“It’s violent/ Good/ ‘Cause if it’s violent then it’s understood,” Protomartyr’s Joe Casey bellows in a dead-eyed baritone on “Violent,” the penultimate track from the Detroit post-punk band’s chilling second record, Under Color of Official Right. Arriving in the wake of 12 prickly songs about suburban terrorism, post-apocalyptic survival and alcoholics who drown their sorrows to Alice in Chains songs on repeat, “Violent” is like a prayer over blood-stained fingers, a capitulation to a godless world. Violence is a given on Official Right, but a little understanding from another human is an unexpected luxury.
Sounding like a middle-American update of Nick Cave’s glowering pre-Bad Seeds punk outfit the Birthday Party (or Interpol, if it was tied to a chair, beaten and bloodied, in a windowless room), Protomartyr draws on the depressed anti-mojo of its hometown on Official Right with vivid specificity. Over shrapnel-spitting power chords and intensely jittery drum beats, Casey offers a quick tour of a local hangout in “Pagans” without bothering to explain any of the references. He assumes that you already know local music promoter Greg Baise and understand whatever the hell “drown the frogs’ mouths” means. (From context, I’m guessing “get royally drunk.”)
The lyrics on Official Right are as stylized as the music, which is deeply submerged in an evocative murk. On “Scum, Rise!” relentlessly driving horror-show guitars are set against a revenge tale about a son murdering his absentee father (and dozens of others) in a sports-bar explosion. But the doom-and-gloom has a trace of sardonic humor on “Want Remover,” where Casey wonders what Judge Mathis would make of the sorry state of current daytime “judge” shows. It’s a smart, subtle snapshot of chronic joblessness — only the unemployed can afford to be experts on Mathis’s oeuvre. Protomartyr might begin with exploring the ins and outs of Detroit, but it ends up illuminating how Detroit exists everywhere.