Ceremony's new album opens with a dark swell of synthesizers before the usual suspects — bass, drums and guitar — show up like broad-shouldered henchmen flanking frontman Ross Farrar's sneering vocals.
The long-running hardcore punk band out of California has historically specialized in causing a ruckus rather than creating atmospherics, so the intro to "Turn Away the Bad Thing" could be taken as a purposeful statement that Ceremony is switching up its sound with its sixth record, In the Spirit World Now. That's pretty much always the case when the band once described as a "powerviolence" outfit puts out a new album; at this point, they're known more for unexpected turns than consistency.
But it wasn't like the bandmates had a discussion about writing a bunch of synth-heavy songs just for the sake of it, guitarist Andy Nelson says.
"We started writing, and the stuff that was coming out was kind of angular and synthetic-sounding, sort of like that early, weird punk stuff like Devo and the Cramps," he says. "I think it ended up complementing the idea of making something entirely new-sounding for us."
The band writes music as a group rather than bringing more-or-less completed ideas to one another, and that approach can yield unexpected results. For example, the spooky UFO-synthesizer hook in the title track didn't emerge until late in the songwriting process, Nelson explains.
"That main riff that you hear now wasn't the main riff when we first started," he says. "One of the elements that's more buried now, one of the guitar lines, was what we were playing with for a really long time. We wrote the breakdown with that chunky rhythm and decided, Oh, maybe this is the vibe of this song. It's just funny how you play a song a million times and realize something in there is the best part. Once you bring that out, you can end up with a really great hook."
When you're setting out to "make a record where every song is a banger," Nelson says, it pays to be open-minded. During the creation of In the Spirit World Now, the band dissected every little tone and texture and reworked song arrangements repeatedly.
As someone who learned to play guitar by listening to the Ramones and the Stooges, Nelson tends to admire guitarists who just plug in and play. "I'm not saying you can't make magic with pedals — I love My Bloody Valentine as much as anybody — but I just can't shake the punk thing. A cranked-up guitar amp is all you need," he says.
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Even so, Nelson and fellow guitarist Anthony Anzaldo, who are typically minimalists when it comes to effects pedals, made an effort to dial in colorful tones to complement the songs.
Like the rest of the band, Farrar switched up his style for the new record. He dropped the second-person perspective he adopted for most of 2015's L-Shaped Man and favors something of a gothic-surf aesthetic on In the Spirit World Now. He recently earned his MFA in poetry from Syracuse University in New York, which is just the latest development in the frontman's ongoing evolution as a lyricist.
"As he's gotten better and more aware of his [lyrical] abilities, his bullshit detector goes up," Nelson says of his bandmate. "You have higher standards for yourself as each album goes by, and it gets more agonizing because you're so much attuned to what you're doing... I'm partial, obviously, but I expect really great things from him as a writer in the future, and it's cool to be a component of that on the musical end of things."