Rivers, Horses Struck by Lightning, and Night Blooming Cereuses: A Close Reading of Protomartyr’s Relatives in Descent

Ian Evans

On the 29th of September, the band Protomartyr unleashed their fourth album Relatives In Descent into the world. The album is the band‰’s first “major‰” indie label release on Domino records. Their previous two albums Agent Intellect and Under Cover of Official Right were released on Hardly Art. 2015‰’s Agent Intellect garnered significant praise for singer Joe Casey‰’s thoughtful, grim, and cohesive lyrics coupled with Protomartyr‰’s distinct heavy sound. The reception of their last album and the switch to a new label contributed to Relatives In Descent becoming a highly anticipated release. It‰’s hard to review a Protomartyr album without falling down the hole of engaging the lyrical content and trying to unpack some of the symbolism. If there‰’s anything Protomartyr are it is deliberate and purposeful.

“A Private Understanding‰” exemplifies Protomartyr‰’s attention to dynamic contrast as it starts off with gentle but ominous guitar strumming and rhythmic drumming. The song swells to an intense volume as cymbals are banged and guitars become shrill and distorted. “Call me Heraclitus the obscure, constantly weeping cause the river doesn‰’t move, doesn‰’t flow.‰” Casey laments. I‰’ll flag the idea of the river as it pops up throughout Relatives In Descent. Immediately, when the entity of the river is initially brought up Joe Casey immediately situates the river in a political context saying “its being leaded by snider men to reap profit from the poor.‰Û(“snider‰” could be a double meaning referring to Michigan governor Rick Snyder as well). He despairs that certain people and systems Casey himself said that part of this song is about the Flint water crisis but I think the intent is to construe the river in a broader sense. Rivers are the literal geographical nexus of economics, racism and classism as well as often times define borders. Casey posits that rivers are always political from the issues of environmental racism at Flint and Detroit rivers to the Anacostia river here in D.C.. In addition rivers have use in a colonial context as a means of resource extraction in the case of the Congo river or Gambia river (many, many others). Even more broadly, the river is also the symbol of an object that divides yet provides life and drinking water. Rivers also “flow‰” and Casey returns to the sense of movement in rivers later in the album.

“Here Is The Thing‰” is vintage Protomartyr. Protomartyr at their best sounds like Joy Division/ The Pop Group post-punk injected with a heavy dose of DIY hardcore and metal with Joe Casey rambling and yelling over the top of the music. Most of the time, what he‰’s saying isn‰’t very discernable. Again we hear the blasting trumpets “2017: air horn age, age of horn blowing‰Û. This song demonstrates the latent energy in the band. The songs starts of with the guitar gentle strumming a jangly riff and Joe Casey talking. Before you know it, Greg Ahee is attacking the guitar strings, Joe Casey is stammering and screaming as the whole song goes off the rails.

“My Children‰” ushers back in the intense, brooding sounds which characterizes many of the songs on the album. Dark bass and solemn drum hits rumble under a spooky guitar. Out of the darkness, Joe Casey‰’s voice creeps in: “To create, pass on‰Û. He repeats “pass on‰” sometimes adding “written is stone not sand‰” or “what‰’s mine now yours.‰” This song adds a few variations on the theme of the river. “Pass on‰” refers to some sort of movement forward or progression. I took this movement forward and the words pass on as a reference to the sharing of information online. Sometimes when people share things they say “pass on‰Û. Casey is skeptical of the appropriation of the content when someone new shares it illustrated by his sarcastic, conversational tone in the words “what‰’s mine now yours‰Û. “Written in stone not sand‰” relates to when things “trend‰” after they have been shared and appropriated many times on many different platforms often times completely distorting the event or idea that existed. This contributes to the idea of the “age of blasting trumpets‰Û. The river is the never ending stream of content online talking constantly without listening. As the music intensifies with Casey it speeds up until it reaches its terminal velocity and Greg Ahee tears into a new riff. Joe Casey moves to the central focus of the song singing “My children ain‰’t got no mother‰Û. Here we see another interpretation of the river which is thought of in terms of the “passing on‰” of blood and genes. The river becomes a way to immortalize oneself through reproduction. Yet, something is awry in this metaphor. Casey says “I never loved them‰” and “good luck with the mess I left.‰” Here we can bring Heraclitus back into the mix. Casey is upset or reserved about the next generation. It could be the fact that the young generation has to clean up the damages of climate change.

“Windsor Hum‰” begins with a gentle guitar pattern which for a split second made me think I was hear the Friday Night Lights theme song. Rather than warm and pensive like the theme song, the Protomartyr riff is eerie and suspenseful. The drums and base layer into the groove after a few iterations of the guitar part. Then finally we hear Casey‰’s voice. He starts with “the sound‰Û. After waiting briefly, he adds “that you‰’re hearing across the river, saying ‰everything‰’s fine‰’‰Û. Again the rivers are back! This time Casey sings about the Detroit river which divides Protomartyr‰’s hometown with the Canadian city of Windsor, Ontario. Casey repeats the words “everything‰’s fine‰” and the music drastically intensifies. Ahee guitar becomes rough and atonal. Casey yells “everything‰’s fine!‰” Then the band gets quieter again. Gradually though, the drums get louder and the guitar grows more distorted as they reach the chorus. Casey is screaming “want what you are given. Need what you‰’ll never have and never will.‰” “The old Windsor humming across the river to the US of A saying ‰everything‰’s fine‰’.‰Û The “hum‰” is a phenomenon that annoys residents of the city of Windsor. The noise supposedly sounds like a low rumbling of thunder and emanates from a small American island aptly named Zug Island where a steel manufacturing plant sits. Casey revisits the theme of rivers. In this case, the river is a border, dividing Canada from the United States. The river is also used for transportation. Zug Island has a steel plant because steel was shipped on river boats into the Great Lakes.Casey notes that the “hum‰” is saying something. It is not neutral. The U.S. is exporting the sound.

One of the darker songs on the album is the seventh track, “Up The Tower‰Û. The song lacks a clear tonal structure or melody. Nevertheless, Joe Casey half sings the lyrics almost in a way one would if they were alone singing a capella. The lyrics tell a fantastic story of when Casey gives a cigarette to someone on the corner, his muse, who tells him the story of people who develop so much hatred for their leader that they break into his estate and dethrone him. When they reach the door of the building, the band kicks it into high gear and the drums mimic the rage and mass of angry people from the story. Ahee doesn‰’t really seem to be playing any notes on the guitar he just makes a ruckus. Eventually when the people finally sack the castle, Casey envisions the people opening the window in the tower and sings “what a lovely view, fire on the horizon.‰” It‰’s hard not to think of a meaning for this song outside of the context of the current administration. Our president owns many “towers‰” which serve to symbolize his status and influence.

Nevertheless, in spite of the constant mood of grimness and despair, Protomartyr also posit that only within this place of darkness, that hope can take shape. In “Night Blooming Cereus‰Û(the name of a cactus that blooms at night), Casey proclaims “only in darkness, does the flower take hold‰Û. The song starts out with an ethereal lonely synth. The bass guitar hums quietly. “Night Blooming Cereus‰” too, starts with Joe Casey singing without any clear melody or key. After verse one, the guitar joins in with high pitched, gentle chords. Casey slowly starts to linger nearer to the guitar‰’s key. The song begins to become more sure of itself. After the second round of “it blooms at night‰” the drums kick in and the band starts moving. Layers of echoing vocals, guitar and ethereal synths, creates a faint sense of positivity and hopefulness. When the song gets going, a cluster of synths crowds the lower end. They seem disruptive like “age of blasting trumpets‰” that was brought up earlier. But the immense height and harmonic strumming rise above the darker wailing horns. The message seems to contradict many of the things I have interpreted in Protomartyr‰’s music. Protomartyr are cynical, skeptical of essentialism, and fairly dark. The metaphor of the flower blooming in the night in the desert inches toward a tackiness that might be exhibited if another artist sang it. For Protomartyr, it‰’s a confusing mask of irony and sincerity. Nevertheless, Casey sings it like he means it. This sudden hopefulness is to me more radical than any other idea I‰’ve picked up from their music. Its flavor sticks out in the backdrop of the entire album as a whole.

I won‰’t say much about “Male Plague‰” that isn‰’t painfully obvious. Lyrically, the song is an indictment of masculinity and rationality. Casey laments “false news‰” and “every boy wants to be a cop‰Û. The track is a pretty straightforward rock song, fairly uncharacteristic of Protomartyr. Drumming is loud and pretty conventional for Alex Leonard. Ahee strums power chords quickly creating a barrier of noise. The chorus consists of Casey leading call and response with the response being many people yelling “male plague!‰Û. One line I‰’ll draw attention to is “her truth is too fast for you‰Û.

“Half Sister‰” wraps up the album carrying on the bleak and dark tone that Relatives In Descent started on. Rough guitar and base pulsate rhythmically on one note. Lyrics are spat rather than sung or spoken. Just as the band seems to be moving towards some climax, they dial the intensity back and Ahee plays a minor key motif in a clean tone. Then the third verse starts and eventually propels the band into a mood change where the riff skips between two notes. The bass now weaves around the simple guitar part. They grow quieter for a few measures and the reach the climax of the song. It is loud, coarse, and jarring. This is where Casey saves his lines that carry the greatest weight. At this point I will explain how “Half Sister‰” comments on themes I have brought up earlier and close out my explanation of Relatives In Descent. The lyrics of “Half Sister‰” seem cryptic for the first two thirds of the song. Verse one tells the story of an ancient Roman prison guard dressing down a “radical‰” ancient Palestinian. The guard says he has a “back log of so called prophets‰” and the radical replies “I witness truth‰Û. Verse two continues with a bizarre story of a ghost appearing some mornings in a person‰’s back garden. The person, after consulting many experts, realizes that the ghost is a relative, his sister, living 1000 miles away. She was thinking of the man those mornings. Again Casey sings the lines. Verse three adds another layer of strangeness with the story of an “incident‰” in Northern Michigan. In this story, a horse was struck by lightening and started to speak ina foreign language saying “humans are no good‰Û. The horse was shot and now serves as a “lesson for the kids‰Û. When the band reaches the dramatic climax of “Half Sister‰Û. Casey brings things together lyrically:

“Truth is a colicking horse

that serves no purpose

truth is a babbling prisoner

you‰’d rather not kill if they confess

Truth is the half sister

That will not be forgotten‰Û

When interviewed about the inspiration for this song, Casey simply said “there are other themes and ideas in this song that tie into the others but I bet your interpretations will be better than mineå_ — so I‰’ll stop there.‰” Casey has an obsession with truth but he doesn‰’t really believe in a “real truth.‰” Truth is not free, it is a “prisoner‰Û, it is useless. But we can‰’t bring ourselves to forget it or stop searching. There are moments in our lives where although you may not believe in any universal truth or grand narratives, you need something solid. Something that keeps you from doubting everything and detaching from qualities that give us meaning in the world. Casey wonders whether we need a sense of truth in the world to keep working, get through the day and to enjoy parts of life. Here is Casey or Heraclitus, weeping at the river, cowering from the blasting trumpets playing in different keys and tunes he is trying to understand what is wrong with the river. His children don‰’t have a mother or a future. What will happen to the children of Flint, Michigan, neglected by a racist government? Perhaps he felt he didn‰’t do enough to help them. He is upset by U.S. imperialism telling everyone around the world that “everything is fine‰Û. He is critical of the masculinity that perpetuates that process. In the age of the Internet and Trump, he worries about the “fake news‰” and backlash that seeks to keep those power structures in place. The truth is controlled by money just as rivers are dammed for economic purposes. Truth divides groups in America like rivers divide communities, states and countries. Truths are engineered into our sense of morality to justify colonialism and systemically disadvantaged groups like the residents of Flint. In the end truth depends on power and the ability to crystallize meanings to specific words. In the end, truth is nothing. Nevertheless, Protomartyr argues that there is something fundamental about the need for meaning in being human. When Protomartyr starts to gain intonation as “Night Blooming Cereus‰” gets louder and more dramatic underscores the hopefulness in Relatives In Descent. Then there‰’s often repeated words “She‰’s trying to reach you‰Û. Femininity pops up in Relatives In Descent just as much as rivers and truth. In “A Private Understanding‰” utters the phrase over and over again as he does in “Half Sister‰Û. Casey complains about his children not having a mother in “My Children‰Û. Again femininity appears in “Male Plague‰” in its juxtaposition against masculinity. In “Male Plague‰” Casey leaves masculinity for femininity when he says “her truth moves too fast for you‰Û. Perhaps this is a criticism of America in this age. That femme and women voices are systemically undervalued and outright attacked by the administration. This could be the way forward for Protomartyr. Rather than a sense of universal truth and rationality which masculine powers own and distort, they propose that men need to relinquish their historic seat of power and support women and femmes as they have been specifically targeted by the president. Congrats you made it to the end of this article! Thanks for reading!

Protomartyr plays Rock and Roll Hotel on October 26th.

Ian made a playlist of his favorite Protomartyr tracks and those mentioned in the article.