Album Review: Ceremony—“The L-Shaped Man”

By James Li

Bay Area punk band Ceremony are too volatile to do the same thing for very long. Their earliest EPs and albums were excellent examples of powerviolence, that faster, thrashier, and more misanthropic offshoot of hardcore punk. But their third and best album, Rohnert Park, is more indebted to classic hardcore, but Ceremony threw in eclectic elements – distorted surf rock riffs, grindingly slow tempos, Robert Frost quotes – that made the album sound fresh.

The opening track on Rohnert Park was very telling, though. On “Sick,” vocalist Ross Farrar lists the things he’s tired of: “sick of Black Flag, sick of Cro-Mags.” That became a self-fulfilling prophecy. 2012’s Zoo, their first album for Matador Records, was a more accessible take on punk. And with their latest album The L-Shaped Man, Ceremony completely shed their hardcore roots.

Album art for The L-Shaped Man

Album art for The L-Shaped Man

Ceremony are in good company, at least. Many of the most celebrated hardcore bands today changed their sound into something more mature and broadly appealing. It’s been argued before that bands like Ceremony, Iceage, and Merchandise are more goth than punk now, as they get darker and moodier. Title Fight went shoegaze, The Men went country rock, and Fucked Up make rock operas.

But Ceremony’s change of sound isn’t that shocking. Just like their band name suggests, The L-Shaped Man is straight Joy Division worship. Ross Farrar’s bratty shouts have given way to a dreary baritone. Not every post-punk singer with a deep voice is Ian Curtis, but Farrar sounds like he’s doing an impression, right down to the faux British accent. According to Farrar, the album’s lyrics are inspired by the emotional turmoil of a recent break-up. But the way Farrar repeats his one-line choruses (“The pain will leave in the light,” on “Exit Fears,” “Can you measure the loss?” on “The Separation”) so dispassionately, that they rarely stick.

The Joy Divison impression doesn’t stop there. The expansive production on The L-Shaped Man suits the gothic atmosphere of the album, but the musicianship often misses the mark. Even “The Separation,” the album’s best track, sound like a poor Interpol outtake. “Root of the World” is the album’s most aggressive track, but it’s also the lowest point – a punk dirge that plods along tunelessly.

Any band that changes their sound risks losing fans, but that’s not the issue on The L-Shaped Man. There’s nothing wrong with a punk band branching out into new genres. There’s nothing wrong with a punk band sounding like Joy Divison. There’s nothing wrong with a punk band writing slower and moodier songs. Ceremony have proven before that they can take diverse influences and make something great, but The L-Shaped Man is a poor attempt at revivalism. Maybe Ceremony will have to get sick of Joy Division and New Order before they make another good album. (Matador)

Listen: “The Separation / The Understanding”

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