PROTOMARTYR Ultimate Success Today gets 8/10


Ultimate Success Today


Trust modern post-punk trailblazers Protomartyr to deliver an album that captures the anxiety and dread of 2020 unlike any other. While other recent albums have done a great job capturing the political zeitgeist, the apocalyptic sound and vision of Ultimate Success Today echoes our internal rather than external turmoils.

Immediately striking is the album’s sound, a big departure from previous efforts. Guitarist (and musical director of sorts) Greg Ahee has revamped the band’s attack. While the guitar is still as mean as ever, it is now buttressed by an array of acoustic instruments including alto sax, cello and flute. But a jazz album this is not, with these instruments layered atop one another to achieve an otherworldly, unsettling sound. Take for instance the way they combine on the monster riff that underpins Processed by the Boys, an anthem for the apocalypse you won’t soon forget. The eerie reverb throughout the album is no accident either, as it was recorded in Dreamland Studios – a former 19th century church-turned-studio whose high vaulted ceilings contributed to every instrument’s huge, echoing sound.

This set-up makes for some arresting soundscapes and a perfect canvas for frontman Joe Casey’s dark lyrics. Casey has said the album is largely about his personal health, and his questioning of whether he’s getting sicker or the world is. How fitting then that the world was ground to a halt by a pandemic in the months following the recording of these songs, their themes of anxiety and world-weariness more relevant than ever. Opener Day Without End sounds like The Shaft Theme on crack and its words match its frantic sound. “This is the dawning of a day without end/ When fear steps into light,” Casey sings, his words echoing the thoughts of COVID-induced shut-ins who can’t wait for the close of the never-ending day. June 21 is a tale of urban paranoia and sees Protomartyr channelling Tropical Fuck Storm with its off-kilter riffs and harmonised vocals. The track ends on a buzzing dirge and the sound of flies – cheery stuff indeed.

Casey’s words are a challenging nut to crack, more snatches of imagery and feeling than cohesive narratives. They paint some great mental landscapes, like the mysterious and Eastern-tinged music and imagery of The Aphorist, and especially on the roaring penultimate track Bridge & Crown. We are introduced to the denizens of the Bridge & Crown: “Only four types of patients here/ Exacting/ Philosophical/ Indifferent/ Austerical/ We seek relief.” We never really know what The Bridge & Crown is, but its population is forced to “drive our bodies down the line/ till there’s nothing left.” A representation of modern society, perhaps.

The above doesn’t even address half the themes on this album, like the Sisyphean drudgery of work (Michigan Hammers) and the stifling nature of corporate culture (the song Modern Business Hymns, as well as the album title itself and its reference throughout the album). Ultimate Success Today is not for everyone. Its sound is stark and its words seemingly impenetrable, but big rewards await those willing to take the time to unpack it.


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