On the track “Why Does It Shake?,” Protomartyr reaches into a viscid haze, where orthochromatic figures waltz with acrylic stills. Singer Joe Casey moans into a microphone, letting waves of thoughts stream out like syrup. Meanwhile, the band crackles between steady thoughts and mental breakdown; a bass guitar tumbles along before a buzzsaw guitar rips it in twain. Casey slips into paranoia, interrogating the abyss. “Why does it shake?” he asks before trying to answer his own question with “the body, the body, the body…”
The first time I saw Protomartyr, I had no idea what to expect. It was your standard three-band show at the High Noon Saloon. The crowd was cooling off after local heroes Fire Retarded burned through their set, and everyone was waiting for Cloud Nothings to take the stage. Watching from the balcony, a friend and I looked over the stage as an older man in a blazer took the mic. Filling in behind him were a gang of garage punks complete with Nots T-shirts, faded jeans and draping hair, all looking significantly younger than the singer.
The singer, who I now know is Joe Casey, a man whose enigmatic persona has won him dedicated Tumblr pages, began growling through the first song as the band around him tore around the stage. Between songs, he adjusted his blazer or twirled his drink, which was never far away; he even kept it in hand during some songs, tossing it gingerly in his fingers.
Their stage presence matched their music. At any point during the show, Casey would prattle into a deadpan psychological breakdown or command the mic with a forceful howl. Greg Ahee would let his guitar rumble or cut across an empty airspace with a barrage of sharp chords. Alex Leonard and Scott Davidson would conduct a slow rhythmic march or they would explode into a torrent of snares and bass, guiding whatever chaos forms behind Casey.
Protomartyr’s current spring tour will take them through Madison on March 13, this time as headliners at The Frequency. They come in swinging, running off a rider’s high from their third album, The Agent Intellect, in which they’ve progressed deeper into disturbia since that first stand at the High Noon. Where they may have seemed paranoid before, Protomartyr now sounds compulsive and downright manic.
Since that first High Noon show, I’ve caught Protomartyr live a second time. This was the same Protomartyr of “Why Does It Shake?,” the Protomartyr that teased The Agent Intellect and came across as both more acerbic and surrendered. The situation was eerily familiar; we were once again in the High Noon Saloon, awaiting another headlining performance from Cloud Nothings. Casey sipped from a tall can of Budweiser with a wry grin.
Behind them, a projector flashed some forgotten horror movie. The production quality pitched it somewhere in the ’70s or ’80s as a puppet alien lunged between hosts. It was a disorganized camp, the kind of B-grade horror movie schizophrenia that I immediately associated with Protomartyr during that first High Noon show, and the same kind that swirled through the speakers and blasted at eardrums so forcefully that second night.
Protomartyr comes to The Frequency with Chicago-based noise punks Luggage, a three-piece band of shoegazers with “a thousand-yard stare,” and Fire Retarded, the barn-burning cowpunk champions of Madison’s garage rock scene. Doors open at 8 p.m.