For its first LP for Matador, this California punk five-piece is quite comfortable eschewing extremes of excellence and awfulness (not to mention its hardcore roots) to be unambitiously average.
In the lead-up to the release of Ceremony’s debut LP on Matador, the label’s official blog has touted the California quintet’s previous efforts as being “widely seen as the most compelling, unusual and progressive hardcore of the last five years”. While the truth of that statement in regard to those recordings is a topic beyond the scope of this review (though let it be known that they did rock pretty hard in the past), let me make it absolutely clear at this early juncture that there is nothing innovative whatsoever going on in the music captured on Zoo. Compelling? Arguable. Unusual and progressive? Oh, heavens no, not by a long shot.
Don’t be expecting rambunctious, white-knuckle punk thrills on Zoo, either, as the edge and tension of Ceremony’s pre-Matador work is completely excised. Nowadays, the group prefers to saunter instead of charge. The wild drum-bashing/guitar crashing overture that introduces opening cut “Hysteria” raises hopes that reckless sonic violence is on the way, only for Jake Casrotti to immediately settle into a steady midtempo backbeat that serves as the foundation for monolithic guitars that chug out eighth-note barre chords continuously. It swiftly becomes clear on Zoo that if Ceremony is pledging musical allegiance to anything, it’s the sound of the “The” bands of the early 2000s -- your Strokes, your Hives, and so on -- whose garage rock revivalism/traditionalism sought to resurrect an anachronistically purist notion of “real rock” in a world gone gaga for nu metal. Ceremony’s distorted, muscular guitars and straightforward rhythms are theoretically punk -- as are the album’s Spartan song structures and brief track runtimes -- yet they feel more like an indie rocker’s idea of what punk is supposed to be, with the genre placed in a hipster-vetted continuum that stretches from Nuggets to Is This It and where attitude is fetishized over attack or abandon. Given Ceremony’s punk/hardcore pedigree, it’s especially odd that the tempos aren’t brisk (the bounding “Citizen” being the sole exception), and that the loud roar the band generates is surprisingly forceless.
Putting aside ill-concocted expectations, Ceremony has a firm handle on what it does. The band is tight, the songs are focused, fuss-enterprises, and there’s enough variation in what the album offers that the listening experience doesn’t become a bore. Among the more noteworthy excerpts are the ‘60s blues-rock shuffle of “Quarantine”, the B-movie spookiness of “Hotel” (enabled by a suitably dread-inducing post-punk-style bassline and tip-toe tempo), and LP closer “Video”, whose downcast verses that burst into invigorating choruses of alterna-rock-y guitars mark it as the album’s high point. It’s a shame though that it’s only on that final track that Zoo scrapes the margins of greatness. For the majority of the record, Ceremony is quite comfortable being average. Neither laudable nor terrible, Ceremony’s music sets an easy target, hits the mark, and then moves on to the next task. There’s no sense that this ensemble wants to test boundaries of any sort, or distinguish itself in any way. It’s telling that when the solitary strumming of an acoustic guitar pops up after the perfunctory rocker “Community Service” runs its course, that little detail (unimpressive in isolation) makes one feel as if a whole new dimension has been added to the record.
Don’t let the artsy post-punk aesthetic of the band’s record artwork fool you: Zoo is unaffected, meat-and-potatoes garage rawk, through and through. Even considering that, Zoo fulfills a hunger while offering only the bare minimum of flavor. True, not every act can lay down an album packed with jaw-dropping creativity or stellar execution of tied-and-true conventions. Simple math dictates that there are inevitably musicians who are neither titans nor failures, who will do nothing more than clock in, get the job done, and go home. Zoo places Ceremony in that middling class of medium-achievers, where “good enough” is a goal, not a baseline of expectation. Yeah, there’s a valid case to be made that Ceremony can’t be faulted for being “only decent” (and if there was some ultimate spectrum of quality that placed all art on a line that stretched from Irredeemable Crap to Incontestable Brilliance, Zoo would believably sit squarely at the midpoint). But if Ceremony’s music is truly meant to represent modern punk’s vanguard, I think the world ought to be concerned about the genre’s current health.