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. It was a powerful and ambitious album but not necessarily a revelation; after all, hardcore bands have been subverting and toying with the conventions of the genre since its inception.
For its newest record, the group has essentially doubled-down on its past forays into less aggressive, slicker material: Ceremony signed to Matador (home of countless indie stalwarts) and teamed up with producer John Goodmanson (Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill and Los Campesinos!), and only one song clocks in at under two minutes (“World Blue”). With a title like Zoo, one might expect the new album to be a continuation of the group’s animalistic rage or an Orwell-meets-Rollins “critique of the modern man…man.” But instead it’s something more sophisticated: a post-hardcore record with equal parts reverence for the past, disdain for the present and cautious, measured hope for the future. Without completely turning its back on the brutal, high-energy warpath of its youth, and without pulling a Fucked Up and turning into a massive, multi-tracked hall of hardcore mirrors, Ceremony has found a sweet spot between nostalgia-tinged classicism and the boring myth of “maturity” that can lead previously violent and angry bands down a dark road of pretension and stripped-down acoustic power ballads. What’s so refreshing about Zoo is that it argues that hardcore and punk are not strict binaries but that instead a band like Ceremony can exist on a continuum, a sliding spectrum where keeping your Pink Floyd LP’s next to your Minor Threat singles doesn’t mean you’ve broken edge.
The album kicks off with its strongest track, the throat-grabbing single “Hysteria.” With its churning, almost ZZ Top-like riff and its “Whoo-a-hoo” backing vocals, it’s very much a rock song, the type of thing Dave Grohl thinks he’s making in his garage. “Hysteria, hysteria/All we’ve ever known,” shouts Farrar, setting a template for the themes explored throughout: frustration, alienation and the incessant grind of history. At the band’s raucous live shows, the song immediately creates a pile of bodies comparable to a football team’s victory celebration gone awry. However, in many ways, “Hysteria” is not particularly indicative of what the rest of the album sounds like. There are a few more moments of exhilarating release, like on the spry, tongue-in-cheek “Adult,” but even that song features the downbeat couplet, “We go for a ride, we slow down and die/We have to give up the things we love sometimes.” Notice the “sometimes” Farrar tags onto the line; it’s not a requirement that people sacrifice their dreams or ideals, but it’s a reality for many.
The rest of the album strikes a variety of forlorn and melancholy notes, filtering Farrar’s worldview through various post-punk and at times even vaguely psychedelic guises. The “thwack” of the drums on “Repeating The Circle” gives way to screeching, neurosis-inducing guitar tones. “Brace Yourself” is a chugging, hard-rock slow-burn. “Hotel” finds the band conjuring a pointillist portrait of domestic isolation while doing its best Wire impression. “Hotel is home for no one to stay,” sings Farrar, his voice flickering in and out of the mix through a garbled vocal effect.
Zoo is a bleak record, but through prolonged exposure it can begin to feel like a place you want to stay. The band’s view of rock and punk history is ultimately ecumenical in spirit, and after repeated listens the Zoo of the title comes to represent a musical landscape where jams run free and genres are liberating playpens, instead of restrictive cages. Stark, bludgeoning slabs of Brit-punk, circle-pit ready beef (“Ordinary People”) sip from the same trough as lumbering, sad-eyed beasts of the lowlands sporting Unknown Pleasures T-shirts (“Nosebleed” and “Video”), and Farrar stands at the center of it all, crying out at one point, “I’ll never be pure/I’ll always be loved.” Sick but still standing.