After a year of extensive touring in support of 2015’s The Agent Intellect, Protomartyr returned to their practice space in a former optician’s office in Southwest Detroit. Guitarist Greg Ahee—inspired by The Raincoats’ Odyshape, Mica Levi’s orchestral compositions, and Protomartyr’s recent collaboration with post-punk legends The Pop Group, for Rough Trade’s 40th anniversary—began writing new music that artfully expanded on everything they’d recorded up until that point.
he result is Relatives In Descent, their fourth full-length and Domino debut. Though not a concept album, it presents twelve variations on a theme: the unknowable nature of truth, and the existential dread that often accompanies that unknowing. This, at a moment when disinformation and garbled newspeak have become a daily reality. “I used to think that truth was something that existed, that there were certain shared truths, like beauty,” says singer Joe Casey. “Now that’s being eroded. People have never been more skeptical, and there’s no shared reality. Maybe there never was.”
Relatives In Descent offers new layers and new insights, without sanding any of the edges born from their days as a Detroit bar band. Ahee’s guitar still crackles and spits electricity. Casey’s voice continues to shift naturally between dead-eyed croon and fevered bark. Drummer Alex Leonard and bassist Scott Davidson remain sharp and propulsive, a rhythm section that’s as agile as it is adventurous. But this is also Protomartyr at their most impressive. After months of rehearsal, the band decamped to Los Angeles, California for two weeks in March of 2017, to record at 64Sound in Highland Park. Co-produced and recorded with Sonny DiPerri (Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors), who helped capture the band’s long-simmering vision for something more complex, but no less visceral, Relatives In Descent also features contributions from violinist Tyler Karmen and additional synths by Cheveu’s Olivier Demeaux.
Fred Thomas knows what it means to be prolific. The Michigan singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist’s best-known band, Saturday Looks Good to Me, has spoiled its following with more than 20 singles and full-length releases (plus a smattering of cassettes and homemade CD-Rs) since its inception in 1999. Following a hiatus that began in 2008 (the group briefly reunited in 2012; its future is anyone’s guess), Thomas threw himself into various other projects, including the experimental duo City Center and the record label Life Like.
By comparison, Thomas’s newest endeavor, Failed Flowers, is an exceedingly—and, it transpires, a deliberately—casual affair. The foursome drew immediate attention in the summer of 2014 for the self-explanatory Demo, a cassette of eight rough-and-ready pop songs (only two of which breach the two-minute mark) whose outward spontaneity betrays the fact that much of it was recorded when no one other than Thomas knew the tape was rolling. Shortly after its release, Thomas told Paste magazine that he envisioned Failed Flowers’ follow-up being an album of 20 songs that “you can get lost in,” in the overstuffed mold of Guided by Voices.
Instead, singer-guitarist Autumn Wetli left the band, Thomas returned from Ann Arbor to his adopted home of Montreal (where his wife attends university), and Failed Flowers dropped out of sight until a few weeks ago [Spring 2016], when a new, self-titled work slipped out with intentionally little fanfare on Minneapolis’s 25 Diamonds label. Contrary to the extended opus Thomas originally intended, Failed Flowers closely follows the model set forth by Demo: a mere nine tracks that come and go in little more than 18 minutes. But it does represent a progression of sorts—and not only in that it sees the quartet (rounded out by bassist Erin Davis, drummer Miles Haney, and Wetli’s successor, Anna Burch) graduating from cassette to “semi-psychedelic,” one-sided purple vinyl. Despite still being models of brevity and simplicity, these songs are ever-so-slightly richer, more melodic, more evocative of the raw yet subtly sophisticated indie-pop of New Zealand cult label Flying Nun and its American progeny. (Think Brooklyn’s marvelous but short-lived lo-fi masters Cause Co-Motion or, indeed, moments from Saturday Looks Good to Me’s sprawling catalog.)
Waveless is a three-piece from Minneapolis, MN, playing layered, reverberating music. Its members formed the group after the demise of their short-lived noisy punk band Total Trash. Finding inspiration in the likes of Slowdive, Neil Young and Sonic Youth, Spirit Island is moody without being saccharine, sincere without being self-indulgent.