ALBUM: Under Color of Official Right
There comes a time in the life of every young son of Metro Detroit when he must float around without purpose, like a rotting branch in a polluted river. Metro Detroit is a flat expanse of four million people, comprised of Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne Counties (the latter being the site of Detroit proper). Essentially all cultural capital in the region is created, showcased, or incubated in the city of Detroit, which is why it has, as a symbol, always been claimed so widely. The origin story of Protomartyr evokes the vastness of this world, how easy it is to both get lost and found because of Detroit’s cavernous scale. As it’s told, singer Joe Casey worked at a theater in Detroit during his late twenties and struggled with feelings of alienation and underachieving, improbably leading to a string of connections that formed the band. It’s a journey that gives meaning to lost days.
There’s something about alienation that runs deep, and it’s all over Protomartyr’s Under Color of Official Right: the depression (“Don’t feel nothin’ / for anyone, anything”); the sneering (all of “Scum, Rise!”); the sarcasm (“actors playing both parts / Judge Mathis would never stand for it!”); the red-eyed realities (“Only seven years old / when your father left you there / I want you to know / he never loved or cared”). The record captures a particular feeling one might only experience while drunk in the passenger seat of a friend’s car, drifting beneath orange highway light. The ideal backdrop for these songs are those moments between shows, bars, houses, between scenes, and they’re abundant in the Detroit Sprawl—a world built upon a nervous system of highways.
Which is not to say the record is a total bummer. What Official Right also captures so effectively is the spectral nature of emotion. The lyric from “Come & See” goes, “I’ll try to live defeated / Come and see / the good in everything”, after all. This emerges in the nuanced performance of singer Joe Casey. He may demure in interviews that Protomartyr shows were once a “fat guy yelling” at an audience, but Casey can’t distract from his profound impact. At times Casey growls like Jello Biafra (“Bad Advice,” “Scum, Rise!”), while at others he sketches a version of Ian Curtis that’s more sardonic than anhedonic. His talent won’t win America’s Got Idols, as every phrase ends in aimless trills. Casey knows how to pick out a unique rhythm for his vocals, spots like the recurring motif in “What the Wall Said,” in which he repeats “You’re twenty percent ah-ah-ah-out.” His diction is propulsive on “Bad Advice,” fastened to the beat as he spews, “Pass the box, fill the money up.” It’s a dynamic performance throughout that—more than anything else—nurtures the nuanced mood of each song.
Many comparisons have been made between Protomartyr and seminal Post-Punk bands like Wire and Pere Ubu, as much for the dark humor they share as the biting guitar work. They’re as indebted to bands like Joy Division, The Fall, and Interpol, who each carved unique paths towards a kindred mood. Protomartyr is distinguished in their ability to elaborate on every tendency, stretching out in song like they’ve earned it, because with Official Right, they have. The band is as comfortable in the gauze of New Order (opening track “Maidenhead,” has got an “Age of Consent,” vibe to it’s guitar hook) as in the smog of Joy Division; they tread in weird noisy bursts that evoke Guided By Voices (“Pagans”), or in angular, spacey atmosphere (“Come & See”). Protomartyr is dynamic yet consistent; they’re mournful, hard-hitting, hilarious, ass-kicking, and even groovy.
A nod must be given to the rhythm section and its deft production. Alex Leonard plays like he’s smashing oil drums in the hull of a keeling ship. He rocks, but also sways and the result is not clean precision, but controlled chaos. His playing is emboldened by the obvious chemistry with bassist Scott Davidson, who himself often carries the dual burden of a track’s melody and rhythm. Their collaboration sharpened after a first record, No Passion All Technique, that was already plenty acute. It makes sense that Official Right hangs much of its momentum on the rhythm section. Clustered tightly in the middle of the record are three of the many standout tracks, and all heavily feature Leonard and Davidson. Guitarist Greg Ahee skillfully lays low to create a crackling atmosphere for them to haul “Tarpeian Rock.” They disorient with an ominously militaristic onslaught in “Bad Advice.” Ahee cranks it up a bit, but the guitar softly melts into the background. “Scum, Rise!” completes this trio of tunes, showing how deftly Leonard and Davidson can also blend into the background when Ahee’s guitar melodies swarm irresistibly to the surface.
The record ends in one of these victorious swarms, and it allows Ahee to revel in some big-ass power chords as opposed to the incisive hooks that cross-hatch the album. “I’ll Take That Applause,” is a straightforward rollick that allows the whole band to burn that last bit of fuel in the tank. It’s a fitting way for Casey to bow out, as well, wry and bittersweet. He sings in his vulnerable deadpan, “I’ll take that applause because I deserve it,” and “because I need it.” If there’s one reason this record resonates with me it’s because I’ve been there: both the place and the feeling of Detroit, the wilderness of in-betweens and incongruities. It makes perfect sense and no sense. I listen to Under Color of Official Right and I’m twenty-two again, half-certain of what I’m doing, half-sober somewhere between where I was and where I’m going. All I want is to play it on loop and to keep driving.
“And I’ll try to live defeated.”