Saturday, August 7, 2010

Hanging On For Dear Life: Ceremony's "Rocket Fire"

In the music press, it's virtually impossible to write a review of Ceremony's work without mentioning the joint history shared with current noise-rock toasts A Place To Bury Strangers. I made an effort to avoid doing it and it ends up being the lead-off to this review. The two bands shared members in a Virginia band called Skywave, whose work is also excellent... but if A Place To Bury Strangers is the sound of a giant explosion, Ceremony is closer to the jet that dropped that bomb blasting into the stratosphere, blasting away so hard it feels like it's going to break apart. No more or less powerful, simply sleeker... and far more propelled. And they've never sounded better than on their new album, Rocket Fire.

It's a journalistic risk to recite the basic facts from a band's bio sheet, but for a group with such a sparse web presence (usually confused with a Bay Area hardcore band with the same name, who sounds NOTHING like our noisemakers in question), it might not hurt. Based around a guitar/bass duo and a drum machine, the band has released two other albums, or an album and a demo... or two albums and a demo... hell, I do this for a living and I'm having trouble pinning down just where their discography begins and ends. Like I mentioned, info on these guys is sparse.

Too sparse, in fact, for such a divine sound. If one end of the noise/shoegazer revival of the past few decades explores how to make noise into music (The Vandelles, APTBS, Ringo Deathstarr), Ceremony falls toward the other end, who use the noise for songs that would probably be just fine without feedback or static. They're all the better for it, but an ambitious tribute band could recast most of these tunes as spare, wiry, Luna-esque pop and the melodies would stand up. The shades of electronic-tinged post-punk (errr.. New Order comes to mind) certainly act as sonic touchstones, and the noisy, blurry sounds of some of the original shoegazers certainly aren't far off... but Ceremony doesn't quite sound like the Telescopes, or Ride, or the Swirlies, or any of the others from "back in the day", really. Sure, there are distant vocals, feedback crashes, white noise, and hissing programmed hi-hats. Sure, it could be described as a "wall of sound". You could name several bands that remind you of this one... but you'd still be a little off. I remember My Bloody Valentine's "Soon" being peppy and uptempo and danceable, but the speeds and hair-raising sounds on display here combine like an adrenaline rush.

The jet analogy above, however, has another layer... even if their tracks aren't all truly uptempo, there's a fantastic feeling of hanging on for survival, lest any of us fall off... and that urgency makes things feel breathless, even when the tension releases a little bit. Imagine trying to keep your grip on a seamless steel jet at 30,000 feet. It keeps pushing higher and higher, the sky gets darker and darker... and just when you think you're about to go weightless, things kick in and away you go again. It's no new concept that the enjoyment of a substantial amount of shoegazer music depends on one's ability to appreciate subtle variation within a fairly specific template... but Ceremony is able to keep Rocket Fire thrilling by focusing on (work with me here) variations of that subtle variation.

While that may sound like a microscopically silly way to praise...well... anything, the point is that the band takes comfortable and established concepts (lovely melodies filtered through the "shoegazer" sound), makes it feel riveting through their own abilities as sonic alchemists (subtle variation number one), but then -- most importantly -- plays with that jet-engine rush by tightening the tension and releasing it over the course of about an hour. By the end of it, you're simultaneously satisfied and wrung out.

Despite the logistical headache that fact-finding turns up very little info, there's something refreshing about a lack of ephemera about Ceremony. It hearkens back to a simpler time, when a good record stood on its own. Granted, technological development had a lot to do with it (I was a teen in the mid-to-late '90s), but I remember when a good record was it's own background info. Check the credits and thank yous to find other good bands, but that's about it. Before I could check Wikipedia pages or add bands on Facebook (and let's not forget following their minutiae on Twitter), all a band could give was a good album. If it was good, it was good, if not, then who cared? Ceremony is making me forget about all the information overload, and the fact that Rocket Fire keeps revealing secrets on the 9th or 10th spin is telling me all I really need to know.

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