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Sonic Boom - All Things Being Equal Music Album Reviews

On his first proper solo album in 30 years, the Spacemen 3 cofounder ruminates on mortality and transcendence over a glowing bed of analog synths.

Pete Kember has been playing more or less the same song for almost 40 years. It’s built on blues swagger, but slowed down until it sways. It’s informed both lyrically and melodically by minimalism, insisting on simplicity. And though it throbs like techno, it’s directed at the head, not the feet or anywhere in between. It’s both solipsistic and psychedelic, urging listeners to travel into their own depths and welcome the joy and despair they might find there.
All Things Being Equal is Kember’s first album as Sonic Boom since 1990’s Spectrum, a sort of solo record made with his bandmates in Spacemen 3 as that legendary psych combo broke up. He followed up Spectrum with a new band called Spectrum, before heading into the noise lab with Kevin Shields and others for Experimental Audio Research and branching out through collaborations with Stereolab, Delia Derbyshire, and Beach House. In each case, the personnel was less the focal point than the sound and the equipment making it: vintage ’60s and ’70s analog synthesizers, the odd guitar, and racks and racks of gizmos to oscillate and phase and flange. All Things has all of these—some 11 machines are listed in the liner notes, including two vocoders and a toy called Thumbs Up Music—and they perform Kember’s pop songs but also become them, as veins both determine a leaf’s survival and define its shape.

“Just imagine you’re a tree,” he suggests in the dewy opener, which tells the apparently true story of a boy who believed he cured his own cancer by picturing himself as a storm, able to rain sickness out. “Just imagine that you’re a cloud/Just imagine, don’t say it out loud…just imagine the cloud wasn’t grey.” Hopefully, it’s not so much anti-science as simply pro-healing, however you can get it. In “Just a Little Piece of Me,” Kember transforms into a tree not in life but death. “Bury me beneath a tree/Let its root grow into me,” he sings in the shade of harmonies from longtime collaborator Panda Bear. “Let it grow and then you’ll see/Just a little piece of me.”

Mortality is natural, but not always peaceful. In “Spinning Coins and Wishing on Clovers,” Kember ruminates on his imagined deathbed while noise thrashes around him and electronics twinkle like pangs of regret. “My Echo, My Shadow and Me” might be bleaker. “I am the ocean that you’ll never cross/I am the night where hope is not lost,” Kember intones, his voice bloodied yet disembodied: “I am the journey that you never planned/I am the wave that’ll never see land.”

Mostly, though, Kember is seeing the land, and the beauty pushing through it. “Tawkin Techno” carries on Kraftwerk’s early Schubert-meets-the-Beach-Boys good vibes, but swaps out their industrial kitsch for an ode to the titular plant, better known as the Golden Club. “On a Summer’s Day,” he’s dumbstruck by the view from his window. “I just don’t know what to say,” he sighs, lost among keyboards, chirping and aglow. In the stroboscopic “I Can See Light Bend,” a freakout as hallucinatory as any in catalog defined by them, Kember’s senses overload and fail in a thicket of white noise and faux-Theremin. Or perhaps not fail but succeed. They merge: Seeing is believing. Halfway through its prickly ecstasy, he testifies: “Alter the light source/Build up my life force.”

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