The reissue of Protomartyr‘s first album from 2012, offers a welcome opportunity to reappraise their opening statement as an indicator of how their sound would develop. The title is something of a bluff because while there is indeed a lot of technique, that does not mean that there is not also a good deal of passion. However, it might be true to say that these songs, for the most part anyway, lack some of the subtlety and nuance we see on their later albums and that a lot of what we get here is more of a blunt instrument than a surgical one. But it might also be true to say that these songs provide a blueprint for their subsequent work, albeit that the subsequent work evolves into a somewhat more sophisticated machine than the feral growl we hear on this early recording.
Protomartyr are among a group of contemporary guitar bands who seem to be taking their cue from the post-punk movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and they can count among their number bands like Preoccupations/Viet Cong, Ought, and Total Control. However, while No Passion All Technique certainly gestures toward the ominous and brooding guitar figures and basslines characteristic of their post-punk forebears, the rawness on display here almost owes more to the original punk sound than what came after it. But they are also clearly emerging from their hometown tradition of Detroit garage rock, and all three of these DNA strands are evident here. It is interesting to see the band almost make the leap from punk to post-punk as this album progresses as if the light goes on that they are always already in transition.
As in many things, we find ourselves inevitably acknowledging a certain debt to the dearly departed Mark E. Smith and the Fall on the opener “In My Sphere” whose jaunty and ramshackle skiffle is married with the deadpan rant of Joe Casey. This seems to be the grand and bracing opening statement of a band whose mission imperative seems to be that of a small system ranged against a large system, in the spirit of the punk ethos. The words are hard to make out, and the music is helter-skelter, so this is the sound of a band in its inchoate state with the passion on overabundant display right from the off. This sinister kind of rockabilly sounds spills over into “Machinist Man” and “Hot Wheel City”, and it is already clear that the band is certainly no mere punk rock plug-in-and-play operation. There is something quite precise about their rawness, for all that is indeed quite raw, and indeed proto-Protomartyr.
But right around the time we get to “3 Swallows”, it’s possible to see the nuance emerging from the rubble of the band’s early wreckage, and this seems to represent the establishment of a beachhead of sorts, from which Protomartyr’s ensuing assault on our senses would become more layered and refined. “3 Swallows” offers an early but defining hint of the blend they would later perfect, between noise and melody. That is also somewhat true of “Ypsilanti” which, while it barrels along on the surface of a somewhat subdued Eddie Cochran riff, also contains enough melodic raw material parallel with and underneath the main noise to conclude that the band was already honing its songwriting skills.” It’s almost funny that having bared something of their soul on “3 Swallows” the band rescind their tender side and revert to breakneck punk rock speed with the following “Free Supper”. But it’s also interesting to note that “Free Supper” comes to seem increasingly isolated as the melodic post-punk shoots of “3 Swallows”, “Jumbo’s”, and “Ypsilanti” start to grow and overshadow their more punkish counterparts, as if we really are seeing the band taking shape as the album progresses.
The passage of songs from “Too Many Jewels” to “Feral Cats” is kind of terrifying and beautiful, as the sublime should be and as it should feel. You can see and feel and hear the layers being added to the base, almost as if they are constructing an aural napoleon. These are the moments when we can say that the “proto” part of the band’s name is being progressively but decisively qualified and stripped away. “Too Many Jewels” is heavy spoken-word, pacing and fretting, delivering cryptic encomiums to our certain doom, and “How He Lived After He Died” is a terrifying machine of a song. “Feral Cats” is a true standout and offers a clear signpost to their future direction. It feels as if the album has been building toward this highpoint, which seems to synthesize a lot of what the band would subsequently become.
From that purple passage, “Wine of Ape” feels like a punk regression of sorts, and in the official album closer “Principalities” we see the band once again vacillating between identities. The track opens with the ironic statement, “show restraint in all things”, which seems to be uttered through gritted and bared teeth. The song itself seems unable to abide by its own caution as it oscillates between steady guitar incantations and hell-for-leather eruptions. It’s as if the punk and post-punk energies are at war with themselves even within the same song. But it seems clear that the future of the band has already been mapped out on the more sophisticated earlier tracks, although “Principalities” might be seen as the final farewell to more childish things.
The bonus tracks are actually among the strongest of the bunch and feel as if they could form a pretty strong EP all by themselves. “King Boots” sounds like an Iggy Pop pastiche of sorts (he is known to be a fan of the band). “Bubba Helms” feels like it is trying to emerge from a swamp also occupied by the Hold Steady, since there may not be room for both of them in there, as does “Whatever Happened to the Saturn Boys?” And “Cartier E.G.s” sounds very much like it could have been left on the cutting room floor after the recording sessions for the Fall’s Code: Selfish or Shift Work.
Following this recording session, Protomartyr would make a quantum leap to Under Color of Official Right in 2014, and progress still further with The Agent Intellect (2015) and Relatives in Descent (2017). And while there is nothing on No Passion All Technique to compete with the beautiful bounce of “Come and See”, “Violent”, or “Trust Me Billy on Under Color of Official Right, or the sublimity of “Pontiac 87” from The Agent Intellect, or the absolute peak of “The Chuckler” from Relatives in Descent and the gorgeous atmosphere created by “Night Blooming Cereus” on the same album, it’s possible to see how they got there from here. Furthermore, the band would not render themselves immune to an occasional regression to the punk mean that we see on this album, because The Agent Intellect also contains the boisterous and slam dancing “Male Plague”, which would not be at all out of place here.
Protomartyr are definitely getting progressively weirder and more layered, but this early offering shows us that they might not have had a plan, but they did have a direction, even if they didn’t know it at the time, and that they were already a fearsome engine in 2011-2012. In hindsight No Passion All Technique is probably an accurate title. They have become a formidable force, but they were never anything to be trifled with.