Ultimate Success Today (Domino)

It’s been six years since Detroit post-punks Protomartyr’s Under Color of Official Right sophomore album received massive critical acclaim. It looked like they were headed for a level of success generally unlikely for a band from their end of the musical spectrum. Pitchfork were particularly lavish with the praise, and people had to take notice.

Back in 2013, soon after the release of the debut album, this writer interviewed frontman Joe Casey for the Detroit Metro Times. Back then he said: “We got an email from a guy in Belarus saying that he really liked the album. You always worry that the music scene is littered with the bodies of bands that played the local bar and you find in the CD dollar bin. That’s probably going to happen to us eventually. For right now, [it’s great] to know that there are people on the other side of the world listening and not hating it.”

Which is funny, because one year later they were one of the most talked about bands on the scene. Since then they’ve released The Angel Intellect in 2015 and Relatives in Descent in 2017 — both wildly enjoyable, challenging and experimental albums. But it has become clear that the sort of broader success that we might have suspected was on the cards a few years ago just isn’t likely for Protomartyr. Because it shouldn’t be.

The new album, Ultimate Success Today, is a masterpiece. A collection of dark lullabies that swing through styles with reckless abandon, but retain a sort of Berlin-esque cabaret vibe. That juxtaposition between darkness and hope is the theme, if there is one.

The band have always talked about the influences of The Fall (see that 2013 piece above); Casey certainly isn’t as earnest as a Mark E. Smith, but he shares a wry and dry sense of humor. You can hear that all over the album. Meanwhile, there’s a definite Morrissey vibe to “Bridge & Crown,” without the forced sense of melodrama.

The Fall and Morrissey, of course, are both from Manchester, England and these guys are not. But when Protomartyr were rising though the Detroit dives, that city’s garage rock boom was pretty much over, leaving something far more interesting — an eclectic collection of bands that cared little about cookie cutter genre types. Lettercamp, Lightning Love, FAWN — Protomartyr’s dark, poetic post-punk fit right in by not fitting in.

That remains the case. From the almost Bauhaus-y opening track “Day Without End,” it’s clear that the band will always play by their own rules. It’s what makes them so utterly fascinating. Freeform sax widdles all over the place, and you’re either onboard or you’re not. If you’re not, turn away — the listening doesn’t get any easier.

But if you are, the rewards are ultimately immense. “Processed by the Boys” swaddles the unlikely line between Killing Joke and Gang of Four. Throughout the whole album, there are whiffs of Nick Cave, of Shaun Ryder, of Oscar Wilde. And by the end, you just want to flip it (metaphorically, for the vinyl-heads) and play it again. Because you can be damn sure you missed something.

Protomartyr’s Ultimate Success Today is out July 17 via Domino.


LA Weekly