Protomartyr turns Ace of Cups concert into a master class on creating tension

Protomartyr's 60-minute set at a crowded Ace of Cups Wednesday doubled as a master class in crafting tension, the Detroit four-piece churning out a series of terse dirges that clenched, tightened and paced like an individual stuck in a hospital emergency room awaiting news of a loved one's fate.

Guitarist Greg Ahee often led the charge, scratching out brusque riffs and layering songs with feedback that buzzed like overtaxed power lines, a chilly industrial feel matched by drummer Alex Leonard, whose machinelike patter generally mirrored the inner workings of an auto assembly line. At times, frontman Joe Casey adopted a similarly detached demeanor, and throughout his body language suggested that of a coffee-deprived office worker impatiently waiting on the bus during his morning commute - a feel heightened by the singer's tweedy blazer and loosely tucked button-up.

For the most part, Casey's delivery matched his low-key presence, and he unfurled dire warnings, cutting rebukes and stern lectures like an agitated motivational speaker. "Don't look for pity when the pity's gone," he cautioned on "Blues Festival," his hammer-blunt vocals offering a crisp contrast to Ahee's fuzzy output. Other songs were more broadly ominous. "That's not gonna save you, man," Casey offered amid fast-twitch guitar on "Dope Cloud," sounding like a man disinclined to seek out any kind of salvation.

Occasionally, however, the frontman's angst would spill over, and he'd shout a line or two as though he desperately needed his voice heard above the din. Such was the case on "Scum, Rise," a churlish number that opened with Casey wrapping the microphone cord around his fist like a boxer getting his or her hands taped before a fight - a fitting visual for a song that urged the downtrodden to punch back - and closed with the singer repeating the song's title like a call-to-arms, barking his words atop a thick groundcover of gnashing guitar and rubbery, menacing bass.

Protomartyr filled its songs with mentions specific to the band members' hometown - Jumbo's Bar, pizza chain founder Mike Ilitch and attorney and enduring billboard presence Joumana Kayrouz all made appearances - but these details were largely offered up in service to broader themes of impermanence, gentrification and the illusion of eternal youth. "On Why Does It Shake?," for one, Casey deadpanned comic lines about the unlikelihood of remaining mentally sharp into old age ("Nice thought, and I'm never going to lose it," he cracked), a perspective likely shaped at least in part by his mother's struggles with Alzheimer's.

Family relations surfaced again in "Ellen," a song that functions as the emotional centerpiece of the band's 2015 album The Agent Intellect. Written for and about Casey's mom, and delivered from the perspective of his deceased father, it's among the prettiest and most straightforward in the band's catalog.

"That was one I didn't have lyrics for until we got to the studio," Casey said in an early January phone interview. "Before I put the vocals down, I was thinking, 'OK, maybe I'll just make things up off the top of my head, or just really shit all over it in a sense.' Then it was like, 'No, I'm going to do something that's personal, but I'm also going to structure it plainly.' I really pared it down and allowed the music to be as pretty as I think it is, but also giving it something I think it deserves."

It's an approach that served the song well in concert, with Ahee layering on guitar that cut the darkness like a comet's tail as Casey delivered conversational lines about passing the time with his memories, which, for the time being at least, remain sharp. In Protomartyr's sometimes-bleak world, that's really the best any of us can hope for.