Words by: Danny Ryan
Photos by: Albert Licano
Ceremony has had the most drastic shift in sound and style out of any band that I have witnessed in my lifetime, especially within the modern hardcore punk genre. While this growth has been controversial during many periods of their career, their performance in the Constellation Room of the OC Observatory has demonstrated their success in bridging the divisions between these fanbases. This is a goal that is quite difficult to achieve in the rabid following of hardcore, but the crowd’s explosive reactions to their post-punk influenced songs such as the newest single “Vanity Spawned by Fear” prove how successful they are breaking down these boundaries. The Constellation Room shifted from a battleground of flailing bodies to a lively disco dancefloor throughout the night, never losing momentum throughout their long and expansive set. Blasting into classic tracks that would please anyone in their crowd with a specific preference, they certainly attracted skeptical fans into falling in love with their vast discography over the years. As the band has grown rapidly in their visions throughout their history, their fans are growing alongside them throughout this journey.
The crowd upon arrival was incredibly diverse in age and style, with many older Ceremony fans sporting shirts for other modern hardcore bands and many of the younger fans displaying a more gothic or industrial way of dressing. Regardless of their age or musical preference, it was incredibly clear that Ceremony attracts an audience that is passionate about upcoming artists and the current scenes for each genre. With Ceremony being as varied and explorative in their sounds as they are, cultivating a diverse fanbase such as this creates an atmosphere for more growth and experimentation than many hardcore punk bands have been able to allow themselves.
The first band to play that evening was Smirk, with a much more 80’s style of punk rock than the modern hardcore that Ceremony is known for. Smirk has a noise-y and experimental sound, that was often seen in the 80’s Northern California hardcore punk scene. Ceremony, being an experimental hardcore punk band from Northern California themselves, allowed a very fitting environment for Smirk to shine with new audiences. With the lo-fi sound of bands like the Coneheads, but also more distorted crass vocals found with experimental punk bands such as The Feederz and Butthole Surfers, Smirk display an energy that is not often heard in newer punk scenes. While they are not the sort of band you will see open at many types of hardcore shows, the ambitious exploration seen in Ceremony’s material made them feel right at home in this lineup.
In contrast to the more punk-rooted artists of the evening, The Umbrellas hit the stage looking similar to characters that walked straight out of a Wes Anderson film with the catchy sounds of college indie rock to match. The Umbrellas had two different vocalists with vastly different styles of singing, but they complimented each other in creating a style that encapsuled the sounds of a wide array of artists from the 90’s indie rock scenes. Singer Matt Ferrara provided a low vocal tone that sounded similar to classic indie artists such as Pavement and Dinosaur Jr., while the other vocalist Morgan Stanley resembled artists from the era like Rilo Kiley. Their cheerful 90’s energy had the crowd bopping their heads with enthusiastic energy, providing a very upbeat atmosphere before Ceremony came to the stage.
Ceremony’s set started vastly different from any of their other shows I had been to, as the only 2 members to approach the stage at first were frontman Ross Farrar and guitarist Anthony Anzaldo, who approached the keyboard rather than picking up a guitar. While this minimalism may have confused many in the room at first, the approach became clear once they started the upcoming album’s title-track “California Poppy”. The song is ambitious in how stripped-down and simplistic its presentation is, with a haunting ambient piano track accompanied by only Ross Farrar’s vocals. The track is incredibly quiet and somber in energy, adding to the emotional lyrics and Ross’ dramatic vocal tones. With such a tranquil opener to build restlessness throughout the room, Ceremony naturally threw a metaphorical brick through the window of this atmosphere by following it with the band’s modern hardcore anthem “Sick” and had the crowd immediately erupting into chaos once the intro drumbeat started. Ceremony sends a jolt of energy into the spines of everybody in the room whenever this song begins, being fully aware of the chaos they are bringing into the room when Ross screams “We’re Ceremony from Northern California” towards the start. There could not be a more defining song to shout this during, as the track’s 2010 album “Rohnert Park” marked a preview of their upcoming evolution into the artistry that the crowd witnessed that evening. While the album is still rooted in hardcore punk, it deeply explored the post-punk influences that the band is known for in modern times. “Sick” is always placed into their setlists at a moment that emphasizes this most, sharply contrasting from the bare-bones emotional atmosphere of “California Poppy” before it. People were flipping off the stage, slamming so hard that the crowd was constantly moving in all directions, and singing along to every word matching the volume of Ross’ screams at points. The classic seamlessly transitioned into the album’s next track “MCDF”, with the energy of the crowd rising more as if the previous track never ended. The rapidly paced song kept the spirits high in the room before the band broke into another fan-favorite from the same album, “Open Head”. The song usually ends with the crowd screaming the repetition of the phrase “Open Head” without any instruments present, but the band had decided to shorten the song without this segment. A fan decided to take it upon themselves to push for this part of the song to be performed, by grabbing guitarist Anthony Anzaldo’s microphone and jumping into the crowd screaming this phrase with the crowd following along. Rather than ending the track at its usual point, Anthony played the guitar riff of the song again with the band joining in to extend the song even further with roaring excitement from the room.
With many of their hardcore classics already being played and the crowd’s energy being at an absolute peak, the band picked an excellent time to progress into their newer material. With Anthony’s microphone being taken from him moments earlier, he commanded a shift in the crowd’s motion by declaring “You slammed, now you dance” before breaking into the band’s newest single “Vanity Spawned By Fear” from the upcoming album “California Poppy”. With the track having a much more new-wave and post-punk influence with an infectious synth beat, the crowd began dancing and skanking all across the floor. While the dancing may have been less aggressive, people were still violently flailing their arms and jumping around with the same level of movement and passion as the hardcore punk tracks. The track was followed by another song with their newer post-punk sound, “The Separation” from the 2015 album “L-Shaped Man”. While many of their hardcore-devoted fans may not have been a fan of the song upon its original release, this would have been impossible to detect with how ecstatic the energy of the venue was. The track smoothly transitioned into “The Doldrums” from “Rohnert Park”, one of the most ambitious from the album in its exploration of their current influences. After a couple of their post-punk tracks being played before it, this song was a refreshing choice for the more old-school fans in the room. Even while appealing to these fans in the audience, it fit in incredibly well with the previous tracks being played. This was an incredible portrayal of how long they have been experimenting with these genres throughout their history.
The next track was “Hysteria” from their 2012 album “Zoo”. This album was the first in their discography to be met with mixed reactions from their fanbase due to the incorporation of these post-punk influences, but the song is a high-energy classic that appeals to older and newer fans with everybody singing along and chanting during the mid-track breakdown. This created a lively atmosphere for the following song, “Pressure’s On” from their 2006 debut album “Violence, Violence”. When the opening drumbeat of the song hit, the crowd instantly started slam-dancing and moshing throughout the floor with many people jumping up on stage. The performance was a riotous spiral of chaos, that left the old-school fans of their hardcore material grinning from ear-to-ear throughout.
Returning to the newer post-punk influenced material after the violent display of Ceremony’s most hardcore material, the cheerful and vibrant synths of “In The Spirit World” from 2019’s album with the same name filled the room. This was the song with the most creative and unique dancing seen from the audience throughout the night. The track was swiftly followed by the Joy Division influenced track “Turn Away The Bad Thing” from the same album. This was a refreshing choice, as the track’s hypnotic and dreamlike aesthetic provided a break from the constant flow of movement throughout the venue. This peaceful break in the mosh pit did not last very long however, as Ceremony thunderously broke into “I Want to Put This to an End” from “Violence, Violence”. Rather than the slam-dancing seen throughout earlier parts of the set, old-school fans started furiously hardcore dancing with spin-kicks while swinging their arms around everywhere. The more rabid fans stormed the stage and formed a dogpile on top of vocalist Ross Farrar to scream along to the ending chorus of the track. Rather than provide a break to themselves after the near-destruction of the stage, Ceremony doubled down on the chaos and instantly broke into the opening guitar feedback of “Kersed” from the debut album. There were even more wildly enthusiastic fans on the stage screaming along to the lyrics, with the pit looking like an apocalyptic wasteland of violent bodily movements in all directions. Even with their emphasis on newer material and a shift towards different genres, Ceremony is still able to cultivate a fervent reaction of aggressive passion from their hardcore fanbase. While the tracks from “Violence, Violence” were a superb performance of throwback material for older fans, Ceremony did end the show displaying that they are not quite the same violent hardcore band that they once were by closing out with the creeping intensity of “Calming Water” from “In the Spirit World”. Booming drums and bass filled the venue, with a gradually rising synth that consumed the crowd with the distant atmospheric feelings it provides. The band walked off the stage, besides guitarist Anthony Anzaldo, playing a piano melody to conclude the set before exiting. In a completely pitch black room, the audience erupted into applause at the cinematic conclusion to the night.
Out of the 15 times I have seen Ceremony perform live over the past decade, this show was the most distinct in its visual performance and aesthetic. The stage lighting was nonexistent with abstract film projections being cast over the band as they performed. This added exponentially to their stage-presence, with parts of the performance feeling as if you were in an arthouse style of movie rather than a hardcore punk show. The band had played inside the movie theater at Braindead Studios the previous week with a similar presentation, displaying to their fans that they are not only dedicated to underground music scenes but celebrating their devoted love to all forms of art in the venues that produce them. Ceremony’s fearless incorporation of these influences into their sounds and aesthetics has made them one of the most distinct bands amongst other hardcore legends. With one of the most expansive discographies in alternative music history, Ceremony is consistently breaking down boundaries in the scenes they belong to by bringing their diverse fanbase along throughout this evolution.