It’s exciting to watch a band explore the way Ceremony have.
Here’s a challenge for you: Take one song from each of the former powerviolence/currently post-punk pop group Ceremony and play them for someone without telling them that they’re all the same band. If they’re clever, they might catch some through lines – Ross Farrar’s voice springs to mind, as does Justin Davis’ grimy basslines – but if put at random, it could be easy to miss that it’s all the same band. This is what makes them so exciting: while they don’t evolve between albums in the same way that, say, Radiohead does, they are in a constant state of flux, shifting and revising their style between albums with a lovely abandon.
While their punkishness still resides on In the Spirit World Now, the band’s sixth album (and first since 2015’s The L-Shaped Man) flourishes of nostalgia for the lesser-remembered 80s populate every single song here; comparisons to New Order are inevitable, especially considering the band took its name from one of Ian Curtis’ last songs, but while most bands flagrantly ape New Order, Spirit World feels determined to infuse that punk core with the teachings of Hook & Sumner. That the first thing you hear on opener “Turn Away the Bad Thing” isn’t even a proper instrument, but rather the spaceship-like sound of a synthesizer; they use synths on every proper song here, giving their post-punk aesthetic a refreshing sheen and makes the album not just fresh, but inviting in a way that their music hasn’t been before. In terms of helping you to get comfortable with the new status quo, “Turn Away” operates perfectly as an opening track: dynamic and ever-shifting, and perhaps nothing like the band have made so far. This also makes it one of the best songs they’ve made yet.
Through it all, Farrar grapples with the nature of internal change: “Things have never been worse/ I try to change my life/ But only end up worse,” he sings at the top of “Presaging the End.” He’s hazy on many things, including what “worse” looks like, he does his best to be as self-aware as possible: “The further I was/ The closer you’d be/ The person I was/ Was callow and mean,” he sings on the bouncy “Further I Was.” He’s nothing if he’s not indirect, which makes Spirit World well worth digging through the lyrics of. It’s not always perfect, though, and a few songs build grating repetitions into their framework (“We Can Be Free,” “Turn Away the Bad Thing,” and the title track spring to mind) that rob their respective songs of their firepower. In between songs, poet Brooks Haxton pops up, reading the Farrar-penned poem “ California Jungle Dream States End,” which would seem self-indulgent on a lesser album – but this isn’t a lesser album, and these brief snippets make the lean world they’ve created (Spirit World is just 32 minutes long) feel that much richer.
The bleakness of his outlook at times pairs perfectly with the glitz and grime that the band find a home in. “Years of Love” pairs infectious synths to make his punchy chorus of “Years of love can be forgotten/ In the hatred of a day” a downright catchy singalong, one of a few times they manage to pull off a trick like this. And, because they’re surprisingly great at balancing things, they give us some moments with more pronounced edge, like “Never Gonna Die Now” and “I Want More,” the latter of which gives us one of Farrar’s most vivid lines on Spirit World: “You gotta move in lighter circles/ The heart is an ugly pump/ Let it swell, yeah, let it flush/ Feel the thrill of loneliness.”
Spirit World is the first time in the ever-shifting career trajectory that you can’t help but hope that the band lingers for a while. It’s an imperfect slab of glittering post-punk, but it feels like the payoff to a career spent searching for a sonic space to call home. Though imperfect, it doesn’t feel like a stepping stone like The L-Shaped Man or Zoo did. With any luck, Spirit World’s aesthetic won’t be abandoned in favor of something else, but honed and perfected. It’s exciting to watch a band explore the way Ceremony have since Violence Violence shook people up 13 years ago – the only thing better would be for them to strive for perfection, now that they’ve struck gold.