Protomartyr may have recorded their latest album Ultimate Success Today last year, but it shines light on a lot of issues we are currently facing today. The Detroit-based quartet paints a grim outlook of a declining society. One plagued by oppressive governments, corrupt politicians and corporate greed, all in a flood of digitally sourced news that bombards our every waking hour. Primary songwriter Joe Casey may have written these songs based on what he sees in his home state, but the images he depicts defies geographic location.
Protomartyr has always had a style of post-punk with a sense of unease and foreboding, and nowhere is this more realized than in Ultimate Success Today. Reverb-drenched guitars engulf the mix with claustrophobic dread. The bass comes in rumbling and the drums are brimming with intensity. Joe Casey’s vocal delivery can range from prophetic sermoning to sheer spite. So much so that one can easily dismiss these as crazy ramblings, but the lyrics are filled with insightful themes and philosophical musings that it warrants full attention. These songs are more timely and poignant than ever, as if written by someone with a clairvoyant eye.
“Day Without End” opens the album in a gradual intensifying ascent. Each instrument starts slowly while building up tension, as if warning that something is about to explode. It heralds the apocalypse while introducing the album’s themes: “This is the dawning of the day without end”.
“Processed by the Boys” speaks of an encroaching power imbalance where the everyman is left unable to speak for himself in favor of the ones in position. Jagged droning guitar riffs and a militaristic drum rhythm sells a dystopian effect. Added by the haunting line: “Fill out the forms, download the app / Submit your face into the scanner.”
One of the best pairings in an album that I have ever seen is in “Tranquilizer” and “Modern Business Hymns” with its depiction of modern life. The former finds the narrator in a struggle with pain, relying on a substance for a quick escape. In the next track the pain goes away but the result is an empty husk with no identity. It shows how we numb our senses with shallow pleasures just to get through our lives, slowly being “Pulled apart by the absence of what sustains us”.
Ultimate Success Today may shed light on our anxieties and share a bleak image of life. Something that may be hard to dwell on, but framing it in music is something that can help us understand these situations better. It is in these forms of art that we see what we can fix. Protomartyr delivers that and more in this deeply engaging offering.