Punk rock is such a finicky thing. If it’s not avant-garde, or if there’s even a hint of self-awareness, it’s like it’s not even worth the effort. The genre’s core foundations trace back to the DIY mindset, where basement bottom dwellers became widespread heroes whose work would almost always be deemed “unlistenable” by the masses. Consult your history: Most of punk rock’s key names started out in the muck, pushed ahead by select ears, and, more often than not, if you trace back to their earliest releases, you’ll be surrounded by scratchy, four-track recordings, chock-full of one-to-two-minute cuts that lampoon mainstream culture or churn out fractured, ear-splitting noise, replete with attitude.
But, all bands evolve.
Take American hardcore punk act Ceremony, for example. Since its 2005 inception, the Bay Area quintet has released half a dozen EPs and singles, in addition to three stellar LPs: 2006’s Violence Violence, 2008’s Nothing Moves You, and 2010’s Rohnert Park. It’s all gloomy, dirt-ridden post-punk, aptly taking advantage of its strengths: Ross Farrar’s obstreperous, authoritative vocals and the band’s guitar work that sounds orchestrated by a 17-year-old Phil Spector. It’s been an agreeable evolution for the group, too. Violence Violence sported 20 brilliantly confused thrash punk tracks that never tripped over two minutes, Nothing Moves You capitalized on the group’s clear adoration for doom metal, and the fully realized Rohnert Park eschewed the chunky distortion and penchant for dark experiments for more level-headed garage punk.
That brings us to Ceremony’s fourth LP, Zoo. The band’s debut for Matador Records captures a more focused sound, the likes of which may be construed as “polished,” “cohesive,” even “attentive,” three adjectives that send sparks to the agitated punk rock community. Any caustic criticism would be rather ignorant on the listener’s part, especially if they’ve kept an eye on the band over time. As early as last year, Farrar indicated things would be changing, as he told Punknews.org: “I just hope that people can look past us trying to do different things. I don’t think people really want to hear the same thing.”
Granted, Zoo isn’t really all that different. In all, it’s Rohnert Park with hooks, echoing the aggression of Violence Violence, and turning the page on Nothing Moves You. If anything, it sounds less like an American album and more like something that would have surfaced from Manchester, UK, in the late ’70s. Ceremony draws heavily from Wire’s 1977 landmark LP, Pink Flag, here, an ode that makes sense given that they covered the album’s title track for its EP last year. On tracks like “Repeating the Circle” and “Hotel”, Farrar sings with a newfound accent over guitars that ring out, rather than drill in pervasively. For Anglophiles, this is your exodus.
Oddly enough, the band also simultaneously champions Bay Area veterans. The crude, wavy guitar work on “Citizen” or “Community Service” sounds dedicated to East Bay Ray (of Dead Kennedys), while the nasally vocals, hip-hugging basslines, and poppy afterthoughts on “Hysteria” and “Quarantine” hint that this band might have grown up on early Green Day records. These influences hardly mirror the past; instead, they’re used as techniques that add finesse to a band that seemingly rebelled against it for over half a decade. Some might scoff at this blunt focus, but if it results in tracks like “Brace Yourself”, which ruptures with hip-as-hell guitar lines, or the moody cadence of “Nosebleed”, then, yeah, whatever. Their loss.
Prior to its release, Ceremony issued a statement on their Web site on behalf of the album, writing: “Zoo isn’t a concept record, or any attempt at changing people’s minds, or exacting the world’s problems, it’s just a pursuit in trying to understand what it means to be a human living in a world that sometimes seems too full of everything, because it is – it’s full of us, an extremely complicated people, and we’re doing all we can to live in harmony, free from whatever it is that closes us in, bars us, and cages the joy of being here.” Technically, that’s still a concept, but let’s not get into semantics here, mostly because that concept innately works to the band’s advantage. Never has their sound felt so liberated. It’s not as raw, sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s constricted. Actually, you could blame the low-end production of past recordings for hiding some of the band’s key facets, attributes as obvious as Farrar’s touchstone vocals or Anthony Anzaldo’s witty guitar lines. They’ve never sounded better.
In just two years, Ceremony has leaped aggressively forward in its evolution, and Zoo captures this over 12 tracks that reconfigure the group into something unique and vital. Where they go from here is going to be a clusterfuck in the wreck room, but, until then, the present is anything but finicky.
Essential Tracks: “Repeating the Circle”, “Nosebleed”, and “Brace Yourself”