The tense, drawn out opening chords of ‘Cowards Starve’ on Protomartyr’s excellent, apocalyptic third LP The Agent Intellect, creates a bleak and barren landscape reminiscent of the band’s Detroit origins and typical of the harsh, anxious nature of the record.
This atmosphere lingers and haunts much of the album. The industrial rasping of ‘Uncle Mother’s’ chorus compounds the already-present tension and affirms the unavoidable sense that the decay of their hometown is glued into Protomartyr’s work.
The creation of these landscapes throughout Intellect demonstrates a rupture from Protomartyr’s Under Color of Official Right where each track would be packed into two minutes of guitar distortion and hectic riffs. Sonic expansion is key to Intellect and whilst Casey’s lyricism is unwaveringly morbid, Protomartyr appears far more at ease as a band, comfortably spilling into spacious four-minute songs.
This newfound space allows Casey to explore his major preoccupation with mortality. The recent death of both his parents inevitably had a profound impact on Intellect and is most notable in the monolithic ‘Why Does It Shake?’ a title that acknowledges his mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. Casey redirects his grief and layers the track with bitterness towards those living under a “false happiness” of ignoring mortality, rolling through life with the “nice thought” that “I’ll be the first to never die”. Intellect therefore is not a reflective album in the same sense as Sufjan Steven’s recent album Carrie & Lowell, but rather demonstrates Casey moving through the grieving process.
‘Dope Cloud’ builds on the unforgiving nature of Intellect and with its harsh and jagged punctuating guitar is almost like a Parquet Courts track reworked with an apocalyptic spin. In many ways Protomartyr are the northern counteract to fellow post-punk outfit Parquet Courts with the harsh and crumbling background of Detroit in contrast to Courts’ Texan sprawl.
Protomartyr often pose as defeatists, as a band that will point to Detroit to explain their weary cynicism. Intellect remains very much rooted in Detroit, but also shows Joe Casey with the confidence to expand beyond his origins and take Protomartyr to a space where the band can become an expression of himself and the demanding, painful experiences he has endured.