Two Hardcore Albums: OFF! and Ceremony (Music Review)

The hardcore punk movement is pretty much gone today. But sometimes, it’s only after a sound has run its course that people can fully appreciate the ways it can be used. 2012 brought two albums that do great things with this now-nostalgic style.

OFF! cover


Hardcore supergroup OFF! has a new self-titled album to follow up their 2010 masterpiece First Four EPs. By the numbers, it’s even more terse and brutal: Sixteen songs running slightly less than sixteen minutes. What’s more important, though, is that it doesn’t just feel like the band felt pigeonholed into this pattern. These songs are just as vital as the last set.

The idea of a full “album” taking a quarter of an hour is probably more off-putting to some people than the intense music. But punk artists really are capable of fitting a full song into the space of 30 or 45 seconds. Often (though not always) with chord changes, a verse-chorus-verse structure, and as many lyrics as the average three-minute song, these aren’t necessarily a shortcut for the band.

Admittedly, I usually feel disappointed by the albums, even the classic ones, that have nothing but short songs. That’s what makes OFF! so impressive, though. The songs do consistently feel complete, as well as distinctive from each other. (It probably helps that their production is so much better than it was on most of those releases from the 1980s.) And while the songs on First Four EPs didn’t always fit together well, possibly because of the “EP” conceit, OFF! feels like a consistent album from start to end. I can even say things like “it feels sort of uninteresting for the first several songs, but then it really grabs me”, without feeling silly about the fact that those first five songs take four minutes.

If the album has one weakness compared to First Four EPs, it’s in the song themes. They cover the same angry and misanthropic territory, with a few political screeds and stories of the punk scene. (One song is titled “Feelings Are Meant To Be Hurt”, and another has the line “I’m gonna club you like a baby seal”.) But where First Four EPs had a recurring theme of depression and social anxiety, OFF!’s personal stories are references to old grudges or tales about friends. These fail to feel as interesting or revelatory – it’s not like any of the songs develop a serious depth, after all. (Admittedly, the lives of the band members are part of punk history, so they have some relevance. It’s still less interesting to me, though.) Other than that flaw, though, these songs are more sonically varied, and there are still plenty of great moments. “I Need One (I Want One)” is their catchiest song to date, and coming after the strong “503” and “Zero For Conduct”, it’s the sort of album closer that makes you want to listen again right away.

The main flaw of OFF! is simply that it wasn’t first. This release is more of the same, rather than an attention-grabbing statement. But that still is impressive; I’m not sure that many people expected them to keep the magic going for another sixteen minutes.

Grade: B+

Zoo cover

Ceremony – Zoo

In contrast to the traditionalism of OFF!, Ceremony adds a heavy dose of post-punk to their latest release, Zoo. The first two tracks make it clear that this is still a hardcore band at heart, but then “Repeating the Circle” comes on, with the melodic looping sound (and lyrics) that the title implies. Later songs mix the styles, with many creating a full droning gothic soundscape that sounds more new wave than punk. Imagine if Johnny Rotten recorded with both Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd on the same album, and you’ll have a good impression of the stylistic variety (though not the exact sounds) found here.

Overall, this is intense music with slightly nasal shouting. Even the punkest songs have a full sound, with none of the DIY aesthetic one might expect. They have a knack for hooks, with even the tracks I didn’t quickly learn still having many memorable moments.

Lyrically, there is a consistent aura of hopelessness about civilization and finding a purpose. “Son replaces father when father dies/He eats dead things to stay alive”, goes part of fatalistic story on “Brace Yourself”. That four-minute song has four minutes worth of lyrics, but the later “Nosebleed” (which is slightly longer), has just a couple of lines no longer than that repeated over and over. There isn’t a ton of depth to the lyrics, but there is a consistent message.

With the catharsis of punk and the complexity of art rock, Ceremony have created a heady album. Here we see two different ways to use an older music style: OFF! distills the things that were best about hardcore’s past, taking advantage of the full picture that can only be seen after the fact. Meanwhile, Zoo uses it as a springboard to the future, mixing the things that worked with every other tool they have available.

Grade: B+

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