Breakup albums mark a turning point for a band: the moment when their sound completely changes and reaches a new level of emotional clarity. All that heartbreak and malaise condensed into any single record often makes for a defining piece of work, no matter the genre. The best records explore the nooks and crannies of sadness, learning it inside and out — celebrating it.
Ceremony’s fifth studio album, The L-Shaped Man, uses singer Ross Farrar’s recent breakup as a platform to explore loneliness and emotional weariness, but it is by no means a purely sad album. Rather than look inward, Farrar uses his experience to write about what it means to go through something heavy and come out the other side a different person.
In order to tell Farrar's story, Ceremony have almost completely stripped back the propulsive hardcore of their previous records, turning every angry outburst into simmering despair. “We’ve always tried to be minimalists in writing, even if it’s loud or fast or abrasive,” says lead guitarist Anthony Anzaldo. “It’s really intense when I hear it. Not in a way where you turn everything up to ten. Things are so bare, you’re holding this one note for so long and you don’t now where it’s going—to me, that’s intensity.” That intensity is apparent on “Exit Fears,” the first full song on the record. It meticulously pairs Justin Davis’ loping bassline, which pulls the track along, with Anzaldo's icy, minimal guitar work. It brings to mind some alternate version of Joy Division that hasn’t quite lost all hope. It gets close to exploding, but instead plays the shadows, never quite rising above a nervous simmer.
“A lot of the content has to do with loss, and specifically the loss of someone who you care deeply about,” Farrar says. “There is no way for you to go through something like this artistically and not have really strong emotions of loss and pain. There’s not really any way to hide that.” Farrar, for his part, is singing with a new kind of intensity, his baritone swooping and retreating from stressed angst to unsettling near-mutter as he sings, “You told your friends you were fine/ you thought you were fine too…” and later, “nothing is ever fine/ nothing ever feels right/ you have to tell yourself you tried.” It’s the first of many lyrically direct moments, and it should be hard to listen to, but Ceremony have so effortlessly nailed the sound of sadness that it feels great to live inside for awhile.
The sound is abetted by producer John Reis, who honed his sound in seminal bands like Rocket from the Crypt, Drive Like Jehu, and Hot Snakes. Much of the gravelly aggression he experimented with in those bands is present on The L-Shaped Man.
There's a story behind the title too. “I was speaking to our driver Stephen while on tour,” Farrar says. “We were talking about men in general and what shape they are…their body type. I said, ‘I guess men are in the shape of an L. The torso is straight. Vertical. And then you have the little feet at the end.’ There’s this painter named Leslie Lerner who was living in San Francisco in the ‘70s and ‘80s and made these beautiful paintings. He died on my 21st birthday. A lot of the record is about the similarities in our ideas. In what we’re trying to make. Things that have to do with love and losing love.”
Antwon’s unique style makes all the more sense when one acknowledges his punk roots. From his Bay Area powerviolence-steeped past through his tenure in filth-ridden hardcore band Leather, Antwon’s love of hip-hop has been offset by his appreciation for the more brutal niches of underground rock. Despite rock and hip-hop’s domination in three decades of pop culture, few attempts at bridging the stylistic divide between the two communities have yielded respectable success stories. Perhaps the most obvious reason for the long list of failures in this brand of crossover stems from the glut of ham-fisted appropriations from guitar-centric artists who have no real grasp of hip-hop’s roots. For every Check Your Head, there are a million Significant Other equivalents. Ultimately, the ability to operate in both worlds with any sort of style and credibility has required a genuine understanding and appreciation for their distinctively innate qualities. You can’t just cram rap verses into a rock format or lazily sample a Metallica hook and expect intriguing results. The magic of Antwon’s craft is that he manages to apply the aesthetics of crucial underground bands—the succinct outbursts of Infest, the mechanical throb and lush layers of Jesu, the cocaine-night nostalgia of Chromatics—into a hip-hop format.
Antwon’s deft ability to absorb and recontextualize disparate musical elements has not gone unrecognized. While it’s no surprise that his refreshing approach has won an audience in the hip-hop world, it’s the percolating excitement over his tracks in the fickle indie rock press world and the hardcore-matinee-level crowd eruptions at his shows that really demonstrate Antwon’s burgeoning position as one of the leading voices in the rap community. With this building fanbase sending him out for performances across the U.S., U.K., and the far reaches of the European continent, Antwon’s cross-pollinated empire looms larger every day.