“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.
In what should be (but isn’t) called the “PR Nightmare Tour,” two of the finest post-punk bands in recent years, Protomartyr and Preoccupations, are co-headlining dates around the U.S. from late November to mid-December. They’ll be in Chicago on Thursday, December 6th for a show at Thalia Hall, and it promises to be a night you won’t soon forget.
If you’re not already deeply familiar with Protomartyr, here’s a quick primer. Over the course of four excellent LPs and an EP, Protomartyr have distinguished themselves through densely packed arrangements and inspired yet obtuse wordplay. Their songs pound with noise and aggression, but also maintain a distinct air of humility that fits with their Midwestern (Ohio) roots.
This past summer Protomartyr unleashed the Consolation EP, which featured four beautifully destroyed tracks that focused on death and oppression, with some vocal and arrangement assists from Kelley Deal of The Breeders. Sure, it’s not the most upbeat music in the world, but post-punk as a genre very rarely is. The guitars swell into oceans of distortion as Joe Casey’s guttural vocals evoke powerful and poetic scenes of tragedy. This mixture is even more potent on stage, as the physicality of Protomartyr’s songs rise to the forefront and get spit out in fits and spasms. It’s intense, exciting, and cathartic all at the same time, which is one of the primary reasons Protomartyr remains such a worthwhile band in an ever-shifting climate.
Preoccupations have been riding high on a similarly dark and punishing wavelength since their debut EP Cassette back in 2013. Born from the figurative (indefinite hiatus) and literal (RIP Christopher Reimer) ashes of Calgary experimental band Women, they immediately struck a nerve thanks to a confrontational performance style and a so-controversial-it-was-later-changed name Viet Cong. But it was their songs that deserved and ultimately attracted the most attention. Their approach might best be described as angular, because so many of their tracks veer off in compelling and unexpected directions. You’re never allowed to get too comfortable in the world of Preoccupations, and that’s a big part of the fun. Then again, don’t let my use of the word “fun” give you the wrong impression of a band that has been known to cover goth legends Bauhaus and have an 11-minute kick-to-the-face track appropriately titled “Death” as part of their catalog.
A current of nervous yet ferocious and focused energy runs throughout each of Preoccupations’ three albums so far, as they’ve become more confident and detailed with every new release. You can detect subtle nods toward ’80s post-punk and bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain, Echo & The Bunnymen, and The Psychedelic Furs blended seamlessly into many of their recent material, pulling them away from the heavier drones that marked their earliest pieces and into more melodic visions of darkness. It’s been a fascinating transformation, and one that’s enabled them to remain vital since their auspicious beginnings. Their live show is no less impressive, hitting the gas on their Motorik stomp by using noise and passion for fuel. It’s entirely possible you’ll walk away from a Preoccupations show in a daze, unsure of exactly what you just witnessed, but that it was amazing and profound.
If you’re a fan of post-punk and haven’t already made plans to see Protomartyr and Preoccupations on their current tour, do yourself a favor and buy a ticket to one of their shows. As we sink ever deeper into the holiday season amid the extensive retail crowds, the stress of finding that perfect gift for a friend or loved one, and the forced cheer of non-stop parties and get-togethers, here are some live performances that will allow you to lean into the turmoil and (emotionally) exorcise your darkest impulses. Consider it a bit of a reprieve and a way to treat yourself to some music self-care. In Chicago, Thalia Hall next Thursday night. Be there.
Preoccupations / Protomartyr / Rattle
Thursday, December 6th
8:30PM / $17 / 17+