Ultimate Success Today by ProtomartyrRelease date: July 10, 2020
Label: Domino Recording Co. Ltd.
It comes howling in a minute into Protomartyr’s Ultimate Success Today: a scream of saxophone against the group’s signature noise-rock vibe, a sign that the band was not going to simply repeat the formula of either The Agent Intellect or Relatives In Descent. The juxtaposition of freeform jazz — in the form of woodwind talents Jemeel Moondoc and Izaak Mills, and jazz cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm — against the throb of Scott Davidson’s bass and Greg Ahee’s guitars, and set off by Alex Leonard’s fast-pulse drums, creates a novel canvas for Joe Casey’s half-spoken, half-sung apocalyptic visions. While musical moments throughout do occasionally evoke other musicians — the usual comparisons to Sonic Youth, Joy Division, Mark E. Smith — there is so much new here as to allow Protomartyr to shrug off the old side-by-sides and forge ground that is absolutely and wholly their own.
Take the delicate vocals of ‘June 21’, where Casey duets with Nandi Rose Plunkett (Half Waif) over a driving, hypnotic figure and amphetamine drums, interrupted here and there with a violent clash of guitar. Plunkett treats the dark images she’s handed with bell-like precision, while Casey’s held-back voice drifts with Plunkett’s on the chorus: “Summer in the city / Bring me low.” The song ends with a quiet groan of plucked guitar and bass, an atmospheric swirl of summer insects growing ominously in the background. ‘Michigan Hammers’ bounces from catchy bass licks to hard-jamming guitar and back again. ‘Processed By The Boys’ employs a sinuous Arabic riff, a sharp guitar/cymbal chant, and filigree woodwinds in service of a nearly-cheerful indictment of ICE. “Everybody’s hunted with a smile,” Casey warns, “being processed by the boys.” His voice drops to a seductive purr in the outro: “This time will be gentle enough / Gentle enough / Next time will be different.”
Casey’s flexible voice sees a workout on Ultimate Success Today, from low-tenor melodics that sound almost tender in ‘Modern Business Hymns’ and ‘Worm In Heaven’ to hoarse calls in ‘Michigan Hammers’ to the baritone growl of ‘Day Without End’. Aided by Mills’ clarinet, Davidson and Ahee patter a Middle Eastern sensibility through many of the tracks, which somehow settles comfortably alongside jazz and post-punk to create a dense, hookah-lounge intensity. Freeform jazz winds its way through tracks, including both the near-beat-poet feel of ‘Tranquilizer’s verses and the wailing siren of its chorus. Percussion leans heavily on cymbals and snare, with just the right amount of swing. Leonard wields the drums with deftness and fluidity, but makes sure to anchor all these disparate styles; his playing is the glue holding the album together. There’s impressive balance on Ultimate Success Today, each instrument getting a chance to be heard while all work in unity to create a wave of sound and mood — particularly notable since the album was recorded at Dreamland Recording Studios, a late-19th-century church with acres of natural reverb. (Full credit, here, to co-producer David Tolomei, engineers Ken Helmlinger and Rainer Reeves-Cohen and mastering engineer Sarah Register as well as to Protomartyr’s own ears and instincts.)
But for all that Ultimate Success Today demonstrates a democratic strength, Casey’s lyrics hold their own, even when isolated from the music. Witness this take from ‘Modern Business Hymns’: “Around a distant star / Still counting credit, coin, or shell by proxy / Stuck on Earth / Eating dirt and growth from built-up respirators / While the rich / Sup on zebra mussels broiled in plankton / Wake me up / Let me live out my hours in a world that’s on the level / The past is full of dead men / The future is a cruelty / Resign yourself.” The words land with a weight that can be felt on the page.
“Sing what you’re feeling,” Casey counsels, “and be surprised when the results arrive.” But the lyric intensity here can’t have caught the band by surprise; this is Casey’s gift and curse. Ultimate Success Today explores a difficult, pain-spattered life, an exercise in futile revolution that culminates in the grave. The album ends with a dense, quiet darkness in ‘Worm In Heaven’. “I was never too keen on last words / Hope I said something good,” Casey signs off, but not without a wry social comment: “I am the worm in heaven / After my life / They’ll have me living out in the foothills / Cleaning the gilded gutter.”
If the story is tragic, the journey is compelling. Protomartyr light the way with tight licks, haunting halls of sound, and percussion that propels us through. Ultimate Success Today is as gorgeous as it is darkly prophetic, and Protomartyr proves once again that a great band can get even greater. The trick, it seems, is never to be complacent.