Published Jul 21, 2020These days, there's something strangely dissatisfying about hearing Protomartyr vocalist Joe Casey identify and diagnose our personal and societal ills. Fans of the band likely share in some sense of how tenuous the threads of our collective survival really are, but hearing Casey bark and croon despair back at you can feel like both a luxury and a punishment, neither of which we particularly deserve. Those of us holding out for some respite from Protomartyr's malice via this-or-that sonic diversion won't find much of it on their fifth LP. Trust Protomartyr to entertain in the same unrelenting way they always have. Cue Ultimate Success Today.
The reissue of the band's 2012 debut No Passion All Technique was occasion to recognize that, though they've certainly gotten better over their short but productive tenure, much of the post-punk you got from Protomartyr then isn't far from what you're likely to get today. Alex Leonard remains an architect of a drummer on Ultimate Success Today, designing a unique but structurally sound beat for every track. Guitarist Greg Ahee is still a jack of all trades, alternating between massive chords ("Processed by the Boys"), spidery leads ("The Aphorist"), and caustic textures ("I Am You Now"). The heft that Scott Davidson brings to his bass playing is the reason his six-stringed counterpart can go on the sonic excursions he does, and Davidson still manages to pick his spots to shine, like on "Michigan Hammers." It's hard to complain that the bag of tricks hasn't changed much when the owner of the bag is one of the best rock bands around. Ultimate Success Today stands as an exceptionally thrilling rock record, even if it does little to push Protomartyr into unexplored territory.
On paper, the inclusion of saxophones, bass clarinet, flute and cello should make Ultimate Success Today expansive. In practice, the auxiliary musicians often add the sonic equivalent of extra seasoning to an already good dish; it's often unclear whether Protomartyr needs the addition. The bass clarinet under much of "Processed by the Boys" successfully contributes a sense of melancholy that might otherwise be lacking, but neither makes nor breaks the song. It's on "Michigan Hammers" that the orchestral elements do some real service, making an already transcendental chorus that much more so.
What really sets Ultimate Success Today apart from the band's previous records is much more subtle than a saxophone squeal. It's a sense of sentimentality that runs through some of the album's best tracks. "June 21" and "Modern Business Hymns" find the band sounding almost wistful and a little bit romantic. Much of this is to Casey's credit. Even when he's in the middle of a takedown, as on "The Aphorist," Casey finds a way to stretch his voice in a more tender direction. It feels like a small yet immensely rewarding pivot for a band that has been so wonderfully vitriolic since their inception. (Domino)