From the general tone of his post-Spacemen 3 output, it’s clear that English guitarist, keyboardist and singer Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember was the reason that band spent so much of its performance career sitting down. Kember’s explorations of sonic possibilities have always been marked by nuances of shade and pitch rather than immediately recognizable “songs.” Yes, he’s got a certain infatuation with the spangle-pop of late ’60s icons like Brian Wilson, but as time has passed, Kember has increasingly disabused himself of his more corporeal leanings, choosing instead to ascend into the ether and send down missives from above.
The Sonic Boom solo album Spectrum is little more than a loosely connected cluster of shimmers, spangles and sparkles, reminiscent of nothing so much as Suicide (whose “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Killing My Life” he covers here) on anti-depressant medication. The one-chord guitar vamps don’t stray far from the more pastoral side of the Spacemen tracks, but Kember’s repudiation of rock as a form is hardly ambiguous. Recorded as a quartet, Soul Kiss (Glide Divine), if anything, is a retrograde journey (albeit a gorgeously dappled one) backward into Summer of Love popcraft. Songs like “How You Satisfy Me” are colored in bright dayglo tones by Kember’s distorted organ and Geoff Donkin’s insistently exuberant drumming. Even when the mood is more dilatory (as on “Lord I Don’t Even Know My Name” and the seductive “Quicksilver Glide Divine”), it’s a sense of tranquility, not torpor, that prevails. (In the UK, the CD was originally packaged in a liquid-filled plastic sleeve.)
Following the Indian Summer EP — politely restrained three-man covers of Beat Happening, Bo Diddley, Daniel Johnston, Jan and Dean and, on the self-titled US equivalent, the 13th Floor Elevators — Highs, Lows and Heavenly Blows (previewed on Undo the Taboo, with three non-LP items) strips away most of the exoskeleton that held up the songs on the past two albums, eschewing niceties like rhythm and verse-chorus-verse structure in favor of a more Eastern sense of space and time. Each of the pieces on the album, while short and somewhat individual, sounds like it could have been hewn from a larger whole that’s resonating out there to this day. Kember’s Vox Starstreamer organ is an important element in preserving the radiant patina that gleams off the surface of everything in sight; his experimentation with non-standard scales is inherent in the elegant dislocation that lies beneath.
The revolving membership of Experimental Audio Research precludes classifying it as a band — it’s more a loose affiliation that includes Sonic Boom, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, Kevin Martin of God and elder statesman Eddie Prevost (who, as a member of the seminal AMM, has been exploring the potential of sound sculpture for more than three decades). Mesmerised consists of four long pieces that ebb and flow, building circular-thinking motifs in the manner of Cluster. The appropriately titled “D.M.T. Symphony” is probably the most soothing (and at times, numbing) of the tracks, while “Guitar Feedback Manipulation” (essentially just that) tends to oscillate more earthily, though aggression never enters the picture.
Beyond the Pale finds the collective delving more into the realm of everyday electronics to create post-ambient tonal structures, like the title track, which consists of fifteen or so minutes of spangled keyboard seascapes dotted with the occasional passing of sleek guitar out near the horizon line. A handful of more compressed pieces (“Dusk,” “The Calm Beyond”) aren’t quite as profound in terms of atmosphere-altering but, experienced as an unbroken aggregate, Beyond the Pale is a mighty fine ablution. E.A.R. has also spawned a wide variety of perversely formatted singles-including discs of five, eight and ten inches in diameter — filled with loops and drones that could be vestigial waves left ringing three decades after LaMonte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music.
In its original incarnation, Spacemen 3 divined a loud, strange, shimmering beauty from the bleak landscapes surrounding its homebase in industrial Rugby. The art-schoolers’ early days were marked by a narcodelic haze that permeated both the hymn-like drug anthems and covers (the Stooges; a Glen Campbell who didn’t do “Wichita Lineman”) on Sound of Confusion. The Perfect Prescription opiated the masses even more strongly, with singer/guitarists Jason Pierce and Kember constructing glissando-laden melodies with no perceptible center — a disorienting characteristic that proves most effective on a long, luxurious cover of the Red Crayola’s “Transparent Radiation.”
S3 sounds absolutely ecstatic on the concert recording Performance, which probably has more than a little to do with the fact that the gig it was taken from was in Amsterdam. Most of the material comes from extant releases, although a cover of the MC5’s “Come Together” (which “borrows” from the Who in much the same way Led Zeppelin “borrowed” from Willie Dixon) is probably the highest point. The self-titled 12-inch EP, containing three more live items and stage intro music from 1988, was distributed to the first two thousand buyers of the British edition of Playing With Fire, easily the Spacemen’s studio pinnacle. More a statement of purpose than a mere official bootleg, Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To injects listeners into the quartet’s very fiber, presenting as it does some embryonic 1986 recordings of songs that would turn up on later albums. Just say yes!
The positively enthralling Dreamweapon presents the band at its most freewheeling and completely insular stage. The centerpiece, a 45-minute drone dream wryly entitled “An Evening of Contemporary Sitar Music,” is a study in texture; the guitars (Kember, Pierce and Steve Evans) lazily enmesh and disentangle as if engaged in a Beckett-inspired game of cat’s cradle. Utterly surreal. The incidental pieces aren’t quite as overwhelming, although Kember’s feedback-shaping solo turn on “Ecstasy in Slow Motion” restores the good name of navel-gazing as a spectator sport. (In appropriately disorienting fashion, one side of the Fierce vinyl plays from the inside out.)
Although Spacemen 3 had already split, the group was obligated to deliver one more album. Recurring, for which Kember and Pierce recorded their contributions separately, hangs together surprisingly well, thanks in part to the amount of fog inherent in even the most lucid Spacemen release. The gospel-blues sense of yearning that popped up now and again on earlier releases is diffused through practically every bar of songs like “Why Couldn’t I See?” and “Feel So Sad,” while a flair for tension-building makes a maelstrom out of Mudhoney’s otherwise ineffectual “When Tomorrow Hits.”
Most of the posthumous releases simply rehash the same dozen or so songs in imperceptibly discrete versions. Devoting 80 minutes to eleven tracks, The Singles (and the similar UK Fire package) is a neat bundle of early material, including the entire Transparent Radiation EP and tracks from the “Take Me to the Other Side” and “Walkin’ With Jesus” 12-inches. Live 1989 (issued in America as Spacemen Are Go!) is an indifferent concert performance of the, er, hits. The band is much better served by Revolution or Heroin (talk about a tough choice!). Although not well recorded, the album — which ends with a meaty free-form freakout dubbed “Muzik Konkret” — captures the Spacemen aesthetic at its most aggressively blurred, with the only hints of lucidity coming from between-song tapes of vintage White Panther oratory. The Spanish Losing Touch With Your Mind is an authorized bootleg of alternate mixes and takes.
For All the Fucked Up Children of This World professes to contain the first-ever Spacemen 3 recording session, which is very likely the case, given the amusingly punky tone of rudimentary versions of “Things’ll Never Be the Same” (which sounds like it was pulled directly from a Shadows of Knight bootleg) and “Walkin’ With Jesus.” About the only reason to own this artifact (besides the goofy booklet photo of the band in new romantic drag) is a bizarre drone-gospel take on “Fixin’ to Die.” Then again, not owning it would probably be like buying a set of encyclopedias and jettisoning the Q volume.