Cerebral, muscular post-punk played with suffocating intensity, embellished by enigmatic vocals and lyricism. Like The Fall, just better
Protomartyr, who now hold the mantle of ‘Detroit’s finest band’ (a title once held by The Stooges, no less), have been one of the most consistent rock outfits of the past decade. Sure, they’ve expanded their sound ever so slightly with each album, but their appeal has remained the same: cerebral, muscular post-punk played with suffocating intensity, embellished by the enigmatic vocals and lyricism of Joe Casey.
In their early days, the band were relentlessly compared to The Fall, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and other conceptually oxymoronic punk outfits that juxtapose droll, witty and coal-black existentialist narratives against crushing ‘rock’ instrumentation. Now in their 13th year, they’ve truly come out of the shadow of those titanic forebears and forged their own steely sonic weaponry with which to bludgeon and maim. One of Protomartyr’s most appealing attributes has always been their ability to transform their recorded output into an entirely new entity in the live arena.
Tonight, they play to what feels like a very full house on the outskirts of Birmingham. The band – Joe Casey, Greg Ahee, Alex Leonard, Scott Davidson, and Kelley Deal (also of alt-rock royalty The Breeders) – bring favourites both old and newer, playing a set drawn from their entire back catalogue, each song played as though it were the last time, culminating in a positively mind-melting rendition of (arguably) their best song, Wheel Of Fortune.
The crowd – made up of a real diverse selection of fans – were relentless throughout. With no room to move, the audience shouted along, roared at the beginning and end of each song, each of them sealed into one square foot of space (toilet and cigarette and bar breaks notwithstanding) and having the time of their lives. One member of the crowd dared – between songs – to complain about Casey’s vocal style, and he was chided by the circle of people surrounding him.
Some particular highlights of the set (and Casey’s accompanying comments) were the aforementioned Wheel Of Fortune, Pontiac 87 (“This is a song about the Pope…”), Worm In Heaven (“I want this played at my own funeral…”) and the first of the ‘encore’ songs, The Chuckler. Before the band played Worm In Heaven, Casey said that he wasn’t keen on the idea of an encore, because it just meant that the band walked backstage, huffed and puffed for a minute, then came out for no reason at all. He said that Worm In Heaven would be the signal that there were two songs left, and he stuck to his word. That’s how it should be done.
The audience also ate up The Devil In His Youth, Night-blooming Cereus, Michigan Hammers and Processed By The Boys – partially because they were played with such vigour, partially because they’re examples of the finest post-punk songs of the new millennium.
About halfway through the set, I had to make a quick toilet run, and on the back I was tapped on the shoulder and given a thumbs-up by my colleague Rob, who happens to be at many of the same gigs I go to. I shot him a thumbs-up and remembered to ask him what he thought the next day at work. When I did catch up with him the next day, he told me that he’d never seen them before but had been blown away by the sheer intensity of what he witnessed. “They’re like The Fall,” he said, “just better.” If you’d been there, you’d probably be thinking the same. Exceptional, and unimprovable.