Written by: Dave Cantrell
Aside from Attrix Records (profiled here), Brighton, on the south coast of England, hasn’t much been on the musical map unless you count the Bank Holiday mods and rockers melees featured in Quadrophenia. Quite recently, however, in a bid to bring home the ‘better late than never’ trophy, things have begun to change and in dramatic fashion, if the emergence of Tense Men is any indication.
Growing out of similarly unmellow Brighton outfits Cold Pumas and Omi Palone and London pop punkers Sauna Youth (all of Faux Discx and well worth the link-clicking there), Tense Men, on mini-LP debut Where Dull Care Is Forgotten, aggregate the three quite neatly, bringing the rawer edge of the latter two to the krautrockish post-punk of the Pumas and proving, at the very least, that whoever’s in charge of the band-naming department has an astute adjectival sense.
With the bass and vocal pegging as a matter of default close to the red and the guitar often sounding like a rough Television jacked up to the speed of Wire, the singer (specific identities are damnably elusive) opts wisely for a more undercurrent middle range, holding fast to a calm fulcrum amid the churning, serrated drone. Quick opener “Stages of Boredeom” is the band at their hookiest, boasting the best 0ne-note guitar solo since, well, “Boredom,” “Opiate Glow” brings a pulsing heaviness that a half-minute in gives way to a momentous Pink Flag bashabout, while the mystery-acronymed “RNRFON” lurches speedily along with a primal punch that, blurry rat-a-tat guitaring aside, would have found a welcome slot on last year’s reissued, bruising La Machine album.
Not shy of going epic, the two tracks smack in the center of the album persuade (where no persuasion should be necessary) that this album is essential. “Lie Heavy” has an on-purpose messed-up-ness about it that I swear is Swell Maps after a bit too much Red Bull which you have to admit is not a bad proposition and indeed it’s an ace romp just this side of sludge with a helping of nervous-system rattling for good measure. The title track, meanwhile, suggests Metal Box after it’s rusted a bit, the corrosive effect of time scratching off some of the wilder guitar embossments and shadowing down the voice while leaving the joint-loosening bass grooves carved in the bottom fully intact.
Like I said, essential, and I haven’t even mentioned the dark flooding hypnosis of the album’s lengthiest track “Nonentities.” Not a weak second to be had.
Any band out of Detroit will have attached to them, like it or not, the image of a ruined city, all the detritus and despair and industrial blight hanging in our collective perception like a tapestry of decadent grandeur. Protomartyr don’t escape this and in many ways seem to sonically embrace it. Crucially, at the same time, they refuse to let it claim them. Under Color of Official Right, their first for a major indie (Hardly Art; No Passion All Technique came out in 2012 on scrappy Philly local Urinal Cake), while scaling the barbed-wire fences of post-punk at every turn, has a focus on the tightly-wound coil of frustration at the heart of their existence, a force full of seethingness and desire like a ready-to-burst urban fist, that sets them alone in the specific shadows of their home city’s skyline. So yes, an anger presides but just as the Motor City itself is beginning to scrape and claw its way toward restoration and a regained sense of civic identity, allowing its citizens a guarded smile or two, so also in Protomartyr’s bite and bark one can’t help but detect searing moments of hope splashing up in the mix – check the Love Bites-era Buzzcockiness of “Pagans,” for instance – even as the lyrics continue to darkly reflect the economic scars, the general gloom. Thus the conflicting tensions at the core of the band’s sound, tangible in the relentless haunt of imperishable melodies and the passionate matter-of-factness in singer Joe Casey’s voice. All that said, this is as much as anything an inspired listen that belies Protomartyr’s sophomore status (discounting the two cassettes, one live one studio) and matches stride for muscular grit the original SST generation and in fact pulls it into the 21st century without losing either beat nor suss. If anything – and strike me dead if you must – it outdistances it by some margin, sharpens and enhances it.
Though primarily preferring the short sharp shock – seldom venturing past the 2:30 mark – and packing it full of potent portent and emotion, the band, filled out by guitarist Greg Ahee, bassist Scott Davidson, and Alex Leonard, with expert punctuation, attacking the drums, finds what may well be a grander footing on the two longer tracks. Appropriately-titled opener “Maidenhead” moves from ominous to insta-hook in sixteen lowing seconds and aside from the fact that you will not hear a more engaging opening track this year, the melodic scope Protomartyr’s capable of is made abundantly clear by the blue-collar warble of Casey singing “Shit goes up, shit goes down” while Ahee peels away from the chiming chords to peel off a staccato oscillation of a guitar run that could chase Parquet Courts off the stage and the rhythm section keeps it as steady as an amphetamine hypnosis. The way it all comes together, it’s difficult to believe you haven’t heard this before even as it’s quite clear you have not and that, my friends, is a very good sign. As quickly becomes obvious, it’s not a fluke.
From the midwest Stranglers charge with an extra zap of electrocution thrown in that is “Want Remover” to “Trust Me Billy”‘s quick laconic spree (“desperate men making empty chatter“) to the lovely minor-key asylum haunt of “What the Walls Said” that manages in just over three minutes to be as epic as Big Country and as unsparing in its concise assault as Hüsker Dü but nothing like either, there are no lulls or dips in quality here. Under Color… rolls over you in a brutal-but-massaging kind of way, intelligent, wholly engaging, the band’s command over the dynamics both overt and nuanced, impressive – and refreshing – for its lack of concern over any need to soften things for the sake of so-called accessibility. The irony, of course, is that the result is unfailingly accessible throughout.
On “Come & See,” the other ‘marathon’ track at 3:45, with its jumping-all-over, just-behind-the-beat drumming, the plowing steady bass, a two-channeled chime of guitar chording that sounds an inch from discordant and then the bridge-is-a-chorus-is-a-bridge that minor keys us into one of those states of utter ecstatic sadness and from whence the title (“and I’ll try/to live defeated//come and see/the good in everything“), we may have found the song of the year, post-punk division. It’s in the power of the bitterly resigned where the true zen of the human heart resides and it’s good to be reminded of this from time to time. “Scum, Rise!,” though as acerbic as its name suggests, nonetheless brings an unquenchable head-nod quotient with the added bonus of a second half change that injects an unexpected dose of tough-love empathy into an otherwise righteously angry, highly listenable screed. Then there’s the bass-led, spryly lurching romp of “Tarpeian Rock” that shows, if nothing else – and there’s plenty else – that Mark E Smith’s influence didn’t stop at the Michigan border, Casey unleashing a litany of name-calling sneer that’s somewhere between the Salford grump and Mike Muir. Only “Son of Dis” suffers from pace here, rushing through its minute five as if to prove some punk rock bona fides that the band is well beyond. Otherwise?
Otherwise no one here gets out alive and that being the case, the journey in this often mean meantime is well-served by this document of complicated defiance and fraught uncompromise. Detroit will rise again, maybe, assuming we all do, but regardless, Protomartyr already have. I can’t imagine how good these guys are live and I missed my chance last time – cheers, scheduling conflict – but I will tear up every calendar in my house not to miss them next time. Do the same, and until then, buy and listen – and listen, and listen – to this record.
The initial stirrings of the genuine, unsullied punk spirit are universal: bored teenagers with too much time, not enough (read:no) money and just as few options, and very little use for school and the soulless job tracks it’s designed to lead you down. The spark gets lit by a desperate romantic attachment to the records of similarly-minded and/or -situated bands, is flamed further by a native musical climate that’s stifling in both content and depressing omnipresence and next one knows, pretty much by spontaneous combustion, a group of friends in their unseasoned teens are gathered around a cardboard box and tin pot drumkit banging out a noise that in its foetal stages may lack the fineries of structure but is so driven-to-bursting by a gotta-get-it-out passion that an inexorable momentum is set in such motion there’s no stopping it.
Naturally it helps if the national moment is ripe for the shaking as well, and in the early 2000’s, Sweden was overdo, overrun as it was by the lighter poppier likes of Lykki Li and Robyn as well the wonderfully oblique but distancing explorations of The Knife. Gothenburg’s Makthaverskan, like their cohorts in the capitol Holograms (and at roughly the same time) merged together from separate individual versions of this well-worn tradition of teenage angst to, if not topple the pop aristocracy, at least offer an alternative, one spiked by the rawer realities that lie beneath the utopian Nordic image their country tends to project, the drive to do so gaining urgency once 90’s inspirations Broder Daniel ended their run in 2008, here we are six years down the road and vistas are opening up for Makthaverskan far beyond their homeland’s borders in a way the 15- and 16-year-olds they were when they started could hardly have imagined. Truth be told, though, the band, now in their early 20’s, in all best ways and especially in the powerful, uninhibited honesty of Maja Milner’s voice, has held on to that sense of adolescent frenzy – or it’s held on to them, same difference – and the results happily reflect that mix of petulance and bravado while also incorporating a deft melodicism at their core.
Launching with the robust and acidic “Antabus,” Milner in middle-fingered but vulnerable high dudgeon, dual guitarists Hugo Randulv and Gustav Andersson catapulting the song forward in tag-team brilliance, the rhythm section (that’d be bassist Irma Krook and drummer Andreas “Pelle” Wettmark) propelling along almost recklessly at rambunctious Tweens-pop punk speed that dazzles and dizzies in equal measure. Nice opening and here we are hooked.
Though not all breathless – second track “Asleep,” while not nearly as soporific as its title suggests, does a fine trade in accelerated hypnotism; a thoughtful, somewhat dreamy lope guides “Something More” down its wistful path of romantic doubt, closer “Volga” adopts a deliberate, semi-martial pace before shooting off into the cosmos – it’s nonetheless true that the more headlong tracks more viscerally transmit the diaristic, unalloyed emotion that naturally flows from Milner’s voice. On the gallopingly contained romp “Slowly Sinking” that suggests on Undertones charge met by a Chameleonic ring, it’s that very sonic assault, vaulting but primal, that ennobles the singer’s “I need to feel you” line with such tonal strength, helps distill its clarity of character. MIlner’s vocal wouldn’t be lost in an FM-classic great Midwest rock band from the Reagan years, it rises and sustains with that kind of absorbed conviction along with the ability to be heard very clearly above the scrum when necessary and that’s an unqualified compliment regardless of the Heart and Benatar bias most of us (rather rightly, in my view) hold. The defining difference here, of course, is the type and quality of sound in which that voice is embedded. Mercury made audible, tight and exuberant, Makthaverskan make a mighty noise that in many ways brings a relative brightness and (dare I say it) implicit joy to a genre whose basic blueprint is most often dark and brooding.
In a recent Pitchfork interview, the band was self-effacing about their musical abilities, saying they like “simple stuff” because they can’t play that well. “We are simple people,” Hugo said. Fair enough, but the fact of the matter is, playing ‘simple’ does not preclude playing great (ref. JAMC, the Pistols, oh hell the list is long), a truism Makthaverskan reinforces with a preternatural ease everywhere on II. That it additionally allows for powerful near-anthems like the anger-flecked “No Mercy,” Milner’s roar just about spitting with cathartic invective at the man ten years her senior that seduced her when she was a teenager (“Fuck you for fucking me/when I was seventeen…you never loved me/or wanted to hold me“), that’s a very potent bonus indeed.
Odd as it may be to say, thank you pop Sweden for cultivating such a fierce cultural boredom in your restless youth. You can keep your Idol-inspiring chart-topping superstars, thank you very much, we’ll take your Makthaverskans with wide open arms and hearts.