After a year of extensive touring in support of 2015’s The Agent Intellect, Protomartyr returned to their practice space in a former optician’s office in Southwest Detroit. Guitarist Greg Ahee—inspired by The Raincoats’ Odyshape, Mica Levi’s orchestral compositions, and Protomartyr’s recent collaboration with post-punk legends The Pop Group, for Rough Trade’s 40th anniversary—began writing new music that artfully expanded on everything they’d recorded up until that point. The result is Relatives In Descent, their fourth full-length and Domino debut. Though not a concept album, it presents twelve variations on a theme: the unknowable nature of truth, and the existential dread that often accompanies that unknowing. This, at a moment when disinformation and garbled newspeak have become a daily reality.
“I used to think that truth was something that existed, that there were certain shared truths, like beauty,” says singer Joe Casey. “Now that’s being eroded. People have never been more skeptical, and there’s no shared reality. Maybe there never was.”
Relatives In Descent offers new layers and new insights, without sanding any of the edges born from their days as a Detroit bar band. Ahee’s guitar still crackles and spits electricity. Casey’s voice continues to shift naturally between dead-eyed croon and fevered bark. Drummer Alex Leonard and bassist Scott Davidson remain sharp and propulsive, a rhythm section that’s as agile as it is adventurous. But this is also Protomartyr at their most impressive. After months of rehearsal, the band decamped to Los Angeles, California for two weeks in March of 2017, to record at 64Sound in Highland Park. Co-produced and recorded with Sonny DiPerri (Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors), who helped capture the band’s long-simmering vision for something more complex, but no less visceral, Relatives In Descent also features contributions from violinist Tyler Karmen and additional synths by Cheveu’s Olivier Demeaux.
It all begins with “A Private Understanding,” pegged as the album’s opening statement the second it was finished, and a wellspring from which the following eleven songs flow. At once beautiful and brutal, it mutates from drum-led oddity to unlikely anthem, with some of Casey’s most potent lyrical work at its center: “Sorrow’s the wind blowing through/Truth is hiding in the wire.” He’d originally approached the writing on this album as an opportunity to move away from the anger and personal despair that defined much of Protomartyr’s previous three albums. But a lot has happened in the past two years. Disturbed by happenings both local (the ongoing, man-made tragedy of the Flint water crisis) and national (just about everything), Casey drew influence from the songwriting of Ben Wallers, the recently translated stories of Irish writer Máirtín Ó Cadhain, and Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy , a sprawling, 17th century masterwork that provided both solace and confirmation.
One can hear these influences throughout , be it in the wary reportage of “Here Is The Thing” or the uncanny menace of “Windsor Hum”, the shining city of “Don’t Go To Anacita” or the triptych of delusions both “good” and “bad” that is “Up The Tower”, “Night-Blooming Cereus”, and “Male Plague”. In the end, Relatives In Descent offers a small light in the darkness, while never denying that we are all just standing in the dark.
Preoccupations’ songs have always worked through themes of creation, destruction, and futility, and they’ve always done it with singular post-punk grit. The textures are evocative and razor-sharp. The wire is always a live one. But while that darker side may have been well-explored, that’s not quite the same as it being fully, intensely lived. This time it was, and the result is ’New Material’, a collection that broadens and deepens Preoccupations to a true mastery of their sound. In it lies the difference between witnessing a car crash and crashing your own, between jumping into an ocean and starting to swallow the water.
“It’s an ode to depression,’ singer Matt Flegel says plainly. “To depression and self-sabotage, and looking inward at yourself with extreme hatred.” Typically resilient, the months leading up to recording ‘New Material’ brought a new order of magnitude to feelings that had been creeping up on Flegel for some time. He’d written bits and pieces of lyrics through the course of it, small snippets he hadn’t assigned to any one thought or feeling but were emblematic of a deeper issue, something germinating that was dense and numb and fully unshakeable. As the band began writing music, that process gave shape to the sheer tonnage of what he’d been carrying. With virtually nothing written or demoed before the band sat down together, the process was more collaborative than before. It was almost architectural, building some things up, tearing others down to the beams, sitting down and writing songs not knowing what they were about. But for Flegel, it led to a reckoning. “Finishing ‘Espionage’ was when I realized,” says Flegel. “I looked at the rest of the lyrics and realized the magnitude of what was wrong.”
‘New Material’ builds a world for that feeling, playing through its layers and complexities while hiding almost nothing. That inscrutable side is part of the magic, here, and a necessary counterweight to the straight-jab clarity of Flegel’s lyrics. You can deep-dive the lyrics or zone into a riff; you can face it or you can get lost in it. “My ultimate goal would be to make a record where nobody knows what instrument is playing ever,” says multi-instrumentalist Scott Munro, “and I think we’ve come closer than ever, here. It shouldn’t sound robotic — it should sound human, like people playing instruments. It’s just maybe no one knows what they are.”
Opener “Espionage” lives up to Munro’s goals, kicking off with a clattering, rhythmic echo that gives way to sprinting percussion and a melody in the orbit of Manchester’s classics. “Manipulation” explores the futility of going through the motions, balancing a droney, minimal march with a thunder roll that brings it to the brink, and to the doomed romantic declaration, “please don’t remember me like I’ll always remember you.” “Disarray” bursts up like a blackened confetti cannon, the song’s undeniably bright melody dancing over a refrain of “disarray, disarray, disarray” and literally nothing else. “A lot of this is about futility,” he says, “trying to find something where there’s nothing to be found.” That hunt turns into a search-and-destroy mission on “Decompose”, a tense, speedy, “blow yourself up and start again” type of song, the very picture of creation and destruction, as Flegel writes “for better or worse, we are cursed in the ways that we tend to be.” And while calling an album ’New Material’ might seem like a smartass move, the truth is it’s as matter-of-fact a title as Espionage, Disarray, or anything else on the record. Why fight that?
If the through-line unifying Preoccupations’ work is a furious, almost punishing cyclical quality, ‘New Material’ does offer some relief. “This is somehow the most uptempo thing we’ve ever done,” observes Flegel. That propulsive, itchy quality rescues ‘New Material’ from the proverbial bottom of the pit. To write these songs is to force oneself to reignite, to play them is to stand up and reengage. Closer “Compliance” may not seem revelatory on first listen, but it is deeply elemental, a crucial finale and the band’s first standalone instrumental. Original versions were built to death, reexamined and re-destroyed until they landed on just two chords — something simple, fundamental — and resolved to make meaning out of that, to show instead of tell. Flegel acknowledges it is more affecting to him than any other song on the record. It’s not redemption, more like a forced reprieve.