It seems fitting to stumble across Protomartyr’s The Agent Intellect way after the fact and realize it’s your missed album of the year for 2015, and then take another few months before you get around to finally writing about it. Stumbling, belatedness, near misses and wilfully waiting for the right moment seem to be what the four people in this excellent band are all about.
The relationship between this album and the band’s two previous ones reminds me of the trajectory made by Ice Age, who after making a couple of progressively more promising and better records suddenly released a hugely impressive and slightly unexpected masterpiece in Plowing Into the Field of Love. When The Agent Intellect first starts you think you’re listening to another good, spirited and passionate post-punk record in the tradition of the Gun Club, the Fall, maybe Psychedelic Furs, which is great in itself. But then it suddenly morphs into something infinitely more complex and beautiful.
It is the sound of pissed off, disaffected, disillusioned and fatally trumped Americans picking up guitars and drum sticks and making a racket in a tatty neighbourhood bar. It is the sound of intelligent and sensitive people trying to carve out a self-defined space in a restricting, pressurizing, disappointing and downright hostile culture that tries to sell them falsities they have absolutely no interest in. The music is acerbic, anguished and expressive and ranges from penetrative bursts of vitriol through affecting stretches of doomed romanticism to heart-rending glimpses of hesitant hope.
Protomartyr are the last romantics in a crumbling town, a Detroit which rhymes with destroyed, distrusted and distraught. They hate everyone. Except those they feel unending affection for. Which they find quite hard to express. But they’re going to try their damnedest to anyway. Transforming their pained stutter into anthems for the antisocial, driving music for a discontinued motor city with nowhere to go.
The basic template and atmosphere here recall the audioworld of Editors, but Protomartyr’s music has a lot more gravitas; it’s darker and heavier, more inventive, visionary, raw and uncompromising. They use hardly any effects and the playing is essentially simple, but somehow, by sheer force of boldness and personality, they manage to create arresting tonalities, studding their punk credentials with pools, showers and torrents of sound. The guitarist is like a more poppy Rowland S. Howard or a more competent Bernard Sumner, with added shoegaze and art-noise sensibility. His playing ranges from hooky lines and spiky chords to walls of heavy distortion and blocks of interesting tones, and generally fuels the music with a forward-looking thrust. The rhythm section offers a gorgeously recorded platform of solid and machinic propulsion. This considered assault is fronted by a charismatic vocalist, an angry and sad poet with a bassy grittiness and a turn of phrase and tune to break your heart. Protomartyr’s dusky poetry, tightness and combustive power are reminiscent of Joy Division, whose music’s accumulative, intensifying frustration and power similarly often exploded in glittering blasts, grander and more galvanising than the sum of its seemingly desolate parts.
The Agent Intellect is a great album in the old sense of the word – one that you hesitate before listening to again, because it takes you on such a demanding intellectual and emotional journey; one that you have no idea what album to play after, because everything suddenly seems pale and unnecessary in comparison. One you absolutely fall in love with. It’s the kind of album that reminds you why music matters so much. Almost despite itself, and in an age when few succeed or even try anymore to make great albums, it’s a real classic.