After a year of extensive touring in support of 2015’s The Agent Intellect, Protomartyr returned to their practice space in a former optician’s office in Southwest Detroit. Guitarist Greg Ahee—inspired by The Raincoats’ Odyshape, Mica Levi’s orchestral compositions, and Protomartyr’s recent collaboration with post-punk legends The Pop Group, for Rough Trade’s 40th anniversary—began writing new music that artfully expanded on everything they’d recorded up until that point. The result is Relatives In Descent, their fourth full-length and Domino debut. Though not a concept album, it presents twelve variations on a theme: the unknowable nature of truth, and the existential dread that often accompanies that unknowing. This, at a moment when disinformation and garbled newspeak have become a daily reality.
“I used to think that truth was something that existed, that there were certain shared truths, like beauty,” says singer Joe Casey. “Now that’s being eroded. People have never been more skeptical, and there’s no shared reality. Maybe there never was.”
Relatives In Descent offers new layers and new insights, without sanding any of the edges born from their days as a Detroit bar band. Ahee’s guitar still crackles and spits electricity. Casey’s voice continues to shift naturally between dead-eyed croon and fevered bark. Drummer Alex Leonard and bassist Scott Davidson remain sharp and propulsive, a rhythm section that’s as agile as it is adventurous. But this is also Protomartyr at their most impressive. After months of rehearsal, the band decamped to Los Angeles, California for two weeks in March of 2017, to record at 64Sound in Highland Park. Co-produced and recorded with Sonny DiPerri (Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors), who helped capture the band’s long-simmering vision for something more complex, but no less visceral, Relatives In Descent also features contributions from violinist Tyler Karmen and additional synths by Cheveu’s Olivier Demeaux.
It all begins with “A Private Understanding,” pegged as the album’s opening statement the second it was finished, and a wellspring from which the following eleven songs flow. At once beautiful and brutal, it mutates from drum-led oddity to unlikely anthem, with some of Casey’s most potent lyrical work at its center: “Sorrow’s the wind blowing through/Truth is hiding in the wire.” He’d originally approached the writing on this album as an opportunity to move away from the anger and personal despair that defined much of Protomartyr’s previous three albums. But a lot has happened in the past two years. Disturbed by happenings both local (the ongoing, man-made tragedy of the Flint water crisis) and national (just about everything), Casey drew influence from the songwriting of Ben Wallers, the recently translated stories of Irish writer Máirtín Ó Cadhain, and Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy , a sprawling, 17th century masterwork that provided both solace and confirmation.
One can hear these influences throughout , be it in the wary reportage of “Here Is The Thing” or the uncanny menace of “Windsor Hum”, the shining city of “Don’t Go To Anacita” or the triptych of delusions both “good” and “bad” that is “Up The Tower”, “Night-Blooming Cereus”, and “Male Plague”. In the end, Relatives In Descent offers a small light in the darkness, while never denying that we are all just standing in the dark.
When the four members of Preoccupations wrote and recorded their new record, they were in a state of near total instability. Years-long relationships ended; they left homes behind. Frontman Matt Flegel, guitarist Danny Christiansen, multi-instrumentalist Scott Munro and drummer Mike Wallace all moved to different cities. They resolved to change their band name, but hadn’ t settled on a new one. And their road-tested, honed approach to songwriting was basically thrown out the window. This time, they walked into the studio with the gas gauge near empty, buoyed by one another while the rest of their lives were virtually unrecognizable and rootless. There was no central theme or idea to guide the band’ s collective cliff jump. As a result, ‘ Preoccupations’ bears the visceral, personal sound of holding onto some steadiness in the midst of changing everything. Flegel is quick to point out how little mystery is in the titles of these songs: Anxiety, Monotony, Degraded, Stimulation, Fever. “ Monotony is a dead end job; Anxiety is changing as a band,” he says. “ Memory is watching someone lose their mind; Fever is comforting someone. It’ s all drawing from very specific things.” These things — bigger ones like breakups, smaller ones like simply trying to calm someone down — are ultimately the things that explode our brains, that keep us up at night. And so where their previous album ‘ Viet Cong’ was built in some ways on the abstract cycles of creation and destruction, ‘ Preoccupations’ explores how that sometimes-suffocating, sometimes-revelatory trap affects our lives. “ We discarded a lot, reworking songs pretty ruthlessly,” Munro explains. “ We ripped songs down to the studs, taking one piece we liked and building something new around it. It was pretty cannibalistic, I guess. Existing songs were killed and used to make new ones.” Sonically, it’ s still blistering. But it’ s a different kind of blister, less the the scorched earth of the band’ s previous LP, more like a blood blister on a fingertip: something immediate and physical that you push and stare at. It’ s yours. Opener “ Anxiety” articulates that tension: clattering sounds drift into focus, bouncing and echoing off one another until one bone-shattering moment when the full band strikes at once, moving from something untouchable to get to something deeply felt.“ Monotony” moves at a narcoleptic pace by Preoccupations’ standards, but snaps to attention to make its point, that “ this repetition’ s killing you // it’ s killing everyone.” “ Stimulation” opens with a snarl and hurls itself forward at what feels like a million bpm, pausing for one mortal moment of relief before barreling onward. “ Degraded” surprises, with something like a traditional structure and an almost pop-leaning melody to its chorus, twisting the bigness of Preoccupations’
music to sideswipe the clear, finite smallness of its subjects and events. And the 11-minute-long “ Memory” is the album’ s keystone, with an intimate narrative and a truly timeless post-punk center. There’ s love piercing through the iciness here, fighting its way forward in each of the song’ s distinct sections. As always, there is something crystalline to what they’ ve made, a blast of cold air in a burning hot place. All this adds up to Preoccupations: a singular, bracing collection that proves what’ s punishing can also be soothing, everything can change without disrupting your compass. Your best year can be your worst year at the same time. Whatever sends you flying can also help you land.