The Detroit post-punk outfit deepen their sonic palette on an extraordinary fifth record. Louis Griffin examines the latest release.
Where do you go, when your entire sound is built on being as caustic as possible? This is the question that faced Protomartyr after the release of 2017’s Relatives In Descent. After all, there’s only so many times you can turn up the dial, only so much more, well, post that post-punk can get, before you slip into self-parody. The band had walked that line with ease up until now, but it would appear that they are as painfully aware of the difference between the two as the listener is. Because they chose to get softer.
That’s not to say that Ultimate Success Today is by any means an easy listen. It hits harder, leans in and draws blood just as much as any of their albums do, and at times it slips into noise rock perhaps more than the band ever have before. No, what leavens the record is this: there’s space. When you’re making an album as dense as Ultimate Success Today, keeping the air in there is a very difficult task. I’m put in mind of BAMBARA’s Stray; a record just as heavy as this one in places, but again with moments of light. The inclusion of melancholy isn’t the only feather to the band’s bow, however – their sonic palette has also changed. The album features saxophone, flute and cello, not to mention Nandi Rose (a member of Pinegrove) on backing vocal duties. The horns in particular really add to their sound – they’re used mainly to colour the tracks rather than play any particular part. At times I found myself unsure whether I was hearing a synth, guitar or woodwind – and that’s a compliment.
On the other hand, the band still know how to rip into a track when necessary. Michigan Hammers is thunderous, colliding on every single beat, but even here there’s a mournful undertone. First single Processed By The Boys is undeniable, too. You find yourself relaxing into the monolithic guitar stabs, juddering forwards. Frontman Joe Casey croons the song’s title over and over, and we’re reminded of his undeniable knack for finding gold in a phrase that verges on meaninglessness. It’s followed by I Am You Now, which finds Casey slurring even more than usual – he’s nearly indecipherable here, and closer than he’s ever been to being Mark E Smith’s spiritual successor. This cut is possessed of the catchiest bassline on the record, and repeating it on guitar later in the track is a masterstroke. For Protomartyr, guitar and bass are inseparable, two arms of the same wild animal, and both are in service of the overall mood more than anything else. There are no ego-boosting guitar solos here. It’s this restraint that is the band’s greatest strength; many of these songs build and build like a panic attack, but they’re most thrilling when they retreat just as they near the edge. The quartet are pretending to push you in front of traffic, before pulling you back at the last minute and shouting “saved your life”.
‘The quartet are pretending to push you in front of traffic, before pulling you back at the last minute and shouting “saved your life”.’
The slower cuts are just as devastating. The Aphorist is a grinding funeral march, with a guitar line that sounds like a baleful last post on the bugle. Casey delivers another crushing one-liner, too: “I didn’t know him very well, but I think of him whenever my mind drifts.” Bridge And Crown is almost waltz-like, with the doomy single guitar notes floating in and out of focus. It’s preceded by Modern Business Hymns, which dives deeper into the theme of decaying modernity that so many of the lyrics here are preoccupied with. Industrial revolutions are referenced a number of times, and the album feels like a paean to the collapse of the mid-2000s tech utopias. But, as grand statements go, closer Worm In Heaven just can’t be beaten.
What can be said about such a transcendent track? How do you dissect the entire human experience? It’s almost life-affirming, and a rather bold move from the band to end on what is, in many ways an upbeat note. The song is constructed as a final goodbye from someone on the brink of death, with Casey stating “I wish you well, I do / may you find peace in this world. And when it's over / dissolve without pain” But, as the lyrics burrow into death, they find themselves questioning – why write in the first place, and what is the point of any of this? The point, is this: “I did exist, I did / I was here, I am”.
‘Ultimate Success Today…hits harder, leans in and draws blood just as much as any of their albums do, and at times it slips into noise rock perhaps more than the band ever have before’
In the press release Joe states that he “made sure to get my last words in while I still had the breath to say them.” The track feels like the essence of Protomartyr boiled down to its purest form, a scream into the void – the worth of there being something, rather than nothing. I’m reminded of something Nick Cave once said: "To act on a bad idea is better than to not act at all, because the worth of the idea never becomes apparent until you do it. Sometimes this idea can be the smallest thing in the world, a little flame that you hunch over and cup with your hand and pray will not be extinguished by all the storm that howls about it. If you can hold on to that flame, great things can be constructed around it that are massive and powerful and world changing – all held up by the tiniest of ideas." Ultimate Success Today is Protomartyr’s statement of intent, and it is something to behold.