The Agent Intellect
Hardly Art; 2015
In the past few years the once crumbling city of Detroit has seen a resurgence. In the wake of the automotive industry’s near collapse, companies like Quicken Loans and Shinola have made the corpse of the motor city their home. In 2010, Detroit became the fastest growing region for technology jobs with names like Google, IBM, and ProQuest seeing the bedraggled city as a great place to make their mark (tax breaks don’t hurt, either). As a result of this resurgence, many in the area fear that this gentrification of the city is wiping away the remnants of the city’s rugged history.
Protomartyr, a band of Detroit natives, execute this narrative perfectly in their latest release, The Agent Intellect. On the surface, Agent Intellect explores frontman Joe Casey’s struggle with the recent death of his father, but this discussion of mortality also doubles as an omen for the state of the band’s hometown. This isn’t Dan Gilbert’s squeaky clean, renovated Detroit; this is the seedy underbelly, filled with songs of arson, auto theft, drug abuse, and violence.
Sun Coming Down
One look at the presidential race in the two respective parties, and it is easy to assume that the United States has lost its mind. Leading the GOP is Donald Trump, a megalomaniac millionaire who trumps himself daily with more and more offensive/ludicrous statements that somehow only bolster his standing with conservatives. Young democrats have found their flavor of the week in Bernie Sanders, a self-declared socialist whose idealistic platform seems highly unachievable in a beltway that is more partisan than ever. One can’t help but wonder how these two unlikely candidates have gained such a following.
I like to believe it’s not so much the message of this duo that has excited the American people – it’s the fact that they are outsiders. Both candidates have refused to take money from corporate entities and special interest groups, the usual suspects who have put a stranglehold on the government, making citizens feel frustrated and powerless.
The Canadian quartet Ought have mirrored this frustration in both of their releases on Constellation Records. On 2013’s More Than Any Other Day, the band boiled down this helpless feeling to a life where shopping for milk is a highlight in a world where we can only assure ourselves that “everything is okay” while always “sinking deeper.” It’s common for bands today to focus on the dystopian, apocalyptic downfall that lies ahead, yet Ought have remained focus on the mundane patterns of everyday existence that we have all passively agreed upon.
[Loma Vista; 2015]
When HEALTH first started, they were noise-art to the extreme. If you want to test someone’s intestinal fortitude, put on that self-titled debut, turn it up as high as you can without bursting eardrums, and sit back to face the carnage. The drums were tribal bedlam. The guitars were shattering dissonance. The synths were icicles, sending chills down your spine. But amidst all this chaos, Jacob Duzsik’s vocals eerily sang vaporous melodies like a deceased choirboy stuck in limbo. Despite all the madness, the vocals represented the deus ex machine, keeping the sputtering tank from crushing over mankind.
The remix album DISCO that came out a year later helped expose the band’s serene little secret. While I prefer the debut to its remix predecessor, that album gave hints toward what this band could possibly sound like going forward. 2009’s Get Color stayed true to their initial style, although it featured moments of pop sensibility, and once again, the remix album that coincided with it even further revealed the melodies buried under the violent synths.
I think Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker is slowly becoming a real life version of Don Draper. The obvious connection can be seen in their shared creative brilliance – Draper in the fictional world of Mad Men with his ability to come up with advertising ideas off the cuff and Parker’s track record of releasing psychedelic pop music tailored for the 21st century. But the connection goes deeper than just their mutual ingenuity. The similarity I see is in how both struggle with change.
During the final two seasons of Mad Men, many loyal fans jumped ship due in large part to the show’s retreading of familiar tropes. Unlike most dramas, the antagonist never really showed growth. Instead, he continued his cycle of infidelity and alcoholism, followed by a fleeting realization of his mistakes before returning back again to his vices. Even the finale suggested that he hadn’t really changed during his West Coast spirit quest, finding only an idea for a Coke advertisement waiting for him on the cliffs of Big Sur. Instead of seeing Mad Men mastermind Matthew Weiner as a pessimist, I like to believe he wanted to show the struggles found in the human condition, that internal yearning for change and growth followed by the eventual return to our bad habits.
On his first two efforts, I didn’t see Miguel as much more than a cheap Prince imitation. He had the pompadour hair, the gentle falsetto, and the guitar theatrics of The Artist Formerly Known As, but in my opinion, he lacked the songwriting chops. I probably wouldn’t have even checked out his new album based solely off my unsatisfactory experience with his past efforts, but then, he said the following in response to a question about neo-soul luminary Frank Ocean: “I genuinely believe that I make better music, all the way around.”
As a staunch supporter of Ocean after his soulful 2012 effort Channel Orange, I had to check Miguel’s Wildheart, if only to scoff at his empty, chest-thumping boast. I went into my first Wildheart listen in the crouched, ready to pounce stance, and left the experience feeling relaxed, nourished, and overall surprised by how much Miguel has grown as a songwriter and producer since Kaleidoscope Dream.
In 2013, Mackenzie Scott (who performs under the name “Torres”) came bursting out the gates with a debut that was intimate, honest, and powerful. Over sparse production and reverberated guitars, she displayed her vocal prowess, moving from hushed whispers to impassioned, operatic swells of aggravation. Each track dealt with emotional stories of struggle and realization, but for the most part, they provided glimmers of hope when in their most dire state.
Brett Morgen’s HBO documentary Montage of Heck is a gut-punch for anyone who grew up listening to Nirvana and lived through the eventual suicide of Kurt Cobain. In the film, Cobain’s life is told through his own home videos, journals, and drawings, all conveying the troubled life of a genius that never truly felt accepted by those around him and the world as a whole. As I watched this therapeutic film, I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d ever have another artist come along that has as big of an impact on a generation as Kurt had on Generation X. In a musical landscape that is littered with Justin Beibers and Taylor Swifts, where are those kids who were weaned by Nirvana from birth and why hasn’t that influence resonated in the music of today?
In what could only be a sign from beyond, the latest METZ album, II, arrived in the mail the day after I viewed the documentary. On their sophomore release, this trio of 20-somethings from Calgary, Canada burst from the confines of the recording studio with a frenzied dissonance and unbridled fury that could only come from the womb of Nirvana.