There’s a decidedly Midwestern quality to the darkly claustrophobic sound of Protomartyr. The mood surrounding the music is redolent of stale-aired cement floor basements used as makeshift practice spaces by kids trying to semi-melodically bash out their feelings and/or philosophical musings. You can almost hear the outdated washer and dryer churning away behind them, cast in shadow and giving forth a heat exacerbated by the pace of the music, cheap beer and the stark reality of impending adulthood. It’s a very specific scene known all too well by those who spent their formative years raging away in drafty rental house basements.

Yet, where others look to do so during their collegiate years, the driving force behind Protomartyr’s very existence is that of vocalist and songwriter Joe Casey, who is a full decade older than his bandmates. Assembled by Casey as an attempt to channel the darkness and urgency of his lyrics into song, the members of Protomartyr play with and possess a level of intensity that lends the music itself a vitality and earnestness that feels like the work of someone looking to aggressively pose a final stand in the face of impending adulthood, and with that, the full on surrendering of youthful proclivities.

Over the course of three albums, the members of Protomartyr have been further honing and refining (rather than straying from) this very particular sound and feel. Anchored by Casey’s densely layered lyrical delivery and guitarist Greg Ahee’s wall of noise, their latest release, The Agent Intellect, finds the group pushing forward without sacrificing any of the sound and fury on which they’ve made a name for themselves. If anything, The Agent Intellect serves as the culmination of promises made over the course of their first few releases.

Aided by somewhat cleaner production and greater harmonic contrast, their second release for Hardly Art manages to rein in the noisier elements that are the hallmark of noise rock in favor of a more nuanced melodicism and rhythmic interplay between drummer Alex Leonard and bassist Scott Davidson. While still wrapped in a swirling vortex of feedback and distortion, Ahee’s guitar plays more as a second, complementary melodic voice to Casey’s gruffly conversational monotone. On the driving “I Forgive You,” Casey and Ahee engage in a sort of tense dialogue during the verses, each struggling for supremacy. It’s not until the pre-chorus that they come together as one, joining up on a series of sustained, strummed-out chords before surging ahead together into the chorus.

Because of this often intense back-and-forth, it takes several listens for the whole of The Agent Intellect to fully sink in. Intense focus on Casey’s complex, richly detailed lyrics, the majority of which are fairly well-buried within the mix, comes at the expense of Ahee’s deceptively complex guitar lines wending their way in and out of each song. With so much going on, it can be hard to know exactly where to start in parsing out Casey’s tumbling rants. Regardless of overall intelligibility, there is a palpable emotional resonance within the music itself that, thematically, allows Casey’s words and Ahee’s soundscapes to work hand-in-hand to the point where, even if you don’t grasp every detail, the gist of the message is clear.

And throughout, Casey’s message hinges on a host of the personal—existential crises and theological queries chiefly among them—all with a literary and philosophical flair. His approach then feels like that of a bearded, professorial type in a tweed jacket fronting a student-led noise rock group. Heady, intellectual and in possession of a depth lost on casual listens, this approach positions Protomartyr as sort of PhD/post-grad indie rockers.

Given the age difference and backstory behind the band’s formation, this doesn’t feel that far off the mark, their music playing like a post-grad study led by a fervent professor looking to put into tumbling rants a complex set of emotions over tumultuous instrumentation. Whether in the reverb-laden reminiscence of the Pope’s visit to the Detroit area on “Pontiac 87” or vicious snarl of “Cowards Starve,” there is a tense sense of nervous energy permeating the whole of The Agent Intellect that carries with it a clearly-defined sense of meaning and purpose, one which hinges on the central belief that, so long as the drive and need to create still exist, there will be others willing to help facilitate, regardless of age or position in life.

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