Protomartyr debuted in 2012 with No Passion All Technique, but was introduced to far more people two years later with Under Color Of Official Right, released to acclaim in 2014 by Hardly Art. Its sound was anxious post-punk (thudding percussion and guitars that vacillated between airy reverb and serrated distortion), its look elicited a lot of unflattering comparisons, and its soul was pure wounded Detroit. Protomartyr’s hometown was no mystery to anyone paying attention to frontman Joe Casey’s lyrics, and the music bore the influence of the garage rock bred there, not to mention local heroes like The Stooges.
Since No Passion All Technique—initially limited to a few hundred copies until a 2013 repressing—Protomartyr has been on a tear, which continues with its second album in two years, The Agent Intellect. While the rapid succession of albums and extensive touring probably hasn’t given the band a lot of time to breathe artistically, it has honed Protomartyr into a more powerful force. In the best sense, The Agent Intellect takes what made its predecessors good and builds on it.
More pronounced on this album are religious themes, fitting for a band of alumni from a Detroit Jesuit prep school. The Agent Intellect opens somewhat sympathetically for the devil with the fantastic “The Devil In His Youth.” “I Forgive You” talks about heretics and cheats by way of a priest/convicted sex offender who taught at Protomartyr’s school for 25 years. “Pontiac 87” speaks of a dispiriting papal visit to Michigan in 1987, and “Feast Of Stephen” references the Catholic saint and protomartyr whose status presumably gave the band its name. Casey also mentions St. Stephen’s feast day, December 26, in “Pontiac 87.” That doesn’t include references like the sodden priest in “Cowards Starve” or, in “Dope Cloud,” the person who dedicated their life to prayer while suffering in silence.
Unsurprisingly, The Agent Intellect is a heady album, though sneakily so. The words can get lost in Casey’s talk-singing, so a deeply sentimental and sweet love song like “Ellen”—about his parents—can pass without pulling listeners’ heartstrings like reading the lyrics might. The music suffers from no such obscurity, particularly Greg Ahee’s guitar and Alex Leonard’s drums. The latter plays propulsively and, like Ahee, shines when the band sheds restraint. “The Hermit,” which features spoken excerpts of Ambroise Paré’s Of Monsters And Marvels describing the origins of monsters, is the album’s most ferocious song, recalling Sonic Youth’s more aggressive moments.
Although Protomartyr provides plenty to digest on The Agent Intellect, particularly Casey’s esoteric lyrics, the songs can start to blend. It’s a minor complaint, though. The Agent Intellect is an impressive addition to the band’s small discography, and it hints that bigger, bolder work may lay ahead.