The award for most disingenuous album title of all time nearly goes to Detroit punk maniacs Protomartyr, and their debut album No Passion All Technique – because if the band were using that as an opportunity for a self-flagellating swipe at themselves, then they would be quite incorrect. But the title of the album is drawn from lyrics to the opening track In My Sphere, so, panic over.
As it is, there’s plenty of passion here, and some less-than-perfect technique. On the first albums by The Stooges, The Birthday Party, The Fall, Sonic Youth, Pavement, Iceage and countless others that laid the groundwork for, or blazed a trail before Protomartyr, it’s the passion that’s important, and No Passion All Technique has that in spades.
Domino have taken it upon themselves to reissue this record, owing to the fact that it’s damn near impossible to get your hands on a physical copy for less money than it’d cost to buy the entire Fall catalogue 10 times over (though that soon may be an issue, too, owing to the scarcity of some of the recent CDs issues of their albums). Simply put, it was about time some folks released this thing properly.
Speaking of The Fall, it has long been known that singer Joe Casey’s honking growl is immediately evocative of Mark E Smith in the same way that Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s honeyed yowl sounds more like Shane McGowan’s with every passing year. There are undeniable similarities between Casey and Smith, but this is nothing new – he’s certainly not the first to sound that way, and he himself has acknowledged the tremendous debt that his band owes to The Fall. He’s just better at sounding like his idols than most of us. The rest of Protomartyr’s sound on this debut (they have come a long way since) is made up of a splash of The Stooges, a dollop of The Gun Club, a generous helping of Gang Of Four and an even more generous helping of Wire. Hearing No Passion All Technique for the first time in fantastic quality, all of these influences are even more apparent than ever. But what else is apparent is the maniacal focus that would one day lead to their modern classic albums The Agent Intellect and Relatives In Descent.
The record opens with In My Sphere, a surreal slice of drunken rockabilly complete with Casey’s unhinged moans. It sounds like The Stooges circa 1970, and all that followed. It has those sonic hallmarks, but something else, something stranger. They’re not as maniacal as The Stooges, but carry with them more than a hint of something evil. Machinist Man is pure, unadulterated The Fall. It’s a little comical – listen to how Casey pronounces “man” – and a lot fantastic, with the whole thing hingeing on the rapid, chugging riff in the chorus and the serpentine bass running through it all. It’s always been a fan favourite. Elsewhere, Hot Wheel City is only about 90 seconds long, and it packs a heavy punch – this is one of the most ‘punk’ things here. It’s loud, brash and fiercely confrontational.
3 Swallows hints at their later post-punk/New Wave experimentations – it sounds like it could be The National or even The Psychedelic Furs, such is its soaring, anthemic chorus. Casey even sings “tomorrow” like Richard Butler. Free Supper runs so fast and hot that it immediately evokes the Ramones and the Dead Kennedys. The next track, Jumbo’s, is another lion’s roar of a track. It’s aggressive, with flashes of searing guitar feedback for your ears to bathe in. The intensity reaches almost unbearable levels at times, almost as though Thurston Moore were lurking in the background, pulling the strings.
Across the rest of the album, you have the melancholic brooding of How We Lived After He Died, the paranoid shred of Ypsilanti, the enormous bass groove of Too Many Jewels and the almost celebratory Principalities. There are also some bonus tracks attached to this reissue, and they’re all pretty great too – not least the thunderous Cartier E.G.s.
This is an essential reissue of an incredible debut record, but it’s also an artefact that we can view with some measure of context. This is the skeleton key to unlocking all of the rest of Protomartyr’s dense and unyielding back catalogue. If you’re a fan of Protomartyr and don’t already have this, then remedy that immediately. If you’re not a fan yet, and you’re seeking assurance that this is the place to start – then jump right in. There is really no better way to experience a world-class band than right at the very start.