Album Review: Protomartyr, “Relatives in Descent”
by Julian Hernandez
Protomartyr opened up their 2014 album, Under Color of Official Right, with the lines “Shade goes up/ Shade goes down/ One of my dead moods.” Certainly, Protomartyr’s newest release, Relatives in Descent, is not one of those dead moods. Joe Casey, the singer and writer behind Protomartyr’s lyrics, has found himself in an inspired mood reflecting on the troubles and aches of our contemporary times. While their political stances and personal struggles have always been a centerpiece to their music, the reflection on the certainty of truth, and the landscape made barren by its absence is at the forefront of this album.
Protomartyr has cranked up the dystopian mood all the way up to 11. The lyrics found in the album reflect that mood while simultaneously highlighting the musical strengths of the album. When asked in an interview by Rob Hakimian for The 405 about the songwriting process, Joe Casey states, “Yeah, I write to the way the music sounds, in a sense. Because if I try to force my own feelings on to the song and it doesn’t fit then it becomes pretty average pretty quick.”
It’s interesting, then, to look at the beginning lines of the new album, where in the opening track, “A Private Understanding,” Casey announces, in a direct manner much like a royal court herald, “Not by my own hand/ Automatic writing by phantom limb.” In an NPR article by Robin Hilton, Casey told Hilton that “…I also knew I wanted to start the album with an apology or a warning that whatever followed was maybe not completely true.”
There’s something ominous and foreboding about the drum roll and crash that sustains the song, paired with the toned down guitar, and the almost matter-of-fact singing of Casey. Then there’s the following track, “Here is the Thing,” where Casey frantically repeats the track’s title throughout the song. The pace of all the information coming at you, along with the speed of which the music, creates a sense of anxiety while listening to the track. The pace continues until it climaxes nearly two minutes into the song and, after ten seconds of an alien like phaser effect, a guitar solo evokes the dread of being watched or followed.
In “The Chuckler” we see the perfection of the harmony attained between the songwriting capabilities of the musicians and Casey’s lyrical writing. Greg Ahee on guitar, Scott Davidson on bass, and Alex Leonard on drums, provide Casey with a rich canvas to work upon. Casey understands the importance of his ability to pick up on the mood of the music and match it with lyrics. In the NPR article by Hilton, Casey states, “Basically, the band comes up with amazing music and it’s my job to not screw it up too much.”
The bright guitar notes, along with the snare and bass steadily hit in unison, emulates the repetition of daily life that we sometimes feel. Casey reflects the mood of the music so well when he sings, “An angry customer’s face/ confused because they didn’t get their way/ Is something they would never allow/ But they have to allow/ because this pitiful exchange will be the sole high point of our day” in the opening verse. It’s then brought to a sobering realization at the chorus with a sudden shift in the guitar. In the poignantly sung chorus Casey laments, “I guess I’ll keep on chuckling/ ’til there’s no more breath in my lungs/ And it really doesn’t matter at all.”
Casey also spends time lamenting the lack of awareness of his peers and society as a whole. On “Don’t Go to Anacita,” Casey uses the fictional town of Anacita to list some of his grievances and express his agitation with certain attitudes, such as “The liberal-minded here they close their eyes and dream/ Of technology and kombucha.”
Protomartyr spends time experimenting with sounds, such as on “Night-Blooming Cereus” where the drums are absent in the first half, and only Casey’s singing and an ethereal hum fill the space. But perhaps the most consistent part of Relatives in Descent is the sound itself, whereas the lyrical content seems to jump from topic topic, sometimes leaving the listener unable to catch up. If listening to an album multiple times in one sitting combing over the lyrics to find meaning is not an issue for as a listener, then you will find plenty to excite over.