Craig Bell is a Clevelander residing in Indianapolis and a member of X__X, Rocket From The Tombs, The Down-fi, The Gizmos, Saucers (among others) and formerly Mirrors. Bell has written/co-written several bonafide punk classics including “Final Solution” and “Muckraker” and can be found on tour frequently, next with X__X promoting Albert Ayler’s Ghosts Live at the Yellow Ghetto to be unleashed on Smog Veil Records November 20, 2016. His motto is “Have bass, will travel.”
You know this guy. You’ve seen him everywhere you go for what seems like forever. He is always standing off to the side or sitting at a table with his back to the wall and his eye on the door. He isn’t waiting for anyone and he isn’t worried about you or anybody else. His drink is always half empty, but you never see him take a sip. He watches real, real close. If you follow his eyes, you know that he has sorted out the whole thing, placed every image in its proper place, remembered every word spoken, filed away every action and reaction for later dissection. At some point you look away, and when your gaze returns to the previous spot, he is gone. Protomartyr’s lead singer Joe Casey knows this guy, too.
“The Devil in His Youth,” the first track off the band’s new album, The Agent Intellect, opens with a wash of shimmering, slightly offbeat guitar courtesy of Greg Ahee, who weaves a postmodern pattern of familiar-yet-fresh melodies and crashing transitional washes of chords to create a backdrop to Casey’s Shane MacGowan-like reading of a script that sounds like it could have been written by Dave “E” McManus of early ’70s Ohio proto-punks the Electric Eels: “Before recorded time/In some suburban room.” Casey is warning us that he is here to observe no more — this is the time for action. “I will make them feel the way I feel,” he sings, as the album takes off on the driving rhythm of drummer Alex Leonard’s and bass guitarist Scott Davidson’s propelling-yet-restraining flow.
All the elements of Protomartyr’s previous two releases — the urgent rhythms and grand introductions to a cast of characters and Detroit locales in No Passion All Technique, revisited in more controlled and subdued circumstances on last year’s Under Color of Official Right — have set the stage for a deeper and more intimate exploration of the world that exists behind those all-seeing eyes and half-empty glass. It’s a world that has become a lie — not an intentional lie, but one that has revealed itself to be a lie just the same.
My first exposure to Protomartyr was a YouTube video in which they were covering the Stooges. As a Detroit band covering a Detroit band, they had my full attention. Detroit, and its music of the day, was a big slice of what made me and those around me gather together in early ’70s Cleveland to make music. The Stooges, MC5, CKLW and Creem magazine lent their Motor City swagger to my early efforts in Mirrors and Rocket from the Tombs.
Upon further investigation into Protomartyr, I found they were not a “Detroit” band as I had always understood them to be, however — despite hailing from that city. What I found was a band that was immersed in the sounds of a latter-day scene, far away from the Motor City macho. Casey grew up in the ’80s in Detroit — a city that was quickly falling apart much like the Cleveland I grew up in 20 years earlier. The auto factories were foundering, cutting off the jobs and the opportunities that make a city work. With that transition the old ways fade away; the familiar bars aren’t as lively as they were. People withdraw into themselves and their struggles to survive. It’s a world of loss — one that Casey inhabited, and, grew even more familiar with when his father died of a heart attack and his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Whether bestowing forgiveness — maybe on himself for repetitive mistakes (on “I Forgive You”) — or complaining of electronic malfunctions (on “Boyce or Boice”) and other strange afflictions, Joe Casey is now ready to share that world of loss with us: loss in passing, and passing slowly into loss. Familiar places make their appearance in this world; Detroit bar Jumbo’s, which appears in No Passion All Technique, is recalled in “Pontiac 87” — a song whose strident cadence and deadpan delivery tell a tale “of the way it was/Before the scales fell before my eyes.” It’s a tale of loss upon loss. Let your resignation be considered ennui for a city that has decayed around you. Let that resignation be the buffer between you and the excruciating pain that personal failures and unforeseen loss, both sudden and suddenly accelerating, inflict on your psyche: “There’s no use being sad about it/What’s the point of crying about it?” Casey sings.
Being resigned is not necessarily giving up on yourself or your surroundings, though. “Dope Cloud” could be our narrator railing against the grip that heroin can have on a beaten-down city and how it benefits an undeserving few — or against a wave of hipster gentrification that has the same result. Either way, it is not a pretty picture.
All this doom and gloom can get a person down, but the saving grace of Protomartyr is that the music is constantly fighting against the lyrics to keep a brightness and sense of possibility alive in the songs. The trio of Ahee, bassist Scott Davidson and drummer Alex Leonard are tight and in tune with each other, soaring to heavenly heights on “Ellen,” a song written to Casey’s mother as though from his father, carrying the message of love and renewal of memory from the other side to someone lost in their own body. It’s a very depressing scenario made serene and comforting by the ethereal sky-high guitars and soothing vocals. The guitar work in “Feast of Stephen” has a weird beauty in its dissonance as well. Maybe that glass the stranger is nursing is half-full after all.
On The Agent Intellect, Protomartyr brings you their report from a world falling apart around them, but never gives up on the inhabitants who continue to make their way through the debris to find whatever comfort and joy they can.
Some years ago, I was talking to a few fans after a show who told me how, as kids (!), they would “get all fucked up and paranoid” while they would listen to bootleg cassettes of Mirrors, a Cleveland underground band I played with in the first half of the ’70s. I told them that that was great, because that’s how we felt when we recorded the music. I don’t think Protomartyr is “all fucked up and paranoid,” really, but it seems as though the rest of the world is tilting in that direction — and Joe Casey has his eyes on that shift. Maybe somebody ought to freshen up that drink so we can hear a little more about it. But don’t be surprised if you look back and he’s gone.