It’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.
Right off the bat, Ceremony makes a statement by demonstrating a different approach from what we’re used to hearing from them on album opener “Hysteria.” Instead of trying to make an impression on the listener by assaulting them with a blitzkrieg of sheer, thrashing intensity, like they would on their previous records, “Hysteria” makes its point by placing increased emphasis on hooks and melody. That approach is taken throughout the rest of the album, and to the best effect on highlights like the infectious “Quarantine” and upcoming single “Adult.” Emphasizing this approach is the fact that Ceremony makes better use of the studio on Zoo than on any of their previous efforts; it’s noticeably more cleanly recorded than anything they’ve done before, and they no longer seek to overwhelm the listener by blending all of the instruments together into one sound. That serves to make the album less taxing to listen to, despite this being Ceremony’s longest release to date.
Another major adjustment made on Zoo is in song structure; these songs are much more advanced than their earlier work in both length and complexity. Perhaps the best example of this is “Nosebleed,” which bears more than a passing post-punk influence, unsurprising given that this is a band named after one of Joy Division’s last songs. Then there’s also “Brace Yourself,” which features waves of smothering guitar noise bridged by cymbal taps and a few unnerving, gothic-sounding guitar notes that help build anticipation for the coming storm. Ceremony has already shown a willingness to experiment with song structure before, especially on the “Into The Wayside” trilogy from their last record, Rohnert Park, but it is only on Zoo that they seem to truly find a comfort zone when stretching out their legs on relatively longer songs. From the start of their career, Ceremony has cited bands as diverse as Pink Floyd, Tom Waits, Joy Division, and Suicidal Tendencies as influences, and on Zoo, some of that diversity shines through their own music like it never has before.
Ceremony’s music may now deviate from hardcore punk in form, but that’s not to say that its function has completely changed. This is still a confrontational and abrasive punk record, with squalls of guitar noise dominating many of the songs along with singer Ross Ferrar’s brilliantly snotty vocals. They still know how to kick it into overdrive too, as the quick tempos of songs like “Citizen” and “Community” can attest. There is never any doubt as to whether Ceremony still packs a punch; the only thing they did is change their boxing gloves.
Zoo is a well-produced record that captures a band on its way up the ladder. It isn’t a complete transformation nor a stone-cold classic like either of the albums mentioned at the beginning of this review, but it’s a serious progression for a young band that isn’t afraid to switch their style up and has the talent to make different things work.