Say Psych: Album Review: Sonic Boom – All Things Being Equal

It’s auspicious that Sonic Boom—the solo project and nom-de-producer of Peter Kember (Spectrum, Spacemen 3) returns in 2020 with its first new LP in three decades. Kember was drawn to the year’s numerological potency, and this intentionality shines into every corner of All Things Being Equal. Released on Carpark Records, it’s a meditative, mathematical record concerned with the interconnectedness of memory, space, consumerism, consciousness—everything. Through regenerative stories told backwards and forwards, Kember explores dichotomies zen and fearsome, reverential of his analogue toolkit and protective of the plants and trees that support our lives.

Sonic Boom’s second LP and first for Carpark began in 2015 as electronic jams. The original sketches of electronic patterns, sequenced out of modular synths, were so appealing that Stereolab’s Tim Gane encouraged Kember to release them instrumentally. “I nearly did,” confesses Kember, “but the vibe in them was so strong that I couldn’t resist trying to ice the cake.” Three years later, a move to Portugal saw him dusting off the backing tracks, adding vocals inspired by Sam Cooke, The Sandpipers, and the Everly Brothers (which he admits “don’t go far from the turntable pile”), as well as speculative, ominous spoken word segments. His new home Sintra’s parks and gardens provided a different visual context for Kember’s thoughtful observations, and he thematically incorporated sunshine and nature as well as global protests into the ten resulting tracks. “Music made in sterility sounds sterile,” he says, “And that is my idea of hell.”

An unusually curated gear list accompanies each song, unexpected layers reinforcing the monophonic skeletons. Mystery soundscapes and grinding sweeps were teased from EMS synths, synonymous with and evocative of ‘60s BBC scoring and ‘70s Eno. Pacing basslines oscillating into warbling heartbeats came from a cheap ‘80s Yamaha. A modern OP-1 generated subtle kicks and eerie theremins, while his toy Music Modem—an unused holdover from sessions Kember produced for Beach House and MGMT—finally found its recorded home. It’s rare to see liner notes where synthesizers rather than humans are credited (other than guest vocal stints from “co-conspirators” Panda Bear and Britta Phillips), but Kember is masterful at finding the unique personality in his machines. “I tried to find the deepest essence of the instruments & let them play,” he offers.

Opening with ‘Just Imagine’, a number with vivid, calculating arps, Kember nudges listeners to do just as the title suggests; it’s based on a story he read about a boy who healed his cancer by picturing himself as a storm cloud, raining out his illness. It’s the perfect entrance into the dreamscape that Kember wraps around the album. ‘Just a Little Piece of Me’ continues this with complex layers of oscillating sound taking hold from the off. ‘Things Like This (A Little Bit Deeper)’ ups the ante with a faster tempo and layers of sound that undulate around the vocals, which feel deeply rooted at the core. ‘Spinning Coins and Wishing on Clovers’ has a darker edge, with the haunting vocals pushed right to the front and then passed around within a minor tone, creating tension. This is continued in ‘My Echo, My Shadow and Me’, appropriately named for the techniques employed within.

‘On a Summer’s Day’ releases the doom created by the preceding tracks, with an airy lightness that lifts the spirit where as ‘The Way That You Live’ offers a rolling drum machine powered drone mantra about ethical living; “I try and live my life by voting every day with what I do and how I do it, who I do it with and the love that I can give them along the way,” offers Kember. ‘Tawkin Tekno’ offers up tribute to everyone to in the very least Kraftwerk and Suicide and is, in a word, brilliant. It shows a different side to Kember and also wears his influences, and ultimately his gratitude to such musicians, on his sleeve. ‘I Can See Light Bend’ continues in the themes created and the pulsating lyrics create a beat central to the track. Concluding with the appropriately (for these times) titled ‘I Feel a Change Coming On’ which weighs in over nine minutes. It brings everything together and rather than closing things off, makes you instantly reach for the play button to start the journey all over again.

Kember’s intimate considerations on technology and humanity creates a finely polished collection of grooving tracks that are spacious even as they are packed with sound. It’s distinctly Kember and distinctly Sonic Boom.

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