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Led by wild-card lyricist and singer Joe Casey, Protomartyr are a Detroit-based post-punk quartet who deliver burly but intelligent music that plays heavily on instrumental dynamics and blunt physical impact. Breaking out of the Midwest music scene to attract an international following, their performances spun free-associative beat-inspired poetry over the churning report of the musicians, giving their songs a streetwise literacy that matched the strength of the instrumentalists. After making a strong local impression with their 2012 debut album, No Passion All Technique, word about Protomartyr spread further when they signed with the Sub Pop-distributed Hardly Art label. Following the release of their third album, 2015′s The Agent Intellect, Protomartyr began receiving enthusiastic press coverage in North America and Europe, leading to them signing with Domino for 2017′s outstanding Relatives in Descent. After sitting out the COVID-19 lockdown and struggling with difficult life events, the group came back with 2023′s Formal Growth in the Desert.
Guitarist Greg Ahee, bassist Scott Davidson, and drummer Alex Leonard started the caustic punk band Butt Babies in 2008, playing mostly dive bars and basements and eventually getting a practice space in a large industrial warehouse. Ahee was working at the time as a doorman at Detroit’s Gem Theater and struck up a conversation with co-worker Joe Casey about music and local friends Tyvek. Casey had never been in a band but had accompanied Tyvek on a few of their tours. The two decided to jam; the first nebulous lineup of Protomartyr included Casey on vocals, Ahee and Leonard on their respective instruments, and Tyvek songwriter Kevin Boyer on bass. Boyer, often too busy with Tyvek commitments and a heavy work schedule, soon turned over his bass position to Davidson, opting instead to play second guitar whenever he could. The four- or sometimes five-piece Protomartyr played around Detroit and toured regionally, gaining attention on the strengths of two early 7″ singles and riveting live performances. Singles “Dreads 85 84” and “Colpi Proibiti” were both released in 2012, followed by debut album No Passion All Technique later in the year. The album quickly sold out of its first pressing and continued to reach new ears in subsequent pressings as the band toured more and got more press.
By this point, Boyer was more or less out of the picture, and the four-piece band tightened up even more, signing to Hardly Art for the release of 2014′s Under Color of Official Right, a more exploratory sophomore album. In October 2015, Protomartyr returned with a third studio album, The Agent Intellect, followed by an international tour in support of the release. As word about the band spread and they gained champions in the music press (in particular Greg Kot of the Chicago Public Radio series Sound Options), Protomartyr began playing high-profile festival dates and won fans in Europe and the United Kingdom as well as the United States. They signed a deal with the powerful British indie label Domino, and their first album for the company, Relatives in Descent, was released in September 2017. The group spread the word about the album with further international touring, kicked off with an ambitious hometown record release show held on a riverboat that cruised the Detroit River as the band played. A year later, Protomartyr returned with the Consolation EP. The four-track collection featured guest vocals from the Breeders’ Kelley Deal and was recorded at her R. Ring bandmate Mike Montgomery’s Candyland Studios in Kentucky.
In 2019, the band reissued their long out-of-print debut, No Passion All Technique. In addition to the original track listing, they added a handful of bonus tracks, including “King Boots” and “Bubba Helms.” 2020′s Ultimate Success Today stepped up the dark energy of Relatives in Descent, while also broadening their musical boundaries with guest appearances from free jazz musicians Jemeel Moondoc and Fred Lonberg-Holm, and vocalist Half Waif. The LP was initially scheduled to arrive in May 2020, followed by an extensive tour of North America and Europe, but the COVID-19 pandemic led to the album’s release being pushed forward to July 2020, while their entire tour had to be scrapped. In lieu of touring, music videos were produced for all ten of the songs from Ultimate Success Today.
In November 2021, Protomartyr returned to touring, with Kelley Deal joining them on guitar, keyboards, and backing vocals. The group began writing songs for their next album, with Casey’s lyrics informed by a variety of dramatic life events: the death of his mother, having to move from the home he’d lived in for decades after a series of break-ins, and becoming engaged. Greg Ahee, meanwhile, had scored several short films during the lockdown, and he drew on the sound and styles of his favorite film composers while creating the music, especially those who scored vintage spaghetti westerns. These elements came together on 2023′s Formal Growth in the Desert, which was produced by Ahee in cooperation with engineer Jake Aron and released in June 2023. ~ Fred Thomas & Mark Deming