Music Reviews
Under Color of Official Right

Protomartyr Under Color of Official Right

(Hardly Art) Rating - 9/10

Instead of introducing themselves with flattery and fondness, Detroit foursome Protomartyr discredit their abilities by lampooning each other with a rapier wit. “Hello there/You are all now witnesses/ to a kind of confrontation between me and these three men," vocalist Joe Casey jests in a monosyllabic voice, proceeding to refer his bandmates as a “jumped-up homunculus” and a “flannel acre”. Perhaps it’s a way to demystify the seriousness of being in a band, a way of humanizing their bond even if it’s cheekily expressed in an endearing way. That unorthodox commencement could very well be a salute to post-punk pioneers The Fall, who at the beginning of their illustrious run declared themselves as “northern white crap that talks back” on record with biting nonchalance.

This is but a small glimpse into the corrupt sense of humor inherent within the dissolute moral climate of Under Color of Official Right, one that barely projects any light through a transparent negative. And Protomartyr are indeed frigid stars, part-time punks that capture the mundanity of their Detroit upbringing with a depraved poetic squalor. Joe Casey makes a living as a doorman, and now proudly justifies the dead-end job as a way to balance his creative pursuits. His crackpot, everyday observations raise their assaultive delivery to a measurable extent, rendered with a deadpan wit that has no place in a public poetry reading. You’re riding shotgun with Casey as he makes his stops, so when he writes about meeting Livy to “drown the frog mouths”, or when he counsels his friend Billy that “life is living on your own”, you get a strong sense that you’re not just a guest, but a regular companion in his matter-of-fact narrative.

Casey’s disillusionment with the conditions that surround him is the vessel that carries Protomartyr’s blood-boiling anthems, a commanding presence that doesn’t subscribe to the fiery imperatives of post-punk. It couldn't be any more far removed from two of this century's most eminent statements in the genre, Turn On The Bright Lights and Silence Yourself, albums that found a way to fuse stylish posturing with emotional release. And though the members of Protomartyr are anything but attractive bachelors, it does share that evident need to convert what’s forbidding in the surface sound life-affirming. For instance, there’s What The Wall Said, which begins with a morose bass crawl before it slowly builds into a grand, caterwauling finale; and to think that it’s juxtaposed with the words "slapping you down/choking you out”. They relish involving dramatic interplay, like the powerful surge of I Stare at Floors, in which Casey laments “Rheumy old thoughts are constant companions/nipping and barking at me” over a trembling guitar backdrop that crosses the finish line with merciless glory.

Casey may be fascinated with the inner machinations of violence, though when contrasted with band’s soaring rhythmic structures, his tenebrous thoughts are surrendered into a vulnerable, more sensible state. Not to say that the album can occasionally slam you with a visceral punch without the slightest apology; in Bad Advice, Casey exposes the seedy term of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick ("you set me up for a comeback son/pass the box fill the money up"), about to implode with anger-fueled hubris as if he were making his way up to the ring to challenge him. And the high-speed noise charge of Want Recover is a faithful throwback to their more ramshackle debut, No Passion All Technique, showcasing the manic, firebrand rhythm section of Alex Leonard and Scott Davidson.

Protomartyr sure know how to keep a tonal center even if the songs can wildly differ, which makes it an unpredictable and highly compulsive listen. For all its vitriolic harshness, a song like Tarpeian Rock still manages to create a kind of miasmic, dub-heavy rhythm as Casey sardonically lists those deserving to plummet down the fabled cliff of Capitoline Hill - gluten fascists, Internet personas, rich crusties, smug urban settlers, adults dressed as children, and terrible bartenders are among those that should suffer such terrible fate. And Violent may as well be pivotal moment in Official that establishes the album’s subject matter, in which Casey offers a warped parable about the hostile urges that stir one to engage in aggressive behavior. He shares with a defeatist attitude “If it’s violent, it’s understood/ And if it’s violent/maybe/it’s all violent," a moment of respite that is just as cutting in its cataclysmic silence. 

It’d be convenient to attribute the political turmoil of Detroit as the stimulus for such a surly listen, and perhaps Protomartyr inhabit that character because they’re conditioned to a perpetual air of sadness. But Under Color of Official Right is built with a steely fortitude, treating its subjects with respect and bluntness even if there’s nary a hopeful or comforting prospect to look forward to. It is massive in scope and meaning, a raging punk album that’s too intricate to be considered such, and surely one that swells with a potent synthesis of tenderness and staggering resilience. At the end of the album, Casey bawls “I’ll take that applause/because I deserve” before the band lurches into a triumphant, obliterating finish. And it feels completely, utterly earned.