The music of Detroit-based Protomartyr has always felt dense and dark, so, interestingly, they have recorded their latest album, Formal Growth in the Desert, in the desert. A place called Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas, to be exact, where there are sun-baked Sonoran rock formations. The group that fellow Michigander and punk pioneer Iggy Pop called “the best band we’ve got in America right now” decamped from moody Motor City to sandy West Texas, if only temporarily.
One would think, then, that an album informed by and formed in the Western desert might have a “sunnier” sound (whatever that means) or maybe even some desolate expanses in the tunes. But solar-infused sonics aren’t quite there, though you can hear nuanced intonations of levity. However, the music is indeed less impenetrable than previous efforts. There’s more room for the instruments to breathe, and a true sense of space, at times invoking a feeling of being surrounded by the sky as you contemplate the stars.
There are some Western touches in the music; after all, guitarist and co-producer Greg Ahee had been listening to Spaghetti Western soundtracks during the recording process. The standout “Let’s Tip the Creator” features Ennio Morricone-like textures and reverb to excellent effect. The music seems tighter and more accessible. While it’s always been difficult for me to discern the Motown influence with Protomartyr, in songs like “Elimination Dances”, you can hear a rhythmic buoyancy.
Protomartyr move toward lush territory and shoegaze subtexts in “We Know the Rats”. Yet those cowboy guitar hooks reappear, evoking the swirling dust and sneering gunslingers of southwestern wastelands.
Joe Casey’s stony vocals always severely contrast anything that approaches upbeat, so there’s that to contend with, too. Protomartyr’s music is challenging in the most rewarding way; shadows ever loom over the turmoil churning within their signature sound. That deadpan vocal delivery is showcased most dynamically on riff-heavy songs like “3800 Tigers” and “Graft vs. Host”, where Casey’s voice can slink from a stoic whisper to an understated croon (“Graft vs. Host”) or even lurch toward a gritty bellow (“3800 Tigers”).
Another shouty song, “Fun in Hi Skool”, starts with a twitchy, almost danceable sensibility but unfolds toward controlled chaos, reminding us of Protomartyr’s decidedly raggedy origins. On the other hand, the single and singular “Polacrilex Kid” sees Casey flattening out that shout and giving his best anti-rap as guitars fiercely shimmer in the background and his voice pounds out syllables in a defiantly non-rhythmic way. The David Lynchian touches in the video add absurdist heft to an already surrealistic song ostensibly about aging.
Lyrically, the other songs find Casey, often obliquely, grappling with parental death, the dystopian aspects of technology and capitalism, and being a crime victim. Yet through it all, there is hope: “Can you hate yourself / And still deserve love?” he asks in “Polacrilex Kid”, and in response, he croons, “I am deserving of love,” in “Rain Garden”. Formal Growth in the Desert closes with the droning, softly cascading “Rain Garden”. Given that the desert is, by definition, often void of rain, it seems fitting that Protomartyr would circle back toward something less arid; the song is drenched in eerie melody.
On Formal Growth in the Desert, Protomartyr have ever-so-subtly evolved their sound into something not quite mellow and not quite as expansive as its titular reference – and yet also not as claustrophobically volatile as previous efforts. It’s something gloriously in between.