Protomartyr - The Agent Intellect (Cover Artwork)


The Agent Intellect (2015)

Hardly Art

Something tells me that the members of Protomartyr wouldn't protest too much if I called them classic, American schlubs. This is by no means a slight against them, but sheer and honest proof of their consistent appearance as a group of genuine underdogs. They're the classic ragtag group of misfits who pull together at the last minute and do the unexpected. Sure, they won't conquer the world, but they never set out to do that in the first place. The Agent Intellect finds the band pushing themselves further than the successes they achieved on last year's excellent Under Color of Official Right. The album still has sparse  and clutching arrangements matched with vocalist Joe Casey's ever present snide lyricism, but there's significantly less distance between the content of the songs and the simmering emotional involvement. It's a bold move from a band that has, up to this point, maintained a cool detachment in their delivery. But, as this album amply displays, their decision to peel back the skin a bit and show their bones has paid off.

The Agent Intellect finds Casey ruminating on the false conclusions (whether they be base rate neglect or simple white lies we tell ourselves) we utilize to cope with the hardships life throws our way. When focusing on death in "Cowards Starve", Casey states that he's "going out in style," but later on in "Dope Cloud" he realizes that nothing's "gonna save you, man." Finally, on "Why Does it Shake?" he decides to hide behind the lies he tells himself, acerbically saying that he'll be "the first to never die / Nice thought / and I'm never gonna lose it." He might realize that these coping mechanisms are wrought and wrongheaded, but he'll take advantage of them all the same. These thoughts reoccur again and again on the album, and they're all almost exclusively linked with death or mental decay.

While the lyrics here have a distinct message, they're infinitely  malleable (like most great art) to whatever subject you associate them with. "Dope Cloud" had the unfortunate distinction of  premiering less than 24 hours before two Virginia journalists were murdered on live television. On that day, I veraciously devoured any news article I could find on the subject, doing my best to follow any updates that trickled through news outlets. "Dope Cloud" served as my soundtrack as I glued my eyes to any words devoted to the developing situation. Though the song is ostensibly about wealthy citizens slowly taking over a town, I couldn't shake the association I had made. The song still makes my hairs stand up, serving as a reminder that it can all end unpredictably and in an instant. 

Casey is a lyricist who leans heavily on wry wit, a move that continues to benefit Protomartyr's ability to separate themselves from other bands under the current post-punk umbrella. The lyrical content of penultimate track "Emily" is a first for Casey, as it has a straightforward emotional conceit (not exactly expected from the guy who wrote a song to denounce, among other things, "pain free catheters / most bands ever / terrible bartenders"). It happens to be one of the most relatable tracks here, as Casey is singing from the current viewpoint of his dead father. In the song, Casey's father is waiting in the afterlife for his wife, who is currently suffering from Alzheimer's disease. He's armed with all the memories she's forgotten and the patience of a saint. Anyone who has seen a loved one mentally fall apart on due to Alzheimer's or dementia will find the song oddly endearing. It again explores the coping mechanisms we employ to get through the most taxing emotional times we endure. After brazenly brushing them off in "Dope Cloud," Casey returns to a fantasy situation to help him cope because, frankly, sometimes that's all you have.

Of course, it goes without saying that none of this would amount to much if the music was tepid or contrived. Luckily this isn't the case, as the band continue their transformation into a tightly knit unit. Guitarist Greg Ahee does his best to keep the proceedings strictly skeletal. He approaches his guitar lines with utmost restraint, only crowding the song with a blaze of noise if the composition requires it. He'll pull back at opportune moments as well, rightly knowing that the band's sly rhythm section can carry a song by themselves. Bassist Scott Davidson, probably the most deceptively unassuming member of the band, is responsible for the atmospheric heights the music reaches. His bass lines can ably run the gamut from an upbeat buoyancy to a dirge like pummel (and sometimes all within the same song). Drummer Alex Leonard continues to peddle his tricky and rolling beats , all coming off as dry and raw through his reluctant and sparse use of cymbals.

Standout track "Uncle Mother's" has a discordant and psychedelic enough sound that it could probably soundtrack that night club fight scene in Point Blank.  A song like the rhythmically charging "Why Does it Shake?" is expertly haunting even if you don't know that the title is a quote from Casey's mother concerning her continually shaking hands. The track has a driving and dusty sonic aura that has a nasty habit of sticking in your head and ringing out louder just when you think you've shaken it for good. "The Hermit" is a forceful push that has Casey abandoning his usual serene Mark E. Smith delivery to engage in some rough banter that borders on violently commanding. "Ellen," the band's longest song to date, has an ethereal fingerprint that matches the nigh on spiritually lyrical bent. These tracks are tight and controlled; the work of a band that knows their strengths and leans on them when it truly matters.

The Agent Intellect is another increasingly impressive offering from a group who wouldn't look out of place quietly drinking in the back of a run down, neighborhood bar. Outwardly, they're the type of people who you wouldn't think would have an interesting take on the world. On "Clandestine Time," Casey muses that "The proof that we're here is the dust that they're breathing." This seems appropriate, as it would be a mistake to avoid the dust that these schlubs are currently kicking up.