Where do you go, when your entire sound is built on being as caustic as possible? This is the question that faced Protomartyr after the release of 2017’s Relatives In Descent. After all, there’s only so many times you can turn up the dial, only so much more, well, post that post-punk can get, before you slip into self-parody. The band had walked that line with ease up until now, but it would appear that they are as painfully aware of the difference between the two as the listener is. Because they chose to get softer. That’s not to say that Ultimate Success Today is by any means an easy listen. It hits harder, leans in and draws blood just as much as any of their albums do, and at times it slips into noise rock perhaps more than the band ever have before. No, what leavens the record is this: there’s space. I’m put in mind of BAMBARA’s Stray; a record just as heavy as this one in places, but again with moments of light. The inclusion of melancholy moments isn’t the only feather to the band’s bow, however – their sonic palette has also changed. The album features saxophone, flute and cello, not to mention Nandi Rose (a member of Pinegrove) on backing vocal duties. The horns in particular really add to their sound – they’re used mainly to colour the tracks rather than play any particular part. At times I found myself unsure whether I was hearing a synth, guitar or woodwind – and that’s a compliment.
On the other hand, the band still know how to rip into a track when necessary. ‘Michigan Hammers’ is thunderous, colliding on every single beat, and first single ‘Processed By The Boys’ is undeniable, too. You find yourself relaxing into the monolithic guitar stabs, juddering forwards. ‘The Aphorist’ is a grinding funeral march, with a guitar line that sounds like a baleful last post on the bugle. Casey delivers another crushing one-liner, too: “I didn’t know him very well, but I think of him whenever my mind drifts.” But, as grand statements go, closer ‘Worm In Heaven’ just can’t be beaten. It’s almost life-affirming, and a rather bold move from the band to end on what is, in many ways an upbeat note. The song is constructed as a final goodbye from someone on the brink of death, but as the lyrics burrow into mortality, they find themselves questioning – why write in the first place, and what is the point of any of this? The point, is this: “I did exist, I did / I was here, I am”. The track feels like the essence of Protomartyr boiled down to its purest form, a scream into the void – the worth of there being something, rather than nothing. Ultimate Success Today is Protomartyr’s statement of intent, and it is something to behold.