Ceremony, ‘Zoo’ (Matador)
Release Date: March 06, 2012
There is no perfect way to grow out of hardcore, what with its sublimely teenaged palette of growled salvos, amped-up riffs, jackhammer drums, song-eschewing brevity, and hostile irreverence. In fact, most of the genre’s trailblazers came of age in unusual ways. Minor Threat did it with tolling chimes and acoustic guitar on “Salad Days,” not to mention covering the Standells. Black Flag jumped ship for sludge metal and then wove Sonny Sharrock-style free jazz guitar into the mix. Circle Jerks recorded with Debbie Gibson. Still, they all either retained a hard edge or just broke up.
Ceremony, a Bay Area quintet who formed under the name Violent World in 2005, and played classic-sounding hardcore until recently, have put some serious thought into their evolution; and they’ve chosen to give up hardcore altogether. Judging from their new album, Zoo, “post-hardcore” is not just a genre — it’s another state of mind entirely.
The group’s Age of Quarrel has been waning ever since 2010’s more rock-focused Rohnert Park, and each step has brought them closer to the surprisingly accessible approach of Zoo. Although its predecessor featured more than a few songs that could’ve been rediscovered apocrypha from Black Flag’s Damaged sessions, they bookended the record with multi-part ambient tracks titled “Into the Wayside.” (One interviewer actually asked them, “Are you really sick of Black Flag and the Cro-Mags?”) Then they announced they would record one last release for hardcore imprint Bridge Nine before moving to indie-rock label Matador. Their farewell to the genre: six covers, featuring the Pixies, Wire, and L7’s rendition of Eddie and the Subtitles’ “American Society.”
But these baby steps don’t compare to the leaps now evident on Zoo. Fueled by herky-jerky, punkish garage-rock riffs and frontman Ross Farrar’s brittle yelps, the album makes hardly any reference to the group’s hardcore past. The songs are catchy and nuanced, and the rage that defined them a mere seven years ago comes across here as measured, simmering frustration. On Ceremony’s 2005 debut EP Ruined — seven primal hardcore songs spanning eight minutes — Farrar barked, “You can go fuck yourselves with that trendy shit.” But now he’s singing, albeit with tongue firmly in cheek, “You have to give up the things you love sometimes,” on a song called “Adult.” So long, Peter Pan: These guys just willingly vacated Never Never Land.
But this is more than another story of angry young musicians trading in their T-shirts for button-downs — Ceremony actually wrote some great songs, too. The first single, “Hysteria,” has a tribal drumbeat, a thick, simple riff, and Farrar’s genuinely adult realization, “Hysteria, all we’ve ever known.” (And do we hear some melodic background whoas coming from the rest of the guys?) Moreover, the non-hardcore influences they’d rattled off in interviews over the years (Pink Floyd, Tom Waits, band-name inspiration Joy Division) are actually starting to show. “Hotel” has a smoky, slinky Birthday Party-like atmosphere and boasts a very un-punk rock swinging groove, while “Repeating the Circle” begins with a meandering Bernard Sumner/Peter Hook-ish bass-and-guitar bit, and then dives into jabbing guitar chords offset by Farrar’s yowls about life’s monotony. It all comes together on the upbeat rocker “World Blue,” with its loose, catchy “talking into telephones” snarl-and-response chorus, wherein Farrar bleats, “I used to have a broken head / Broken words from broken thoughts / Too much blame on sorry self.”
That self-awareness is most blatant on “Adult.” In addition to that line about giving up the things you love, Farrar poetically paints young adulthood as going back to places “where buildings are nothing but holes in the ground.” The rest of the song underscores just how fleeting time is; the fact that it’s all set to just a few repeating chords — still echoing punk — drives it all home. Later, on “Ordinary People,” when he sings (in a faux-British accent), “Ordinary people, we do ordinary things / Work is our water and we drink, drink, drink,” it’s clear he hasn’t totally let go of punk’s sarcasm, but there’s acceptance, too, of the things they can’t change, and how those things have changed them.
Zoo proves that even hardcore bands can mature gracefully. Whereas, new labelmates Fucked Up made a similar jump by redirecting their chaos into complex rock operas, Ceremony set out to transform themselves into a truly great rock band. And now, by dialing back their rage and painting everything with a wider range of dynamics, they’ve done it, all while maintaining the ferocity of a CBGB Sunday matinee. Maybe giving up hardcore is the most hardcore thing you can do.