Somewhere from the deep, dark recesses of Detroit, vocalist Joe Casey and his punk band Protomartyr have emerged once again with their fourth studio album, “Relatives in Descent,” a record full of confusing themes that all revolve around a somber bulletin of uncertainty.
Though Protomartyr is often known to produce anthems of despair and anxiety, it reaches for something even stranger on this record: a mysterious circling cloud of negativity portrayed in a style that’s more prose than poetry. Casey conjures mythical images of talking horses and patriarchy — all within the confines of side B.
Side A takes its jabs at Donald Trump’s America in a plethora of sometimes-vague mentions and even a tale of religious realization involving the King of Rock and Roll himself.
This is an album of obscurity. Past Protomartyr albums have been obscure too, but not on this level, not even in this dimension. Maybe it’s the pulsating, visceral life plowed into the middle of this record from the rhythm section, but something about “Relatives in Descent” is different and darker.
Despite the resounding doom and gloom, there are upbeat tracks to cling to, even if they continue to project disappointment and melancholic themes of family.
The driving chants of Casey on the song “My Children” help find the pulse among the steady pounding beat of the bass drum. It’s the kind of song you can rage-drive to while speeding down the freeway on your way to work amidst your fellow rush hour goons.
“Caitriona” is a song of constant fuzz, guitars bleeding through the speakers while Casey sings tales of the despondent dead, broken only by an eerie riff.
Perhaps the most haunting track on the record is “Windsor Hum,” referencing a strange sonic phenomenon “across the river” in the Canadian town for which it’s named after. It begins by crackling off the turntable like the intro to some deranged 1970s horror flick. Now, Casey is full-on shouting: “It says want want want want want what you are given / Need need need need need what you’ll never have.”
On “Up the Tower,” Alex Leonard’s drums pound out the staccato beats of a band of angry villagers whose footsteps stamp up the stairs of a fictional tower, seemingly hell-bent on overthrowing some greedy overlord.
Things take a quieter, more ambient approach as Casey begins to croon on “Night-Blooming Cereus.” It seems this song is the only light available to cling to as you are thrashed against the walls of despair and confusion so eloquently built throughout the album.
Then the album slams back to themes of arrogant masculinity, perhaps a take on a patriarchal society that feels threatened by any progress made by those who are different in any way.
As the album closes, there are a variety of criticisms available to draw. The droning prose Casey chants can seem daunting, drawn out and even lost at times in nonsensical babbling. On the other hand, this is half the appeal.
If you are looking for a record to draw you away from the present or maybe drag you back through it, “Relatives in Descent” can deliver you. While Protomartyr may have perfected its sound and image, it may also have lost the listener in the fictitious folds of their fourth album.
But for me, getting lost in the numbness of space between my couch and my hi-fi sound system is exactly what I need to continue on in this uncertain world we live in.
Nick Fief is a food science alum writing on behalf of KSDB, Kansas State’s student-run radio station. The views and opinions expressed in this review are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian or KSDB. Please send comments to [email protected] and visit ksdbfm.org for more reviews.