“I’m learning to like Chicago,” Protomartyr singer Joe Casey said toward the end of the band’s set at Thalia Hall on Thursday night. Protomartyr hail from Detroit, which has a storied Midwestern rivalry with Chicago, so the minor bit of animus is understandable. He also may have been kidding, but his detached demeanor on stage made it difficult to tell. That’s by design of course, befitting a singer and band that crafts songs so relentless and emotionally intense they often seem on the verge of total collapse. You can’t allow your feelings to become too invested when performing songs about the ails of the world, lest they hold you in a masochistic pit of despair.
So Protomartyr maintain a pretty level head on stage, bringing their songs to life with the sort of professional precision normally reserved for accountants or programmers or pilots, where even the most minor of mishaps could throw everything into disarray. That’s meant as a compliment, because so few bands can find the right balance between adding depth to their recorded output and engaging with an audience eager to individually connect it to their own lives and pain. For Casey, that means wearing a suit, lightly pacing around the stage, and knowing exactly which words to emphasize with his aggressive roar. It’s similar to watching a megachurch pastor preach, only instead of hope he offers words of despair. Guitarist Greg Ahee also digs into a wellspring of emotional turmoil through the measured use of distortion, while the rhythm section of drummer Alex Leonard and bassist Scott Davidson form the skeleton of the band, providing a lighter counterweight that not only guides each song but gets heads bobbing and feet tapping.
Protomartyr’s entire performance at Thalia Hall on Thursday was remarkably engaging to watch as an exercise in post-punk formalism, though to be honest I was a little disappointed the crowd didn’t physically engage with the material more. Songs like “What the Wall Said,” “Windsor Hum,” and “Cowards Starve” have the sort of pacing and level of aggression perfect for jumping around, but nobody was moving much. Maybe we were all just a bit too self-conscious or trapped inside of our own heads to try and get something going. Or maybe most of us in attendance were old enough to know better. Either way, Protomartyr plowed ahead undaunted with a set list that focused on their most recent LPs Relatives in Descent and The Agent Intellect. The heavy hitters arrived early, with an immediate kick into high gear courtesy of “My Children” followed seamlessly by “Wheel of Fortune”. “I decide who lives and who dies,” Casey commanded on the latter, with the authority of an ancient Roman emperor as the guitars swirled around him. By the time old school favorite “Jumbo’s” landed in the middle of the set, the band had settled into an intense groove that thankfully never felt complacent. Of course like any good band they saved some of their best for last, and the one-two combo of “Why Does It Shake?” and “Scum, Rise!” punctuated an already great set with moments that abandoned any real sense of decorum to reveal the true beast within. It was as exhilarating as it was emotionally draining, but that’s pretty much what Protomartyr does best.
If Protomartyr come across as a little reserved on stage, then Preoccupations could be their slightly more extroverted cousin. The two bands share a similar post-punk aesthetic, but their approaches are just a little different. While singer and bassist Matt Flegel attracts the most attention by virtue of being behind the microphone, the other members of Preoccupations manage to distinguish themselves by leaving everything on the stage. That’s particularly true for drummer Mike Wallace, who destroys every performance with the unbridled yet precise ferocity of a Motorik monster. It’s tough to think of a band more committed to bludgeoning your ears with obtuse noises and drones. While that may sound painful, the sheer gonzo nature of it actually thrills at a level where you’re practically encouraging them to damage your hearing.
Preoccupations began their set at Thalia Hall with two great songs off their 2015 debut LP Viet Cong. “Writhing violence, essentially without distortion,” were the first words out of Flegel’s mouth as he was enveloped in the cacophony of deafening drum beats and buzzy guitars of “Newspaper Spoons”. This slow descent into a full-on nightmare soundtrack stepped on the gas once “Continental Shelf” followed it up, the guitars and vocals building into squalls of twisted and demonic rage that would be punishing if they weren’t so satisfying. While Preoccupations’ latest record New Material manages to pull back on their antagonism just a bit, most of their live renditions of those songs made little attempt to deliver that same level of restraint. “Espionage” dripped with an intensity that blended perfectly with the heavier moments that came before and after it, while “Disarray” served up a hearty meal of late set disgust before the band swan dived into a full auditory and emotional breakdown with a finale trio of their darkest and most devastating songs. Only the less-guitar-more-synth combination of “Antidote” and “Decompose” offered a minor sense of reprieve, which was honestly quite a welcome and necessary breather strategically placed in the middle of the set list. Of course by the end of the night the crowd is always begging for “Death,” and Preoccupations don’t hesitate to deliver. The 11-minute sonic assault and drone poem remains the most brilliant thing the band has done to date. There’s no reasonable way to recover from it, which is why they (thankfully) don’t even try. The house lights went up, and everyone at Thalia Hall just kind of stood around for several seconds, equal parts dazed, gobsmacked, and thrilled just to be alive. This night and these two bands, relentless and heavy as their music might be, take us on journeys to confront our darkest selves and come out the other side better people for it. That’s something to be grateful for.