Formal Growth in the Desert, by Protomartyr
★ ★ ★ ★
Release: June 2nd, 2023.
Detroit, Michigan holds an awkward place in the timeline of American culture: a former hub of mechanical and architectural innovation turned token of decay and late capitalism. Still, the city’s music scene has managed to constantly defy the odds presented by its physical space. Between the hollers of 50’s urban blues and turn-of-the-century hip hop, one sound is particularly pertinent to hometown boys Protomartyr. “Punk”, as used by critic Lester Bangs in a 1970 issue of Creem magazine to commend the Stooges, became a precept for an entire genre. This aggressive and political approach to rock n’ roll turned into an international scene and an ideal haven for experimentation. Bangs became Creem’s editor and moved to the Motor City the following year.
Nearly 40 years after the publication, Alex Leonard, Greg Ahee, Joe Casey, and Scott Davidson (left to right) formed Protomartyr in the same hollow grounds that cradled the early adepts of punk rock. Now 13 years deep into musicmaking, the group questions their own standing as a “post-punk band”. In a landscape plagued by indulgent comparison to predecessors and contemporaries, how does one manage to stay relevant? For the quartet it means to keep detached from labels while still retaining the urgent spirit that propelled them in the first place.
Following 2020’s Ultimate Success Today, their new release punctuates Protomartyr’s longest hiatus between albums. In these three years, the obvious weight of isolation, uncertainties surrounding the financial viability of the band, and individual torments were all factors that ushered the sixth LP through its conception. Yet, perhaps surprising for a group known for its celebration of failure, the new project manages to find solace in its anthemic wails. The characteristic somber nature of the instrumentals still underlines the tone, but the lyricism of Formal Growth in the Desert ultimately elicits a tender sentiment.
At the top of the track list, “Make Way” serves the same role it had as the album’s first single. The simmering of the harmony – seesawing from minimalist triads to progressively encroaching tones – announces a departure from the expansive production of the previous record. “For Tomorrow” is less musically distinct, feeling slightly sluggish when paired with its antecedent. The claustrophobic sounds, however, return and unravel in following tracks. In “Elimination Dances”, Davidson gatecrashes the rhythm section with a twitchy bassline that alternately guides and opposes the song’s guitar riffs. The ever-present syllabic emphasis on Casey’s vocals also contribute in alluding to the iconic motifs of punk forefathers.
A positive aspect of the album’s mixing is the full realization of Alex Leonard’s expressive drumlines. His energetic delivery, a staple of the groups live performances, was somehow never perfectly translated in studio recordings. Now, tracks like “Fun in Hi-Skool”, “Let’s Tip the Creator” are clear testaments of the drummer’s dynamic range and are especially remarkable when compared to the more modest layering of previous records.
But the biggest thematic shift of Formal Growth in the Desert comes with the foreignness of a more tonally fulfilling structure. Previous records had a bigger focus on the “give” than the “take” but this release banks itself on a more stoic cadence. The buildup feels less ill-fated, outros more relieving than cynical. Whether that’d be the chanting of “Can you hate yourself and still deserve love?” in the coda of “Polacrilex Kid” or the crescendo-y strings in “We Know the Rats”. Guitarist Greg Ahee’s venture into film scoring during the pandemic has obviously influenced the Gilgameshian feel that is slowly constructed throughout the project.
The dramatic closing of the album comes with two complementing, albeit explicitly distinct tracks.
“The Author” acts as the singer’s farewell to his mother, who passed peacefully in December of 2021. With a eulogy-like formatting, Casey bestows “If there’s good in me/Chant it out to her, she is the author”. This event, so unlike the untimely death of his father, became a challenge to his own perception of grief and the emotional value of lamentation. “So, I figure while you live/Kiss the ones that love you/For the song you sing”. The track is an instrument of healing, opposite to the scornful romanticization of pain that is usually the motor behind Protomartyr’s lyricism.
The last track is “Rain Garden”, the band’s self-proclaimed “first love song”. Casey tells the real story of how he came to the realization that he is deserving of love. And amidst the harmonious swelling of the instruments, his baritone voice calls back to the opening track, except twisted with an image unfamiliar to the bands discography. “Make way for my love”, even if it at a parking lot “on 8 Mile behind a Tim Horton’s, a Coney Island, a Jimmy John’s, and a Taco Bell” (from Twitter’s listening party).
Formal Growth in the Desert truly honors the cryptic nature of its title, as the metaphorical connotation can easily refer to so many of its aspects. And while it is tempting to theorize whether this is an omen of a novel sound or a byproduct of experimentation, it’d be frivolous to detach it from its current meaning. It is Protomartyr’s usual interpolation of personal and widespread tragedy, now synthesized with their earnest attempt at a hopeful outlook.
Reviewed by Guilherme C. Tinoco on June 12th 2023
(Photos by Trevor Naud, distributed by the artists as promotional material)