There aren’t many Brooklyn bands that can convince high-profile performance artists like Marina Abramović to brave Bushwick’s divey DIY scene, but Sound of Ceres did just that last August, during their month-long residency at Alphaville. Then again, Sound of Ceres stretches the boundaries of what it means to be a band, interacting with morphing, mesmerizing laser-light visuals throughout their live show. Currently on tour in support of their recently-released sophomore album The Twin (via Joyful Noise Recordings), the band’s constant evolution plays out not just in the show’s visuals, but on the newest album as well; so maybe it’s not so surprising that an artist like Abramović, whose work deals with human interaction and liminal selves, would find an act like Sound of Ceres compelling.
Sound of Ceres was formed in 2014 by partners Karen and Ryan Hover, from the remains of their shoegazey recording project Candy Claws. Alongside Kay Bertholf and a rotating cast of musicians, the Hovers released three albums under the moniker, each more conceptually dense than the last. Their final LP, Ceres & Calypso in the Deep Time, was built around the narrative of a girl (Calypso, Kay’s alter-ego) and her pet white seal Ceres (who represented Karen), traveling through a pre-historic sound collage known as the Deep Time (Ryan, naturally). With a completed narrative arc in the bag, the Hovers felt it was time to move on artistically (and physically – they relocated from Colorado to Brooklyn around the same time).
“We decided it was time to start something new, that a new story could be told,” Karen explains when we speak over the phone. “There were a lot of other members in Candy Claws over the years, and people had moved away, and it just seemed more natural to start something new with different people.” Whereas Candy Claws existed mainly within the confines of a recording studio, the Hovers wanted to tour behind their new project, although Karen would remain the voice behind it – hence the carryover of the name “Ceres.”
“We really wanted Sound of Ceres to expand a little bit,” she says. They tapped guitarist Derrick Bozich, Ben Phelan of Apples in Stereo, and Jacob Graham, formerly of The Drums, though his role in Sound of Ceres was more like that of an artistic director than musical contributor; he’s the one responsible for developing the mechanics behind the band’s innovative live light show. “Pooling all these different influences has created a unique sound that I don’t think we could’ve come up with on our own,” admits Karen. “Sound of Ceres is a lot more synth-heavy; all of the members that we work with now are very interested in analogue and modular synthesizers, so we’re getting a lot of sounds that we haven’t used before just ’cause we never totally went there with Candy Claws.”
The band released their first album, Nostalgia for Infinity, in 2016; around that time, Ryan picked up a copy of The Magic Mountain, the celebrated German novel written by German author Thomas Mann in 1924. It provided the conceptual seeds for The Twin. Karen says that Ryan is “a big reader, and really draws reference from books to make albums.” She adds, “I think it’s hard for him to sit down and make music if he doesn’t have this idea behind it that is kind of inspired from literature that he’s been reading.”
But The Twin also draws on references from modern writers. The band had longtime friend and sci-fi author Alastair Reynolds pen an accompanying narrative based on demos they’d send back and forth as they worked on the record. Reynolds’ story appears on the back cover of the album art, as well as in a specially-printed booklet included with the Limited Edition version of the oxblood-and-bone colored vinyl.
Many of the songs sent to Reynolds, it turns out, changed drastically once Sound of Ceres traveled to Iceland to put finishing touches on the record. Their reasons for doing so went beyond the inspiring setting – they planned to work with producer Alex Somers, whose notable collaborations include working with Jónsi of Sigur Ros, Julianna Barwick, Leif Vollebekk, and Briana Marela. “We’ve known Alex for a few years and have enjoyed each others’ musics,” says Karen. “We were very interested to see how he would apply his own kind of ethereal mystical presence to our record. And just the joy of going to another country and finishing our record in this place that seems so isolated and very different from the rest of the world was very intriguing in itself.” Somers pushed Sound of Ceres well outside of their comfort zone, Karen says. “We’ve always been afraid in the past to have the vocals be very apparent and on top,
[or use] many layers of vocals. He also had the take on percussion being more in the foreground, which we had not done before either. He added some sampling of his own and really brought the drums and vocals to the foreground.”
Of course, the biggest change was a move away from guitar sounds and into synth-laden territory, something that had already begun to happen with the band organically, but that Somers also encouraged. “Our guitar player Derrick has a Mellotron pedal for his guitar so live, he’s essentially playing the guitar but it sounds like a Mellotron,” says Karen with a laugh. “[We’re] trying to do different things with the instruments that we have to get new sounds.”
The payoff looms large in the otherworldly, expansive feeling of The Twin; Karen’s delicate singing floats in an effervescent wonderland of languorous synth modulations, punched up with textural percussion. Tracks like “Gemini Scenic” and “Humaniora” have positively glacial sparkle, while the title track’s glissandos, pensive riffs, and orchestral flourishes are the stuff of sci-fi cinema. Fans of Broadcast might have to catch their breath at the uncanny similarity; against a kindred background of heady dream-pop inflected electronica, Karen is a dead ringer for the late Trish Keenan. The Twin crackles with the icy isolation of space, but Karen’s plaintive intonations of Ryan’s humanistic lyrics have the spark of warm-blooded terrestrial life meditating on deeper meaning and reaching out for connection across the vastness of the universe.
It’s hard to imagine what that might’ve sounded like before the band’s trip to Iceland; these sweeping changes transformed the album into another work entirely. Karen says shadows of its former execution remained, like a mirror version of the same being, or a twin of itself – hence the record’s title. “The songs were already there, the melodies and lines were developed and such, but when we took it to Alex it really changed a lot,” Karen admits. “We’re very curious to maybe someday release what we had in the first place to see what people would think.”
For now, Karen, Ryan, and the rest of Sound of Ceres are content to let the material continue to mutate into whatever it may be. While on the road, Karen says that even their carefully choreographed laser show evolves from city to city. “Our August residency was the first time we really felt like this was the show we’ve always wanted to have,” she recalls. “As we’re on tour we think of new ideas in the car, like new ways to use the equipment we already have. We’re able to implement the changes pretty quickly, so every night it’s different.” Too many bands get lost in their own egos, but Sound of Ceres’ willingness to shapeshift – bending like a quick flash of laser light, blipping in and out like the faint transmission of a far off galaxy – is what makes them a force to be reckoned with.
The Twin is out now via Joyful Noise Recordings. Catch Sound of Ceres at one of their remaining tour dates below.
10/24 – St Louis, MO @ Foam
10/25 – Lexington, KY @ The Burl
11/11 – South Holland, MI @ Fireside Brew
11/12 – Chicago, IL @ Burlington Bar
11/13 – Indianapolis, IN @ Square Cat Vinyl
11/16 – Greenville, SC @ Cabin Floor Records
11/18 – Lynchburg, VA @ Riverviews Gallery
11/19 – Brooklyn, NY @ Silent Barn