Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect – Album Review

protomartyr the agent intellect review

The Agent Intellect Is Out October 9th Via Hardly Art.

The Agent Intellect takes its name from a passage in Aristotle’s De Anima, and refers to one of the mostly hotly debated lines in philosophical history. A quick Wikipedia search illuminates that this excerpt describes “how the human intellect passes from its original state in which it does not think, to a subsequent state, in which it does.” Aristotelian ethics are based in a teleological worldview: things have potential for the sake of actuality – we have sight for the sake of seeing, we have Protomartyr for the sake of listening. Thus, humans have a certain set of capabilities, and their purpose is to excel in them as fully as possible. The most characteristic human quality is the capacity to think, and this album is chock fucking full of thought.

Heady stuff for a rock and roll album. Then again, post-punk has never been a genre known to shy away from recondite subject matter. This process of passing into a thinking state, at least as characterized on Protomartyr’s new album, does not appear to be a pleasant one. Charred, rambling basslines and minor chords predominate on this sullen record, and Joe Casey’s mono-baritone does little to warm the icy bleakness. In fact, he sounds like Craig Finn of The Hold Steady on one of the roughest days of his life. It remains precisely as gripping and relentless as last year’s Under Color of Official Right. This is an album of genuine gravitas; these are serious men making serious music for serious listeners.

There are the obvious sonic references to much of the post-punk canon: Wire, The Fall, and Nick Cave, but the band’s origin city of Detroit is also represented. The energy of Iggy Pop and MC5 makes it fevered appearance, and the album feels like a portrait of the blighted Motor City itself. There’s a labyrinthine quality to this work, somehow conjuring up ancient mythology and recasting it into a contemporary, postindustrial landscape. Then again, maybe it’s just the cover art and title that have given me this particular cast of mind.

Opener “The Devil in His Youth” builds anticipation before achieving crackling punk release. Vocals are delivered with a despairing urgency, the entire song sounding like an apology long overdue, delivered too late to attain forgiveness. To cap it off there’s a phrase of noise, all the knobs being turned up, a blurred whine that sharpens in intensity until it fades into a phantom. This is immediately followed up by the spikiness of “Cowards Starve;” twilit guitar that warms before the aggression kicks back in. “I’m goin’ out in style,” spits Casey with all the defiance he can muster for the “social pressures” and “the grind.”

There’s a pervading sense of exhaustion surrounding this album, as though the band is laboring under some Sisyphean burden, though the melodies reveal that there’s an occasional smile (or smirk, or sneer) beneath their load. The crystalline echo on “Pontiac 87” serves as haunted cradle to the doleful reminiscence encoded in the lyrics: “That fall from grace, knocked me on knees/don’t tell anyone, it’s what I wanted.” Eventually that same glassy guitar crashes in on the chorus, and briefly soars to the girders of an empty post-apocalyptic skyscraper. Meanwhile, “Dope Cloud” is like an anthem to bathos, approaching glory but holding off just before arriving at the promised land. Casey enumerates things that one might dedicate one’s life to, but ends with refrain of: “That’s not gonna save you man,” and “I’m wrung out.” Protomartyr do have the courage to ask what will save us, though. The whole affair ends abruptly, hammering home the austerity and isolation.

“The Hermit” has a spacious, almost surf-rock opening, with newscaster voice over, before a churning gyre of guitar imposes itself upon the listener. A tinkling guitar and traumatized synthesizer beckon gently at the end before being cut short again. “Clandestine Time” is sparse like the rest of them, but with a muscularity that has lain hidden beneath the fractious storm and stress of the previous songs.

The first release, “Why Does it Shake?” struck me (improbably) as a repudiation of Pharrell Williams’ briefly inescapable top 40 hit “Happy.” Compare Pharell’s “Because I’m happy/Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof” to Protomartyr’s “False happiness is on the rise/See the victims piled high/In a room without a roof.” A crackpot theory, to be sure, but the two tracks couldn’t be farther from one another in character. “Why Does it Shake?” is a maelstrom of guitar, each raging crescendo structured to buttress the next.

In its final act, “The Agent Intellect” fades completely into its crepuscularity. “Ellen,” a deeply personal track, is written from the perspective of Casey’s departed father to his mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Calls to mind the memory-erasing river Lethe, and simultaneously Mnemosyne, and the restoration of memory that Titaness presided over. The song winds down over the course of four and a half minutes, and then returns, triumphant and somber. We end with “Feast of Stephen,” fading to nothingness on the same drone that has accompanied us throughout the album, concluding the theme of dissolution.

Overall, the ruthlessness of previous Protomartyr efforts seems undiminished, if not increased. There are flashes of genuine beauty here, and glimpsing them through the grimy opacity of the rest of the album makes them all the more memorable. I spent about half an hour in a numbed daze after hearing this album, dumbstruck by its visceral, damaged loveliness. I finished my beer, looked around, and listened to it again. This album is due out on October 9th, and I can think of no better album to herald the autumn.

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