It’s difficult not to view all art right now – new, old, still being conceived or labored over – through the lens of the global coronavirus pandemic. But the virus is so all-encompassing and so anxiety-inducing – invisible, suffocatingly present – in a way that seems to permeate everything. It has proven to be the perfect existential flashpoint and a great revealer of our society’s failures. It’s inescapable and often overwhelming.
In many ways, then, it’s the perfect moment for a new Protomartyr album. Hailing from journalistic shorthand for post-apocalyptic city du jour, Detroit, the band (Joe Casey on vocals, Greg Ahee on guitars, Alex Leonard on drums, Scott Davidson on bass guitar) is uniquely equipped to soundtrack the times, even they didn’t mean to. Over four albums they’ve carried the torch for post-punk’s street philosopher tradition with steady hands and controlled rage. Casey acts the part of observer and poet, detailing the faults of American life from what some call a failed city in stream-of-consciousness abstractions as the band grooves, seethes, and thunders without ever quite careening off the rails.
Ultimate Success Today is a masterful continuation of their creative success to date. The band decamped to an old church in upstate New York pre-pandemic to make the atmospheric, strangely warm album with producer David Tolomei about the passage of time and the uncertainty of existence brought on by, of all things, the re-release of their debut album, 2012’s No Passion All Technique, in 2019. “I could hear myself hoping for an introduction and a long future, but also being cognizant that it could be ‘one and done’ for us,” explains Casey. “I was reminded of that first urgency and how it was an inverse of my current grapple with how terribly ill I’ve been feeling lately. Was that sick feeling coloring how I felt about the state of the world or was it the other way around?”
That lingering physical and mental sickness results in such a natural, lively, and enjoyable album is a truly Protomartyr-ian kind of irony. It helps that the band plays with such practiced ease: the Davidson/Leonard rhythm section is the propulsion and the restraint; Achee is the Keith Levene-equivalent painting in richly textured guitars over the canvas; Casey is the Nick Cave-esque gothic preacher, proselytizing and pontificating on top of it all.
The band lays down the gauntlet with the palpable dread of opener “Day Without End”, marked by squealing saxophone and a rolling, downhill groove. Riding perfect sequencing that gives a natural sense of movement without ever feeling one-note, Ultimate Success Today unfurls naturally over different terrain: some tracks (“The Aphorist”, “June 21”, “Bridge & Crown”) are softer but no less anxious; others, like “Michigan Hammers”, “I Am You Now”, “Modern Business Hymns”) are more obvious and rocking in their dread.
Over 10 tracks, the band grooves (“Tranquilizer, “Processed By The Boys”), drones, pummels, and takes moments to breathe. Maybe it’s the studio’s natural reverb or the strings and horns that occasionally color the songs, but even at its most unsettling, Ultimate Success Today maintains a comforting sense of peace. Casey acknowledges as much in the album’s press materials: “This panic was freeing in a way,” he says. “It allowed me to see our fifth album as a possible valediction of some confusingly loud five-act play. In the same light I see it as an interesting mile marker of our first decade of being a band – a crest of the hill along a long highway. Although just to cover my bases, I made sure to get my last words in while I still had the breath to say them.”
Perhaps it’s unfair to its creators to hear Ultimate Success Today through the lens of a pandemic. But it’s also impossible not to – it’s the moment we are living, and there’s no choice to be had. Fortunately, Protomartyr are uniquely equipped to rise to meet it. Born of anxiety and rooted in uncertainty, Ultimate Success Today is a salve for the times – a document of our shared humanity as we search for hope, for togetherness, and grapple with our fears of the chaotic and unknown. It’s a freeing and often stunning listen that, like all great art, will live far beyond the time it was created and set free into the world. We need it now more than ever.
Words by Andrew Ledford
Photo by Tim Aarons