The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


The Agent Intellect Brian Coney , October 21st, 2015 20:35

Whether the cunning realisation of unquenchable creative vision or restlessness captured and let loose for the sake of it, releasing three studio albums in as many years can be thorny territory for even the most potent and strong-willed artist. With the release of their third album, The Agent Intellect, Detroit post-punk foursome Protomartyr edge towards the former, despite straddling a precarious line between resolve and reiteration that comes as standard in the seemingly unwinnable Sisyphean stretch they find themselves. For all their momentum, the question remains: has efficiency fared the fast-rising quartet well on this, the veritable doldrums manifest?

Despite taking its title from an ancient philosophical concept about how the incorporeal "soul" might contribute to the understanding of immortality, The Agent Intellect is very much concerned with this earthly realm and the ever interminable weight of the everyday. An apt soundtrack to sinking cans in a cold water flat having finally accepted it's all gone to shit, Protomartyr have birthed a protracted leitmotif of beat-down doom, where struggle is an unbroken presence and vocalist Joe Casey's quasi-masochistic, everyman misery tells of a world both fashioned and governed by the mocking threat of ruin.

Foretold by the broken-minded, backstreet city soliloquies of everyone from Pere Ubu and The Walkmen to Enablers and The Wipers, here Protomartyr operate within the shadows of a well-established musical dominion. Despite the odd fist-clenched passage and inspired chord change amidst a masterful web of pummelling rhythm and clanging guitars, the lure of The Agent Intellect lies largely with Joe Casey and his inner war of attrition. From foreboding scriptural retelling 'The Devil In His Youth' to closing masterstroke 'Feast Of Stephen', his sneering, sunken-spirited poetry feels nothing short of a protracted self-exorcism, spurred on by the ogling eyes of time.

At the heart of these purgative tales is a wry literalism that proves perfectly measured, if not uncannily relatable throughout. Take early highlight 'Cowards Starve', where Casey declares: "Social pressures exist and if you think about them all of the time, you're going to find that your head's been kicked in" Summoning Mark E. Smith and Reuben's Jamie Lenman in oddly compliant unison, Casey is nigh on authoritative here and elsewhere; a reluctant priest of deep-seated anxiety, steadily establishing himself as heir to an esteemed lineage of despair.

But whilst The Agent Intellect is a brilliantly burdensome excursion for the most part, relief – both mawkish and droll – is rarely far from reach. Whether you look to the likes of album peak 'Ellen', a wonderfully rousing expulsion named after Casey's mother and written from the perspective of his late father or a repeated earworming couplet on 'Pontiac '87' – "It's no use in being sad about it/What's the point in crying about it" – Protomartyr temper demons and despondence by ensuring contempt for psychic pain and the crueller machinations of modernity is thoroughly accounted for. Granted full leeway to pontificate, Casey is defiant in the jaws of loss but at no point does it ever feel irrevocably hopeless.

All positions considered, The Agent Intellect probably isn't a record to be throwing on every evening after (or indeed without) work. Distilling the sheer fallibility of the human condition across twelve insistent tracks, each full listen feels like an investment in the slow-burning revelation of some bigger picture, delivered with the ardent persuasion of a band fully able to defend wasting no time in capturing the magic.