The Agent Intellect has elevated Protomartyr from great band from Detroit to a national treasure from Detroit. Go see them live. Go pick up a record, so you can tell your friends you knew them when.
“To outliving your enemies,” shouted Priests frontwoman, Katie Alice Greer, to a crowded Music Hall of Williamsburg. Whoever had ‘em, or at least those who were comfortable, raised their beers to the death of Antonin Scalia, which had been announced just hours prior. Celebrating anyone’s death isn’t really anyone’s idea of civilized, but if there’s ever a place to suspend social pleasantries, it’d be a Priests show. And after all, she did preface it somewhat fairly: “I’m not normally one to celebrate someone’s death, but anyone will do a better job than he did on the Supreme Court.”
They then whipped into another riot punk number, air-tight rhythm section grooving along while she posed, chanted, rumbled through her ironic lyrics. Priests are a band with conviction, making use of a noisy, Sonic Youth template as a platform for their unruly politics. Their closer, which they introduced as a new one, played big with melody and groove -- perhaps their touring companions are rubbing off. Bodes well for a vibrant follow-up to their “Bodies and Control and Money and Power”, which itself topped Impose’s Best Albums of 2014.
Whatever punk rock energy was already channeling into the room (footnote: rhythmic noise-trio Beach Creeps had already gotten things started on a strong note) at the end of Priests' set made its way towards Joe Casey’s microphone as Protomartyr took the stage. Decked out in his iconic shiny black suit, white button-down, he launched into the first track with a can of Modelo in his left fist (it would stay there for the whole show), neck cocked up and to the side towards the non-boomed microphone.
A couple songs in and completely enraptured, I was struck by how each member of Protomartyr palpably defines the sound of the band. Casey’s vocals are the obvious centerpiece of all the songs. But Greg Ahee’s guitar is just as easy to focus on, and without its sharp, at times dissonant rhythmic couplets, the sound wouldn’t exist. Same goes for Alex Leonard’s whip-smart drumming and Scott Davidson’s chunky, in-the-pocket bass. Each simply refuses to do things that sound like other punk bands. Which makes every live moment thrilling.
I kept thinking of how much Letterman would have liked them, had they been on the show. Maybe it’s the combo of Casey’s charisma and the band’s ability to put forward his stellar songs with heart and ferocity that reminded me of Future Islands. It seemed that it would only take one public performance, like “Seasons” on Letterman, for Protomartyr to lay the universal appeal of this post-punk music on the pop sphere. After all, Future Islands were once all our favorite, hard-touring, DIY band too, peddling their breakup songs to the disaffected youth.
There were moments when Protomartyr made MHOW, a 550-capacity room, feel small. Usually on the meticulously arranged numbers from Agent Intellect, where they leave space for everyone to speak forcefully through their role. They often reminded me of the Cure, combining novel song structures with the immediacy of punk rock. Like the Cure, Protomartyr’s sound is built from the very sturdy skeleton of post-punk -- hard riffing bass, hooky drum grooves, sparse guitar -- an excellent supporting structure to help great songs slay in a big room. Agent Intellect is full of them.
The first time Casey spoke was after the penultimate song, “Why Does It Shake?”. The mosh pit was in full effect after the band had torn through three or four of their most punk rock songs. He said he was honored to be there on the anniversary of the beginning of the trial of Richard Hauptmann for the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, an esoteric reference that evoked pretty much the opposite response from the crowd than Greer’s eulogy. Here was our reluctant poet, exposing the same brainy aloofness we had seen in his quizzical eyebrows all night. A knowing smirk showed he understood the irony.
The Agent Intellect is a fantastic album that has elevated Protomartyr from great band from Detroit to national treasure from Detroit. Go see them live. Go pick up a record, so you can tell your friends you knew them when