Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Ceremony - Zoo

How does a band begin to tackle the stigma of signing to a larger label after years of honing their craft and treading water at a celebrated house of hardcore? The options are limited - and the risk of alienation runs high. Assuming you play a special strain of guitar music with a semblance of originality at it's core, and you're protective of that, you only really have a choice of two paths.

You can follow the guiding light of the pioneering Hüsker Dü who, after their ascension to Warner Bros, refused to use the platform to write hook-heavy pop songs for 50's throwback America, and instead ploughed headlong into recording an album that smacked of early Dü flavours and a lack of compromise. Alternatively, you could stick two fingers up to the boardroom with one hand, use the other to seat a producer of Albini type rawness, and lay to wax a record more jarring, bolshy and inward than what came before it - à la 'In Utero.'

Whilst the transition from Bridge 9 records to Matador is by no means an SST to Capitol sized pole vault, for North California's greatest punk export of the last half a decade - Ceremony, it should be viewed in much the same manner. Matador records is of sorts the prom king at the independent ball, married to big billing acts such as Pavement, Sonic Youth, Guided by Voices, Interpol and others. For a label that concerns itself with the screeds of alternative sounding rock and squirming post-hardcore, Matador's coupling with Ceremony births notions of either a bigger label trying to euthanize a pure punk band's violent nature, or perhaps a label with deep rooted hardcore affiliations wanting to reinvest in the root reason why we're all here in the first place; punk rock. Sub Pop wielded a similar tactic by adding the noisy Pissed Jeans of Pennsylvania to their No Age / Fleet Foxes tasting roster.

Ross Farrar - Ceremony's unhinged Jack Kelly type frontman - once stated his intent to write a record "that's like the Pixies or something," which seemed like more of a reality this time round now that the dust has settled on the quantum jump from Still Nothing Moves You to 2010's Rohnert Park, where Black Flag bred with Infest noise gave way spectacularly to quasi-garage meanderings and burst of 'Punk Rock 101.'

Zoo uncoils with the first single 'Hysteria', a two and a half minute early Saccharine Trust style romp that unfurls to the sounds of Farrar's customary poetic wondering (How will we survive / we continue to ask / no one ever does / no one ever does). It's anti-anthemic by way of it's driven guitar and driven Social Distortion vocal hook, clever enough to know that it's not revolutionary, confident enough to swing it's dick anyway.

In the wake of Ryan 'Toast' Mattos' departure, the approach to guitar has undergone an overhaul. New Draftee Andy Nelson plays strong / weak element to the tested talents of Anthony Anzaldo, together they create a strong British via Wire and Gang of Four vibe apparent on say 'Repeating The Circle' or 'Ordinary People.' The band's partiality for Wire stretches further than their Covers EP recording of Pink Flag, as Zoo plays around with sped up 'Feeling Called Love' reminiscent guitar lines throughout. Zoo's wild ambition and sure of itself nature rarely holds up proceedings, yet the four minute diatribe of 'Brace Yourself' suffers under it's 240 seconds of tethered energy, with the final freak out not sounding built up enough to truly raise an apex around the album's spine.

The shortest track Zoo has to offer would have been one of the longest had it been featured on Violence Violence - clocking in at a hasty 1:37 - 'World Blue' crunches into life with a Bob Mould-like stop start guitar line as Farrar leaves behind his instantly identifiable caterwaul of albums past to channel the influence of Panic demo era Keith Morris. World Blue's urgency is the closest thing to a Rohnert Park relic you're likely to find on Zoo, signalling the band's intent for a clean break into ambivalent post punk and beyond.

Ceremony are still playing off a quarter-century of music history, yet Zoo finds them gradating away from the cheap guitars and broken noses of This Is Boston, Not L.A. into territories better associated with The Fall or Magazine. To assume the band have laid to rest thoughts of writing more tracks of Living Hell, Nail ilk would be half right, but the overriding thought should not be of heaviness lost, but of re-inventiveness gained. The weighty coffin nail of 'Nosebleed,' with it's sparse, harsher-than-Pixies rumble and thoughtful bassline, acts as a giant sleeper cloistered between the peppy to-and-fro of Ordinary People / Community Service - working in much the same way as The Doldrums or Into The Wayside pt II did for Rohnert Park.

As a band, Ceremony refuse to carry any creative dead weight, shedding skin after every touring cycle to colour themselves anew. After five years of chewing on those Greg Ginn licks and throwing vocal hysterics of Danny Spira proportions, the constant evolution has led them to where they are now - refined, concentrated, matured. Zoo is not a heavier album, that's agiven, neither is it an insistence on playing how they've always played. Ceremony went neither Candy Apple Grey nor In Utero, opting rather to remove themselves from the fork in the road and to swan-dive into murkier, untested waters. The results are substantially interesting.

Matador Records

- Josh

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