Relatives in Descent
Watching the world burn, one non sequitur at a time
by Jericho Cerrona
It's no secret that the post-punk genre attracts the lonely, disaffected, and working class zeroes struggling to survive. There's always anger stemming from feeling ostracized, personal sleights turning toward political ideology, and slurred protests signaling the rallying cry for a multitude of would-be revolutionaries. Without this kind of pretentiousness--seeing oneself as a victim, wallowing in self-defeat, conflating society's ills with some form of generational sickness--post-punk bands like Pere Ubu, The Birthday Party, and The Fall wouldn't exist. Detroit rabble rousers Protomartyr also fit snugly into this paradigm; unleashing noisy post-punk over the past decade by placing personal angst alongside social consciousness, from the cacophonous roar of 2012 debut No Passion All Technique to the driving outrage of 2015's The Agent Intellect.
Frontman Joe Casey's lyrical ramblings--political, familial, internal--have always been the band's defining force, but what's most surprising about their fourth full-length, Relatives in Descent, is it's relative restraint. Casey still has much to say about how shitty our world is (the record was mostly written during the 2016 election cycle), but this time, there's more tangent-jumping sonic detours to wind through. Throughout, drummer Alex Leonard, guitarist Greg Ahee, and bassist Scott Davidson match Casey's street preaching by applying a more varied instrumental palette to the usual punk onslaught. While not technically a concept album, Relatives in Descent is littered with lyrical connections and rhythmic symmetry. Ideas and concepts reoccur, guitar lines loop back in on themselves, and literate musings spewed from a shouting prophet contain cyclical patterns.
From the outset, it's clear Protomartyr are going for a slow burn rather than a drunken stage dive. Opener "A Private Understanding" takes Casey's usual sardonic poetry and places it at the service of rolling drum fills, repetitive guitar loops, and a mood of intimate dread. I don't wanna hear those vile trumpets anymore, he laments, and it's just the kind of existential salvo the world needs right now. When Casey finally stammers, she's just trying to reach you, during the outro, one can sense either a grand political statement or some kind of self-help therapy session. Thankfully, this push and pull quality--the tension between internalized ennui and macro social concerns--is held together masterfully throughout the album's 44 minutes. The band certainly have their influences; The Fall, Nick Cave, The Velvet Underground, The Pixies, but they also manage to synthesize these influences with a modern outlook. Moreover, Relatives in Descent is the first great post-Trump record; a series of tightly wound dirges expressing fear, paranoia, doubt, and even some much-needed wit, in the face of destruction.
Unlike many protest albums, however, Relatives in Descent never succumbs to sermonizing. Casey doesn't have answers, only more questions. This is what links Protomartyr's bleak perspective with the universality of the common man fucked over by a system too evil to be overthrown. "Here is The Thing" threads lines like dread 2017-18, airhorn age, age of horn-blowing with thick basslines and interweaving guitar, while on "Chuckler", Casey leans into scathing hopelessness; I guess I’ll keep on chuckling 'til there’s no more breath in my lungs / Lord how I wish there was a better ending to this joke. The American dialect is now at a point where divided political rhetoric has drowned out any sense of rationality, and this is crucial to what the band are going for here, with Casey acting as an observer wryly commenting on his own lack of empathy. It's difficult to get angry when the things to get angry about have become too innumerable to keep track of.
Throughout, Casey's lyrics nods toward gentrification ("Here is the Thing"), gender entitlement ("Male Plague"), sins of the father passed on to the son ("My Children") and attacks on liberal-minded frauds ("Don't Go to Anacita") while his bandmates maintain a balance between hard-edged noise and melodic catchiness. More so than any of their past work, Relatives in Descent melds the anti-capitalist venom of the post-punk genre with the introspective hooks of indie rock. Perhaps the record's defining moment comes on the haunting "Night-Blooming Cereus", where 80's-inflected synths merge with Casey's Nick Cave-esque spoken word; envisioning a cactus flower as a sign of hope, even as the lights grow dim. It's unquestionably the most hopeful song on the entire album, but then it transitions seamlessly, and rather brilliantly, into galvanizing stomper "Male Plague." Even here, the start of something optimistic is interrupted by patriarchal grandstanding; the kind of ironic gesture that eventually comes full circle on closer, "Half Sister." Here, amidst crunchy power chords and atonal dissonance, Casey sees truth as a babbling prisoner, linking the elusive "She" from opener "A Private Understanding" to a ghostly figure still hoping to embrace a diseased world. In other words, truth is the half sister, still trying to reach you. But, does truth even exist? Casey certainly doesn't give a direct answer, and nor should he. Instead, Relatives in Descent emerges as the sound of an entire generation watching the world burn, one non sequitur at a time.