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). These are just a few of the more tame complaints people have had about the California hardcore punk band Ceremony over the years. Zoo, their debut for indie institution Matador Records, is yet another left turn in a career full of them, and will send the knee-jerkers into a straight up tizzy.
The overall sound and direction of Zoo can be traced back to “The Doldrums,” off of the aforementioned Rohnert Park. On that song, the band slumped around at a lethargic pace while vocalist Ross Farrar droned on in a monotone about dullness and feeling trapped. It was an anomaly on the still mostly punk-leaning album, an exclamation point meant to drive home the sentiments of suburban ennui and alienation that framed most of the lyrical content. Zoo is the logical sequel to Rohnert Park, with Farrar the narrator making it out of the suburban lifelock and dealing with the world at large, and being so overwhelmed by all of it that his previously seething, irrationally angry bark is zapped into a dazed, at times, atonal whine. Meanwhile, the music produced by the rest of the band grows even stranger, slower, and less airtight.
This approach works wonders on the opening one-two of “Hysteria” and “Citizen.” The former rides a simple three chord riff and stomping drums into a chorus worthy of its title, and is then carried out by an entire gang of “woahs.” “Citizen” is probably the most upbeat track on the album, featuring a guitar solo from Anthony Anzaldo ripped straight from the Dead Kennedys’ playbook. “World Blue” provides a satisfyingly heavy crunch peppered with several stop-start fakeouts. Slower tracks like “Repeating The Circle” and “Hotel” are vivid portrayals of monotony and street light-lit desolation. Chilly closer “Video” follows a quiet-loud-quiet dynamic, shining particularly during the quiet sections, Anzaldo’s guitar cleanly delivering figures like a flickering neon sign illuminating dirty sidewalks.
But when Ceremony goes for simple, throat grabbing anthems on Zoo, Farrar isn’t up for the task lyrically. Instead, he seems more concerned with writing sloganesque lyrics for ’70s punk bands that never existed: “I’ll never be pure,” “Call the police/turn me in,” “Hysteria is all we’ve ever known,” “Ordinary people/We do ordinary things.” When compared to the great turns of phrase found on “Adult,” “Brace Yourself,” and “Video,” these examples come off as egregiously lazy writing. That he frequently slathers his voice in distortion is telling. The rest of the band isn’t completely innocent either. “Quarantine” contains a central chord progression so basic and played so limply that it becomes absolutely maddening, to the point where I had to scramble to see if they even had some of the same musicians playing in the band as on previous albums. “Community Service” aims for the same West Coast punk vibe as “Citizen,” but lacks that tracks’ driving force and features the whiniest vocal track from Farrar on the entire album.
Missteps and all, Ceremony still remain one of the bravest bands in the world of punk and hardcore today, even if it seems like their interest in being associated with such genres decreases with each passing day. While still mostly a success, Zoo marks the first time where Ceremony do not seem 100% sure of their own identity. Occasional tentativeness doesn’t prove to be the best look for them, especially now that they have the highest expectations riding on them.