartyr and I – I felt the burn of Rust Belt resentment deep in my soul. I wouldn’t say it was a spiritual experience, but it definitely took the Angsty Factor to a solid 9.
My biggest gripe with this album, though, is that they don’t do anything new. Sonically, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures is a perfectly good substitute – or any pretty good album in the genre, for that matter. Without Casey’s lyrics, there’s not a lot there that’s changing the game – rather than stand on the shoulders of giants, they’ve opted to hide behind them. However, they definitely have sown seeds of a unique identity – ‘Uncle Mother’ is a standout track in terms of (as Sokal put it in his seminal paper) transgressing the boundaries.
Overall, this album is a well-executed continuation of the status quo. I wasn’t satisfied. It’s not game-changing, but good background music while you and your goth friends get together and scribble in your diaries about how your parents just don’t get you.
The Agent Intellect by Protomartyr is out now on Hardly Art