In a sentence:
A perfect soundtrack for uncertain, anxious times as well as a finessing of their own art form, ‘Ultimate Success Today’ is Protomartyr’s best album yet.
was completed at the end of last year, there’s an awful lot about Protomartyr’s
fifth album Ultimate Success Today that feels eerily prescient as it
emerges in the middle of 2020. As well as quasi-Biblical references to civil
disorder and societal collapse, there’s a line in the savage lead single ‘Processed By The Boys’
that goes “When the ending comes is it going to run at us like a wild-eyed
animal? A foreign disease washed up on the beach? A dagger plunged from out the
shadows?”. It’s something of the same of kind of predictive powers that
many claimed Mark E Smith had, as Alexis Petridis points out at the Guardian,
but to write off Joe Casey and his bandmates as mere Fall copyists, despite
their admitted similarities in sound and tone, would be a mistake. Ultimate
Success Today is not only the Detroit quartet’s finest album to date in an
already impressive catalogue, but it’s an utterly appropriate soundtrack to our
troubled times, the sonic equivalent of a storm cloud darkening the skies over
re-issue of their thrown-together 2012 debut No Passion All Technique ended
up being instructive in just how much Protomartyr have evolved from the
promising yet unoriginal post-punk they used to deal in, as the shifts from
album to album have been subtle but all travelling in the same direction. Ultimate
Success Today feels like the end of that journey, taking the sonic scope of
2017’s last outing Relatives
In Descent and marrying it to a similarly ambitious theme. Clearly inspired
by the illusory nature of Western economic systems and issues of state violence
and police brutality that have since seen people take to the streets in such
huge numbers in recent weeks, it’s a slate-grey expression of collective grief
the sleek hi-hat figure and dark krautrock rhythm of opening track ‘Day Without
End’, a song that slowly, relentlessly builds and then ends instead of exploding,
Ultimate Success Today is a masterclass in texture and dynamics. It’s an
approach equally influenced by indie-rock and post-punk – the likes of ‘The
Aphorist’ and ‘I Am You Now’ are driven by Alex Leonard’s intricate,
industrious lead drumming, while the rattling assault of ‘Michigan Hammers’ is
the moment that most obviously recalls classic Fall. Half Waif’s Nandi Rose
provides a beautiful counterpoint to Casey’s despondent urgency on ‘June 21’, a
levity to the stony cynicism elsewhere on tracks like ‘Modern Business Hymns’.
track ‘Worm In Heaven’
is the most crushing moment in Protomartyr’s entire catalogue thus far, sucking
all hope from the listener at the end of a remorseless sequence with few
moments of anything approaching levity. “Remember me, how I lived / I was
frightened, always frightened,” Casey mutters as he fades out of the mix.
However, the album is clinical and economical in its execution, cramming ten
songs into just over 40 minutes, meaning the attention very rarely wanders away.
The loud, grainy
production, although more open and less claustrophobic than its predecessors largely
down to being recorded in a disused church, works in reinforcing that overarching
mood. 2018’s Consolation
EP, which saw Protomartyr explore orchestral elements, has served as a
bridge for Ultimate Success Today, on which woodwind instruments
complement and haunt many of the productions, most notably the saxophone figure
that hangs over the beautiful ‘Tranquilizer’.
The star of
Ultimate Success Today, however, is Joe Casey’s cryptic and dense
lyrics. The constant blur of bizarre yet sinister imagery and juxtapositions of
non-sequiturs delivered in his speak-sung baritone cut through the barrage of
punk noise, perfecting Protomartyr’s long-standing themes of reflecting on personal
disappointments and failures in the context of life under late-stage
capitalism. “Everybody knows / We’re holding on to little dreams / To drive
our bodies down the line / Until there’s nothing left” goes ‘Bridge &
Crown’, for instance, Casey channelling an inner Ian Curtis. More humorous and
scathing are lines such as “Fill out the form, download the app / Submit
your face into the scanner / Everybody’s hunted with a smile / Being processed
by the boys” on the aforementioned ‘Processed By The Boys’.
in terms of its individual elements, aspects and performances, there’s
everything to admire about Ultimate Success Today, but taken as a whole
it’s also immensely enjoyable, the sense of painstaking detail and ambition
never allowed to subsume the album as a listening experience. With it,
Protomartyr ought to finally get the wider recognition they deserve as one of
the finest indie bands currently in existence. (9/10) (Ed Biggs)
Listen to Ultimate Success Today by Protomartyr here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: album, Alex Leonard, Domino, Ed Biggs, Joe Casey, Protomartyr, Ultimate Success Today
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