Protomartyr singer Joe Casey cuts a diminished figure as he shuffles onto the CCA stage; one that the Tumblr page ‘Descriptions of Joe Casey’ has long celebrated in the most evocative language. With such high praise of Casey as “an inverse Bono”, “an insurance salesman” and “an agitated salaryman who had one drink too many at happy hour” having already preceded this review, it’s difficult to know what more I can offer.
But I’ll throw my hat into the ring anyway. Watching Casey is like seeing Homer Simpson come to life, balding and perennially befuddled; burdened by the weariness of middle-age just as the pockets of his baggy suit are weighed down by one too many beers (they’re Budweisers, sadly, not Duff).
Lest that sound like dismissiveness, it’s anything but. When Casey opens his mouth, bringing forth a barrage of unhinged, incantatory vocals, the gulf between appearance and reality becomes stark. In the rhythmic patterns of his delivery, Casey does indeed recall Mark E. Smith of The Fall, to whom he is most often compared. However, on tracks like Windsor Hum, Casey’s maddened repetition of the coda “everything’s fine” behind a white-hot guitar squall gives the song a real depth of trauma and psychosis; a level to which even the inscrutable Smith rarely stoops.
While they ascended to global indie fame with third record The Agent Intellect, Protomartyr’s set is surprisingly heavy on cuts from their debut album, Relatives in Descent: by my count, they play two-thirds of it. It’s the most jagged and unsettling of their LPs, and the most indebted to 1970s post-punk pioneers like Joy Division and Pere Ubu. On tracks like A Private Understanding, guitarist Greg Ahee’s unconventional, ambiguous chording gives the music a real edge, recalling the dark tension of Slint’s seminal Spiderland. Drummer Alex Leonard is bang on the beat throughout, accentuating at all the right moments without overshadowing his bandmates, while Scott Davidson’s bass-lines maintain a busyness that piques curiosity.
There were some downsides. Casey’s vocals were way too low in the mix throughout: one could glean the emotional intent behind the words, but as Casey is such an unparalleled writer, it felt a real shame to miss out on the lyrical particulars. And not for the first time at a Scottish gig, the tired, incessant “here we fucking go” routine of around ten people cannonballing around at the front (all men) did overshadow proceedings somewhat. I could sense more than a few audience members near the stage having their enjoyment of the show slowly sucked out of them by these antics as time wore on. I don’t have enough room here to engage in a nuanced debate about the politics of moshing and its historic centrality to genres like metal and hardcore punk, but Protomartyr are in Glasgow making challenging, cerebral, contemplative heavy music: behaviour like this just comes across as immature and a wee bit ignorant.
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