Review: Protomartyr Reach a New Peak at Thalia Hall

Celebrating the release of their sixth album Formal Growth In The Desert, Detroit greats Protomartyr capped off an extensive North American tour at Thalia Hall on Thursday night. The band comes from an unpretentious musical background that blended brooding post-punk with shouty garage rock, but their albums (and especially their live shows) have become much more nuanced in recent years. 

Protomartyr’s compositions have become spacier and less straightforward, yet maintaining the bite that made them favorites a decade ago. While the new record doesn’t quite capture the heights that they achieved on their stellar previous release Ultimate Success Today, the punchier moments translate extremely well to a live setting. It may prove to be a grower, which has been the case with previous efforts.

Local upstarts Stuck were the openers on Thursday, which was a fitting pairing with Protomartyr. Their songs are much more jittery and animated than the headliners, but Stuck inhabit a similar space of the post-punk spectrum and there is certainly a kinship with the sardonic songwriting and everyman persona. 

Younger bands like Stuck and local compatriots Deeper, Spread Joy, and The Hecks seem to validate post-punk’s durable popularity in Chicago, with Protomartyr resembling something like an uncle that periodically visits from Detroit. Stuck’s fans and friends certainly turned up for the opener, as their energetic delivery of arty punk cuts like “Serf the Web” and “City of Police” received well-deserved enthusiasm from the crowd. This is absolutely a band to watch. 

Protomartyr took the stage complete with a vastly upgraded stage setup. With projectors displaying trippy, acid-tinged, and at-times disturbing imagery to match the bleak music, this was certainly the coolest-looking Protomartyr live show to date. Luckily, the band’s progression as a live band absolutely justifies the beefed-up live presentation. 

It was a pleasant surprise to see Kelley Deal still performing with the group, who will doubtless enjoy the 30th anniversary celebration of the Breeders’ epic Last Splash in the coming months. Protomartyr’s live sound and sonic expansion owe a lot to her contributions. 

The band started the set with album-opener “Make Way,” which briefly rambles along before making the song’s climactic proclamations. There are some vaguely Western themes twanging along underneath the surface, but frontman Joe Casey’s signature shouts and growls make this song an unmistakable Protomartyr cut. More new songs followed, which showcased some of the band’s newer flourishes. 

Songs like “3800 Tigers see Protomartyr attempting catchier performances than longtime listeners are used to. With a legitimately funky bass line interplaying with Greg Ahee’s signature guitar howls. It’s some of their most chaotic but well-executed music to date. Other new tracks like “Fun In Hi Skool” and “For Tomorrow” were put through their paces as well. 

A few older favorites were peppered into the set. After the crashing guitars and rousing vocals of slow-builder “A Private Understanding,” Protomartyr treated longtime fans to “Maidenhead” off their breakout album. The song’s warm, driving bass, winding guitar riff, Alex Leonard’s punchy percussion, and perhaps Casey’s most impassioned vocal performance. It’s a mystifying and echoey track served perfectly by the projected backdrop of obscured city streets and flashing lights. 

If you’re a music fan inclined towards this sort of music, Joe Casey strikes a compelling figure. It’s a stretch to consider this a form of legitimate celebrity. Still, his profile has risen in recent years so much so that he moonlights as a columnist at the recently-resurrected CREEM Magazine. His relatable, awkward, and often hilarious stage banter makes up a large part of the band’s appeal, and his candor certainly seeps into the lyrics. 

While the musicians around him have absolutely improved and adapted, Casey’s progression as a singer is harder to quantify, but no less apparent. One of the more peculiar songs from the new record is “Polacrilex Kid,” which features some of Casey’s most inventive vocal performances. His tense stop-start shouts are almost percussive as they slot into the beat. It’s an interesting affectation that sees the band integrating every piece for once. Detractors of their sound often point to how disjointed the vocals are from the backing instrumentation. This song is unlikely to win them over, but it’s a welcome development in Protomartyr’s repertoire. 

No one is as adept at painting dystopian tapestries as Protomartyr, especially on set-closers “Processed By The Boys” and “Pontiac 87,” which explore themes like the horrors immigrants face and the harsh economic realities of their hometown. While the content is certainly dark, they deliver it with half-smiles and sarcasm so their doom-and-gloom never devolves into self-parody. 

After a short, obligatory break, the band reemerged to launch into slow-builder “Jumbo’s” from their decades-old first LP All Passion, No Technique. After a swirl of crashing guitars and snarled vocals finally dissipated, Greg Ahee launched into the familiar intro of “The Devil In His Youth.” This high-strung indie-rock rager is deservedly viewed as one of Protomartyr’s bangers. “You will feel the way that I do,” Casey bellows, with many in the crowd singing along and pumping fists. 

Closing the show with that song would feel too triumphant. That’s simply not how these Detroiters roll. Instead, they opted for the unsettling “Why Does it Shake?” This cut off their third LP The Agent Intellect features some of the heaviest and most complex drumming and gnarliest compositions and reflects upon Casey’s experience of losing his mother to Alzheimer’s disease. Finally, the tension built by the rolling drums, cacophonous guitars, and discordant vocals finally gave way. And that was it. 

It’s hard to say where Protomartyr will go from here. Their new record feels like an expansion of what they’ve built over the past decade as opposed to a progression. They’ve made mention that the band almost broke up during the pandemic but decided to soldier on. There are enough new ideas on this new record that, and their live shows feel as vital as ever as their tightly-wound arrangements have meandered into some fascinating territory. If given a vote, I’d recommend they soldier on and play at least a few more shows in Chicago. 

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Patrick Daul