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Albums Of The Week: Protomartyr | Formal Growth In The Desert

Dark, intense & haunting, the Detroit post-punks' sixth LP is a matter of death & life.


THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “Detroit post-punk band Protomartyr — vocalist Joe Casey, guitarist Greg Ahee, drummer Alex Leonard and bassist Scott Davidson — have become synonymous with caustic, impressionistic assemblages of politics and poetry, the literal and oblique. Casey describes the underlying theme of their sixth album Formal Growth In The Desert as a 12-song testament to “getting on with life,” even when it feels impossibly hard.

The moody lead single/video Make Way doubles as Formal Growth In The Desert’s opening track, with Casey beginning the record by facing tragedy head-on: “Welcome to the haunted earth / The living after life / Where we chose to forget / the years of the hungry knife.” The accompanying video, directed by Trevor Naud, is a striking cinematic feat. “There’s a deliberate through-line between the videos for Make Way and 2020’s Worm In Heaven,” Naud says. The two songs feel partnered with each other. So I wanted the videos to feel like they exist in the same world. There are layers of experiments happening — all within a closed environment. We don’t know what’s happened to the world outside, but there’s an undertone that things maybe aren’t quite right.”

Since their 2012 debut, No Passion All Technique, Protomartyr have mastered the art of evoking place: The grinding Midwest humility of their hometown, as well as the X-rayed elucidation of America that comes with their vantage. Though Casey did have a humbling experience staring at awe-inspiring Sonoran rock formations and reckoning with his own smallness in the scheme of things, the group’s latest album is not necessarily a nod to the sandy expanses of the Southwest. Formal Growth In The Desert, recorded at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas, proves Detroit, too, is like a desert. “The desert is more of a metaphor or symbol” Casey says, “of emotional deserts, or a place or time that seems to lack life.”

On Formal Growth In The Desert, the desert brings an existential awareness that is ultimately internal. The “growth” came from a period of colossal transition for Casey, including the death of his mother, who struggled with Alzheimer’s for a decade and a half. Now 45, Casey had lived in the family home in northwest Detroit all his life. The neighborhood informed many of Protomartyr’s acclaimed albums, serving as a base through the band’s growth from scrappy punks to ones capable of touring the globe or bringing in The Breeders Kelley Deal as a touring member in 2020. In 2021, though, a rash of repeated break-ins signaled that it was time to finally move out.

Protomartyr’s music — more spacious and dynamic than ever — helped pull Casey up. “The band still being viable was very important to me,” Casey adds, “and it definitely lifted my spirits.” Having long served as Protomartyr’s unofficial musical director, guitarist Ahee co-produced Formal Growth In The Desert alongside Jake Aron (Snail Mail, L’Rain). Ahee knew what Casey was going through and the challenges he’d been processing, and as Ahee was conceptualizing the music, he thought about how to make it all “like a narrative film.” Ahee explains, “I started to write at home on a piano and on a keyboard and then play along to short films, and watch how you can affect and heighten moods as you play.” The filmic sensibility is manifest in Casey’s storytelling, too, whether he’s critiquing ominous techno-capitalism or processing aging, the future, and the possibility of love.

In some sense, Formal Growth In The Desert is a testament to conflicting realities — the inevitability of loss, the necessity of finding joy through it and persisting — that come with living longer and continuing to create. It begins with pain but endures through it, cracking itself open into a gently-sweeping torrent of sound that is, for Protomartyr, totally new.”


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