A protomartyr: the first person to be martyred in a particular country. A person, therefore, who is set apart–who sets themself apart–from their environment by guarding their integrity. A person who is singular in a way that is unimaginable and maybe now impossible. Tragedy and violence intermixed with hope and vision.
Also: a totally awesome-sounding word.
This is the line you have to walk when you decide to call your band Protomartyr. Or, rather, it’s the line you get to walk. Because, in the hands of this Detroit quartet, the intermingling of high drama and lowbrow comedy elevates both–rarely is comedic music this much moving, rarer still for dramatic music to be so full of laffs. It takes a good eight or nine spins of “Ain’t So Simple” to catch singer Joe Casey calling his bandmates a “homunculus” and a “flannel acre”; it’s partly Casey’s mushmouthed delivery, which falls somewhere between Mark E. Smith and Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, but it’s also partly his tone as he delivers the chorus (“It ain’t so simple/Treason is crime”) and partly Alex Leonard’s jagged drumline. It’s one of the best throwaway “we’re the dudes in the band” songs you’re likely to hear, and they sneak it in in the guise of brainy post-punk; I was halfway through a three-paragraph lecture on power dynamics as represented in moody indie rock when I realized Casey was threatening to send bears to maul his bassist. He vamps like Nick Cave over “Want Remover,” sputtering about being free from want, free from fear, free from action. Then he worries aloud about the titular device leaking onto the carpet.
And like all good shit-talkers, when Casey does get around to telling the truth, it pops. Prickles of guitar gather like a storm around Leonard’s drums in “Scum, Rise!” before raining down in shreds of steel. Casey sings about deadbeat dads with Steve Yzerman tattoos and abandoned kids who will one day plant bombs in sports bars. “You were only seven years old when your father left you there,” he sings, but the deathblow is the final line: “Until that day, I’m sorry to say, there’s nothing you can do.” It’s not exactly a tender song–the line “See him languish in his own gore” sees to that–but its affective power is in the ending, in the way Casey repeats that line over and again. It’s a fantasy Casey’s kid has built out of anger and impotence, and Casey knows it’s a fantasy. He’s not putting the kid in his place with all those “nothing you can do”s; he’s grappling with the problem for himself.
For their part, Casey’s band shifts just as easily between the acerbic and the comedic. They’re just as comfortable flexing hardcore muscles in the minute-long “Son of Dis” as they are setting down a shifty dance-punk groove in “Tarpeian Rock” (in which various distasteful people, including “most bands ever,” are tossed to their deaths from a cliff overlooking the Roman Forum). Guitarist Greg Ahee is all over the place, smirking toward the title of “I Stare at Floors” with a bee-cloud of sound, tearing a solo out of “Son of Dis,” letting loose some dark Bernard Sumner jangle in opener “Maidenhead.”
The sky that hangs oppressively low over this record is an uncomfortable Manchester gray, but don’t forget that it gets ugly in the Upper Midwest, too. Even when it’s at its darkest and most cynical, Under Color of Official Right never loses its chummy sense of humor, which makes listening to it feel more like wandering into a group of friends who are rehearsing their woes than it does witnessing a high-stakes existential emergency. Like all good Michiganders, Protomartyr aren’t going to change their conversation, but they will welcome you to take part in it. words / m garner