Protomartyr’s second album is the red-headed stepchild of their back catalogue for the sole reason that it tends to be overlooked in favour of their later work. It’s a personal favourite album of mine. Following on the heels of their blistering debut No Passion All Technique, Under Color of Official Right refines the band’s sound sharply, drawing from a near-bottomless melting pot of influences from across the musical board. While it isn’t quite as polished as their later efforts, it is a genuinely fantastic piece of modern post-punk and provides a landmark reference for the signature grimy sound they’ve cultivated. They evoke imagery of a smoky, decaying Detroit, their hometown, with heavy, muffled basslines and barely-contained rage in the form of a guitar that sounds like it has a life of its own, bucking and straining to be freed.
The opener, ‘Maidenhead’, sets the tone for the rest of the album. “Don’t feel nothing for anyone, don’t feel no love for anything” growls frontman, Joe Casey, as his monotone statements are punctuated by heavily overdriven snarling from guitarist Greg Ahee. It’s a fitting welcome, adequately preparing the listener for the next 30 minutes of Casey’s bleak musings. ‘Trust Me Billy’ could be straight out of a Pixies album if not for the low-pitched, borderline droning vocals. On ‘Scum, Rise!’ the ethereal, reverb-heavy lead guitar is violently sliced through by a lurching, chaotic wall of noise – the band has opened for My Bloody Valentine in the past, so they’re no stranger to brutal distortion and deafening feedback. This blaring feedback and the chunky riffs return on ‘I Stare At Floors’. The band has a talent for effortlessly switching between styles when it comes to their music, and Under Color of Official Right showcases this with how genuinely different they’ve managed to make each song sound, rather than falling into the classic punk rut of never actually progressing their art.
The drumming is a constant stalwart throughout and while remaining relatively understated, its absence would certainly take impact away from many of the tracks. There’s nothing revolutionary about it, but when combined with the similarly background-relegated bass play, they become a powerful team. While Under Color of Official Right doesn’t particularly do anything groundbreaking, it’s just extremely well-done in every aspect – from the clean yet ever-so-slightly muddy production to the unique narratives found in the lyrics. You could be fooled into thinking there’s some slight pseudo-intellectualism going on with the mildly obscure literary references and recurring mentions of the Romans across their work but Protomartyr thankfully avoids this pitfall. Under Color of Official Right is by no means perfect, but it’s a heck of an enjoyable ride from start to finish.
By Matthew Derwin – Music Writer