The latest offering from celebrated Detroit post-punk outfit Protomartyr begins with a grim salutation: “Welcome to the haunted earth / the living afterlife,” vocalist Joe Casey murmurs over a lonely kick-drum heartbeat and splashy clean guitar. “Where we choose to forget the years of the hungry knife.”
Such unsettling invitations are a linchpin for Protomartyr, named after Saint Stephen who allegedly fell asleep while being stoned to death by an angry mob in 34 A.D. The first track from the band’s previous album Ultimate Success Today parted the curtains with a frantic sense of paranoia, dropping listeners into the uncanny horror of a “day without end.” But with the weary welcome announcing its follow-up Formal Growth in the Desert, out June 2 via Domino, Casey turns his attention to the day after.
“Let’s say you go to the doctor and the doctor says you have three months to live. Right there, you probably have the thought: ‘OK, I guess I’m dead.’ But then you have to wake up tomorrow. The world keeps on going,” the philosophical 45-year-old frontman says of the new album’s opening salvo. “It’s very depressing, but there’s some kind of humor in that. You go downstairs and make your coffee and turn on the TV and it’s still the same mundane bullshit. The world doesn’t stop because one person suffers.”
And there’s plenty of suffering to go around in the Protomartyr discography. Since breaking out of the Michigan punk scene more than a decade ago with their 2012 debut No Passion All Technique, the hardscrabble Motor City quartet has tempered teeth-baring ferocity with a profound spiritual and social ennui. From the community carnage of political corruption (Under Color of Official Right) to the bondage of grief (The Agent Intellect) and the bone-deep bummer of American decline (Relatives in Descent), the band has cemented its critical-darling status by trading less in punk’s telltale rage at a broken world and more in the crushing sadness of it all.
“We’re living after a very traumatic period, and we’re acting like it’s not happening,” Casey says of the mass death and collective breakdown coloring the years since Ultimate Success Today was swallowed by the raging peak of the pandemic in the summer of 2020. “We’re the people who are stuck on this earth. The afterlife is this moment, trying to find some life after death.”
‘Make way for tomorrow’
But it’s not all doom and gloom on Formal Growth in the Desert. As the title suggests, there’s something that looks like hope blooming in the unforgiving expanse of its 34-minute runtime. That might be why Domino promoted the album with Protomartyr-branded seed packets to sprout a Rose of Jericho “resurrection plant,” a desert species of spikemoss that can spring back to life after long periods of neglect. Emblazoned on the packaging are the lyrics to the album’s first anthemic chorus: Make way / for tomorrow.
“‘Tomorrow is another day’ is kind of a pie-in-the-sky idea that seems to be both a positive and a negative thing. [“Make Way”] is about getting out of the way, because the next day is coming, the next thing is coming,” Casey says. “That kind of repeats itself throughout the rest of the record: Get out of the way, because your time has passed. Or get out of the way, because you’re unimportant. [It’s about] getting over adversity, too.”
When it comes to the new record’s sense of growth, you see it before you hear it. The last five Protomartyr album covers, all designed by Casey, feature the striking collage-style portrait of a single entity: atomic bomb developer J. Robert Oppenheimer, silent actress Maude Fealy and a snarling rabid dog, to name just a few. But this time around, Casey places two figures in the frame: an almond-eyed young person casting their gaze on a berobed golem figure, raising a single hand to its humanoid visage.
“For good or ill, this is the first of our albums that has some love songs on it. So I thought, ‘Well, this is a perfect time to introduce a second face,’” Casey says with a laugh. “I was thinking the next [cover] would be an inanimate object. Then I thought, ‘What if it’s a statue getting turned into a human?’ There’s tons of mythologies about that. So I decided this would be the first with two people in it, just to throw a curveball that isn’t really a curveball.”
Much like the yin and yang of the twin figures gracing its haunting cover, Formal Growth in the Desert brings dissonant ideas into harmony as the time-tested band turns its gaze to the future. But after fronting Protomartyr through all these terrible teeth-gnashing years, Casey is still stuck on what it means to make way for tomorrow.
“The most dehumanizing, terrible things can happen to people, especially Americans, and we are able to just kind of forget about it the next day and move on,” he says. “I can’t tell if that is utter stupidity, or cruelty — or resilience, possibly.”
ON THE BILL: Protomartyr with Immortal Nightbody. 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 28, Hi-Dive, 7 S. Broadway, Denver. Sold out.