Release Date: Mar 5, 2012
Record label: Matador Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Punk Revival
Ceremony's website offers visitors this adorably Luddite message: "We do not have a Twitter, MySpace or Facebook." Indeed, interpersonal connection does not seem to come easy for this Bay Area hardcore punk band: "It's getting hard... to stay human," frontman Ross Farrar hollers on the group's first LP for Matador Records. Previous Ceremony discs were dervish blurs of nail-gun thrash.
CeremonyZoo[Matador; 2012]By David Wolfson; March 7, 2012Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGIt’s a natural progression we’ve seen countless times before: young, aggressive punk band expands their musical vocabulary and makes a record that reaches beyond the strict hard-fast-loud-short confines of punk rock. Some great records have been the product of this progression, from Wire’s Chairs Missing to The Replacements’ Hootenanny and so on. LA’s Ceremony is only the latest in a long line of bands to make the transition, but they do it well on their Matador debut, Zoo.
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.
First, they sounded too much like other bands (2006's Violence Violence). So they wrote a much darker follow up that apparently wasn't as good as the first album (2008's Still Nothing Moves You). Then, they threw up their arms, embraced all shades of West Coast punk and British post-punk, toned down some of the machine-gun speed and intensity of their previous albums, and all of a sudden they were too soft (2010's Rohnert Park).
With Matador Records diversifying their roster in the late 2000s to include hardcore acts such as Fucked Up, Ceremony switched from Bridge Nine Records (home to Agnostic Front and New Found Glory) over to Belle and Sebastian's label for 2012's Zoo. The Bay Area punk group's sound has undergone some big changes since their first album in 2006. Instead of specializing in complex, frenetic outbursts, Zoo hones in on the straight-ahead, overdriven crunch of classic punk.
The first 7" I bought, when I was 13 or 14, was Minor Threat's "Salad Days". This was in 8th grade, or my first year in high school, so we're talking the late 1980s/early 1990s, though the record came out earlier, in 1985. The three-song EP was Minor Threat's last 7", the one that featured slower songs, an acoustic guitar, church chimes (or, at least that's what I thought of them as), and a cover of the Standells' "Sometimes Good Guys (Don't Wear White)".
In the lead-up to the release of Ceremony’s debut LP on Matador, the label’s official blog has touted the California quintet’s previous efforts as being “widely seen as the most compelling, unusual and progressive hardcore of the last five years”. While the truth of that statement in regard to those recordings is a topic beyond the scope of this review (though let it be known that they did rock pretty hard in the past), let me make it absolutely clear at this early juncture that there is nothing innovative whatsoever going on in the music captured on Zoo. Compelling? Arguable.
It’s hard to make punk last any longer than a few albums. Its in-the-moment, spontaneous nature make it challenging to repeatedly recreate. Ceremony’s Zoo certainly sounds like punk. It's loud, the vocals are untrained and impassioned, the guitars are distorted and at least a little bit sloppy ….
On Rohnert Park, the third LP from the California punks of Ceremony, beleaguered singer Ross Farrar made a detailed list of everything he was sick of, which included “hardcore,” “fun,” “living” and “mankind. ” The track was appropriately titled “Sick,” and if you looked past its snotty, sarcastic list of grievances, it was possible to locate a genuine sense of weariness and fatigue beneath all the “fuck the world” teenage nihilism. The album explored myriad post-punk and garage-rock styles outside of the band’s initial hardcore, or powerviolence, sound, which it burst into the world with on 2006’s Violence Violence.
Anytime a band deliberately moves to put a shine on its irreverent, sweat-soaked image, there will inevitably be a critical flogging doled out by the group’s most ardent supporters. Indeed, claims of “phoning it in” and “selling out” are prevalent in these circumstances. It’s difficult to imagine a fiery hardcore act like San Francisco’s Ceremony similarly derided for tidying up its sound a tad and moving to the same record label as indie pop darlings Belle and Sebastian, but here we are.
Just under two years ago punk vocalist Ross Farrar spat out the shocking idiom: "Sick of Black Flag. Sick of Cro Mags." The throwaway jibe echoed around basement venues, provoking rapturous hysteria. At that moment, Farrar seemed to have spin-kicked through the door to the third dimension, propelling Ceremony from hardcore impersonators to punk rock libertines.
The San Francisco punks’ anger has been refined and reshaped on LP number four. Chris Parkin 2012 This new (fourth) album by Bay Area five-piece Ceremony has reignited an argument that’s been raging for millennia – what is punk? Is this what it sounds like? Shouldn’t a real punk album be called Maniacal Holiday or something? All tiresome questions of course. Especially when Zoo is actually an exercise in how to transform from a band whose youthful 13-minute debut was chockablock with eff-you punk-rock platitudes into something else without stinking out the place.
Upgrading record labels can have a stigma. According to alternative music fans, the endearing romanticism of a small DIY label outweighs the bigger budget of a larger company. An abundance of artists make this crossover. And Californian act Ceremony have joined that ever growing roster, with their switch to indie heavyweights Matador.