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Protomartyr’s ‘Ultimate Success Today:’ A perfect statement for the present

| Thursday, August 20, 2020

Diane Park | The Observer

Protomartyr has never shied away from tackling issues that plague American society. The Detroit post-punk group’s first few albums explored the Flint water crisis, the opioid epidemic, war and political unrest –– among other topical American struggles. The band’s new album, “Ultimate Success Today,” comes at a difficult time in our shared history –– new problems (the COVID-19 crisis), as well as old (systemic racism), have dominated this year’s headlines. “Ultimate Success Today” builds on the band’s last two albums, “The Agent Intellect” and “Relatives in Descent,” further exploring the group’s Midwestern post-punk sound. 

Although “Ultimate Success Today” was written a year ago, it feels like the perfect sonic statement for this chapter of our history. On opening track “Day Without End”, frontman Joe Casey establishes an air of dread and apocalyptic doom that permeates the entire album. This album distinguishes itself from previous Protomartyr projects through the addition of woodwind instrumentation. This contributes to general chaos that lasts the album’s entire run time; as “Day Without End” reaches its final, cacophonous crescendo, Casey repeatedly cries, “Dull ache turns sharp / short breath never caught.” Dull aches have become incredibly sharp this year, ultimately exposing division and hate in our society that had been brewing for years.

Album standout “Processed by the Boys” continues this dark theme. Casey, in his signature sing-speak, questions when and how the end of days will arrive. He suggests that the ending may come from “a foreign disease washed upon the beach,” which is especially relevant given the way COVID-19 has gripped the world. The song is tinged with skepticism of big tech and the government: “Fill out the form, download the app, submit your face into the scanner,” a uniquely dystopian view of technology and society. “Day Without End” and “Processed by the Boys” end similarly, with both songs peaking during an episode of lyrical repetition from Casey. The dark, downtrodden moments of the album are emblematic of 2020’s emotional valleys that were, oftentimes, incredibly difficult for the country to grapple with.

Although this album does have its moments of doom and gloom, there are some standout, fast-paced tracks that inject excitement and pace into an otherwise slow album. “June 21,” “Michigan Hammers” and “Modern Business Hymns” are fast-paced, lyrical tracks that end up being incredibly catchy. Although these songs are driving forces on the album, Casey’s lyrics remain pessimistic; on “Modern Business Hymns” he laments, “Money is no matter / And in these hungry times / Those trapped between stations / Will forget their manners.” Even at the highest points of the album, the band manages to explore complicated, heavy and sensitive topics that define life in 21st century America.

“Ultimate Success Today” is a unique expression of the emotions and experiences that many Americans have been struggling with in 2020. Casey’s signature sing-speak lends itself perfectly to establishing the theme of the album. Sonically, “Ultimate Success Today” builds upon previous Protomartyr projects while maintaining the group’s signature sound. If you’re into rock and post-punk, or would just like to hear a musical representation of 2020, I couldn’t recommend the album more.

Artist: Protomartyr

Album: Ultimate Success Today

Label: Domino

Favorite Tracks: “Michigan Hammers”, “Modern Business Hymns”, “June 21”, “Processed by the Boys”

If you like: Fontaines DC, Parquet Courts, Dogleg

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

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