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Protomartyr - Consolation EP Music Album Reviews

Protomartyr - Consolation EP Music Album Reviews

The four-song EP from the Michigan post-punk band features Kelley Deal of the Breeders and some of the most pointed and impactful songwriting of their career.

The most recent LP of caustic rock from Detroit band Protomartyr, 2017’s Relatives in Descent, contained a song with a riveting name: “Male Plague.” Better still, it found frontman Joe Casey—typically a post-punk wordsmith of the compacted Mark E. Smith School, who can convey the nuance of a short story in four charmingly obtuse minutes—just chanting its title, “Male plague!/Male plague!” What a fun indictment of toxic masculinity. “Hey figurehead, what you gonna do?” Casey spouted, “Her truth moves too fast for you.” In the past, Protomartyr did what the best writers do and evoked a sense of place via grinding Midwestern humility. On “Male Plague,” however, that place was the future.

Protomartyr’s new Consolation EP continues the discernibly politicized streak of Relatives in Descent—which also touched on Trumpism and Flint, Michigan’s water crisis. It was recorded with Kelley Deal of the Breeders, who lends her salty-sweet vocals to two of its four tracks. She also arranged the delicately aslant closer, “You Always Win”—an apparent comment on mortality, on growing “weak” and “grey” with another person—bringing in friends to add cello, violin, and clarinet. On previous albums, the airtight tension and boiled-over poetry of Protomartyr’s music has been so densely packed that it could feel exhausting at album-length (maybe that’s the point). But the EP form serves them well. Consolation breathes.

Opener “Wait” rumbles and bursts with the crescendoing ring of an alarm clock. It’s punctuated by the most anthemic chorus Protomartyr have done—though the song’s lovely, circling melody is really sung by guitarist Greg Ahee—and that explosive dynamic only serves Casey’s relatively abstracted verses, with lines about “a pair of fellas…punching the life out of each other” and “ironic T-shirts wet with blood.” “Same Face in a Different Mirror” sounds like a rumination on stagnant, grim parts of society coming into focus—“Ugly is intact/But now the frame is clearer”—but it turns hopeful, splitting the difference between feeling like a “terminal zero” and “feeling I’m in love.” Perhaps the sentiments require each other.

Deal—the same Deal, of course, who put a halo of angelic harmonies onto the classic Last Splash; who fed her sewing machine through a Marshall amp—makes “Wheel of Fortune” spin. All of Protomartyr’s anxious tension seems to unwind at once as the song lifts off “Wheel of Fortune” details the grotesque waking nightmare of systematic oppression in America, which ensures some people have less a chance at survival—be it from police brutality, poisoned water, global warming, white supremacy, patriarchy, religious groups, or (as the title suggests) the predatory industry of gambling. Its churn feels endless. Casey’s lyrics are a masterful mix of oblique and literal, spelling out the bleak realities just enough. He opens with short fragments—“Water as commodity/All is comedy/Acts of God/Acts of purse-milking apostles”—that grow in length as their subject matter grows increasingly dire. “A man with a gun and a deluded sense of purpose,” Casey rattles. “A good guy with a gun who missed/A police state desperate to reach quota.” The cutting refrain, repeated with fire by Casey and Deal in tandem—“I decide who lives and who dies”—rings disturbingly true of twisted America, summarizing this index of monumental failure. It adds up to one of Protomartyr’s best songs.

When Protomartyr announced Relatives in Descent, the band mentioned the particular influence of Odyshape, the 1981 sophomore album from British feminist punk band the Raincoats. When Ahee first heard it five years ago, he said it exploded his way of thinking about music. With diffuse, woven textures and mystical, nonlinear rhythms, Odyshape is one of the all-time great examples of a feminization of rock. Protomartyr has commented, too, on how Deal’s sense of melody added “femininity” to their music of Consolation; her voice certainly adds life and levity. If Protomartyr learned anything from Odyshape, it might be the audacity to explore, to locate new methods of release—and they found a bracing clarity.

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