Protomartyr - Under Color of Official Right

There’s something about alienation that runs deep, and it’s all over Under Color of Official Right.

Additional Info

8.3

ALBUM: Under Color of Official Right

ARTIST: Protomartyr

2014

Alternative

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.”

1. Maidenhead
This song does a lot to set the emotional tone of the record. That hard-to-place yet familiar guitar lead evokes so much. I can’t help but hear New Order and the Smiths in that lead, while the guitar tone grounds us in a more Surf-Rock zone with its trebly reverb. That rhythm section churns forward so steadily here, and blows up when it needs to as Joe Casey belts out a laconic chorus.8.5
2. It’s So Simple
Check out the bridge at 1:35 for a nice “left turn” in those twin leads. This whole song recalls a Trail of Dead type of feel, the way those guitars burst apart in fuzz then turn into a sharp and focused hook.8.0
3. Want Remover
Here is another song that creatively paces the guitar arrangement. This song feels like three songs, which is a portal opened by guitarist Greg Ahee. There are beautiful transitions from spacey fuzz to cleaner lead tones, and with these shifts come the song’s distinct movements. It jells a little less than the album’s strong openers, but still packs a good punch. Respect for the shout out to Detroit native Judge Mathis. Justice is important. 7.5
4. Trust Me Billy
Perhaps featuring the most intoxicating hook on the record, everything on this track is pitch perfect and bittersweet. The guitars again sound beautifully in command of the atmosphere they generate in the decay of their tones. Listen for this between 1:10-1:30, and how Ahee has that nimble touch to crank it just in time to be painfully catchy again. It’s a great potential starting point for this album, as they have it all on display: catchiness, moodiness, musicianship, and the uplifting lyric “life is living on your own."10.0
5. Pagans
This really sounds more like a Guided By Voices song every time I listen to it. I think it’s the way that repeating guitar phrase ends on an incongruous note and just kind of teeters there. Casey does a great Robert Pollard: specifically, forty-eight minutes into a set, with three-quarters of a bottle of tequila consumed and Pollard’s performance more about energy than coherence. Not top form, but lovable.7.0
6. What the Wall Said
Speaking of “left turns,” this is the first major shift in the record. It’s also the first stab at an anthem, and they dedicate this one to paranoia. Casey’s performance should be noted for his clever delivery and writing; those staccato phrasings after the song shifts at 1:46 emphasize the increasingly desperate tone the song strives for.9.0
7. Tarpeain Rock
Another one of the standouts, this track continues to open the record’s soundscape, stretching itself out stylistically. It’s this learned comfort with treading different styles that elevates Official Right past its predecessor. There’s a fantastic energy that’s attained by the foregrounding of the rhythm section. After spending the record’s first half charting it’s emotional course, the guitars serve to color the landscape. What is Casey shouting about? “Emotional cripples”? I still have trouble following it over how fun and bouncy the whole thing gets.8.5
8. Bad Advice
With vague and ominous references to state-sanctioned torture, a death-march beat, and a slithering guitar lines, this track is one of the most memorable on the record. It continues to illustrate Protomartyr’s chameleon-like approach, how comfortable exploring odd and dark spaces they are. It’s a cleanly performed transition at the end, catchy in a straightforward, 90’s-Alternative kind of way.9.0
9. Son of Dis
This song is a pretty straightforward punk track, with sloppy-tight energy and really stinging tone on that guitar lead. There’s not a ton to it; it’s a quick dip in the pool. This is also the track that most clearly evokes the influence of the band’s linkage to The Fall.6.5
10. Scum, Rise!
Another scorcher, this song competes with “Trust Me Billy,” for how memorable and catchy it is. Interestingly, the path taken is more serpentine, recalling the kind of gritty atonal infectiousness of Dead Kennedys. Casey, accordingly, does his best Jello Biafra snarl. In true Protomartyr form, however, the song shape-shifts and turns bitter and wistful in a bridge that crescendos at the sentiment “There’s nothing you can do,” before returning to the chorus of “Scum, Rise!” Another impeccable track.10.0
11. I Stare at Floors
This is one of the weaker tracks on the record. It just comes across as tired, right away. Casey’s performance is aimless and struggles to anchor itself to anything. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this is one of the more repetitive tracks on the album, as well, as Protomartyr seems to thrive most when they don’t sit still. Not a huge misstep by any means, but a low point.6.0
12. Come & See
The band employ a 5/4 time signature in the verses on this song, which really allows for an odd and disjointed environment to be built. The way the guitars decay in a tunnel of reverb and delay is gorgeous and ripples into the space of those extra beats. Another credit to the production here—whether on headphones, in the car, or on the hi-fi system, the guitars are encompassing. Casey rebounds quickly from the previous track’s blandness, as well, as he’s right “in the pocket,” both rhythmically and melodically.9.0
13. Violent
Hard not to hear the Clash here, as Casey channels the congested earnestness of Joe Strummer. It’s a simple, sweet song that’s relatively straightforward but does include what sounds like the first inclusion of a regular old piano. The listener is painted a picture of a childlike perspective on myth and fairy tale, and how fucked up they really all seem to be. “If it’s violent, understood,” he sings.8.0
14. I’ll Take That Applause
It’s a triumphal way to end the record. The band throws that piano in there again, but the smashing performance adds to the grandiosity of the finale rather than lending a sweet flavor. It’s one final moment for everyone to shine. Casey belts out ironic lyrics tinged with melancholy; Leonard and Davidson pummel their gear under the candor of Ahee’s power chords. And just so we don’t forget, Ahee lingers at the end, leaving us with just a little bit of that gnarly growl. Great landing.9.0
Written by Ethan Milner
Ethan Milner is a writer, musician, and counselor in Eugene, Oregon. His writing on music can be found in the archives of MotorCityRocks.com, and his poetry has been published in numerous journals, most recently Eunoia Review.



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