Protomartyr supply a cathartic din at the Turf

Protomartyr at Pitchfork Music Festival in 2015.

Protomartyr at Pitchfork Music Festival in 2015. YouTube

With America now seemingly tailor-made to generate maximum anxiety, Protomartyr’s Monday night show at the Turf Club couldn’t have come at a better time.

The Detroit band’s frenetic performance channeled existential dread via noisy post-punk dissonance, with morbid wit and literary references galore. Protomartyr vocalist and frontman Joe Casey loomed large over the Turf stage, his requisite black suit adding to his street-corner prophet vibe. Starting with the opening track from their impeccable new album Relatives in Descent, “A Private Understanding,” the band fell into immediate synchrony, the propulsive drums and bass notably high in the mix and booming over Casey’s mumbled vocals.

Casey’s lyrical unease translates into a fidgety presence onstage. He toyed with the mic stand throughout the set, sometimes cocking it at an extremely high angle and craning his neck to sing, and other times regarding it as though staring down the barrel of a gun. His delivery fell someplace between spoken and sung as he surveyed his audience with mild contempt, spat his lyrics with disgust, or gazed into the middle distance.

During the despairing chorus of their standout new track “The Chuckler,” while his vocals floated over a near military precision snare beat, Casey wore an expression of startling, blank sorrow. On “Windsor Hum” he chanted an utterly unconvincing chorus of “everything’s fine” with an ironic cocked eyebrow, eventually devolving into a full-blown, jaw-unhinged shout.

The band fed off Casey's energy. Relentless drummer Alex Leonard set a pace that kept guitarist Greg Agee and bassist Scott Davidson churning on either end of the stage. After a rapid-fire delivery of six new songs — half of their new album — Protomartyr dug into older tracks with equal ferocity. Scarcely taking time to breathe between each song, let alone banter with the crowd, Casey mopped at his brow with a white towel and threw back a few Budweiser tallboys. During “The Devil in His Youth,” he barked out what might well be the Protomartyr credo: “You will feel the way I do. You’ll hurt the way I do.”

By the time the set circled back to newer tracks, the volume in the Turf had gone up a notch, finally raising guitar above the drums and bass. Protomartyr is one of those live acts that tempts you to risk tinnitus and skip the earplugs. They just sound that good when they’re really, really loud.

The energy continued to build until new track “Up the Tower,” an anti-authoritarian call to arms, offered a crescendo that would have satisfied any aspiring moshers in the audience. However, St. Paul’s Monday night crowd was restrained in all aspects except their applause. A few headbangers were given a wide berth.

The set clocked in at barely an hour, and a two-song encore was over all too soon. Casey seemed to relax when they returned to the stage, joking, “Greg says we should play our worst songs in the encore, but they’re all so good.” As a performer, he appears to genuinely feel the existential dread that saturates his albums. I can only hope their live show is as cathartic for him as it is for the rest of us.

A Private Understanding
Here is the Thing
My Children
What the Wall Said
Windsor Hum
The Chuckler
Don’t Go To Anacita
Bad Advice
Tarpeian Rock
Devil in His Youth
3 Swallows
Feast of Stephen
Up The Tower
Corpses in Regalia
Cowards Starve

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