Sonic Boom uses retro-futuristic psychedelia to explore today on his first album in three decades | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Sonic Boom uses retro-futuristic psychedelia to explore today on his first album in three decades 

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click to enlarge Sonic Boom

Sonic Boom

Ian Witchell

This might go down in history as the year everything got completely fucked forever, but some people will also fondly recall it as the year when Sonic Boom finally released his glorious second LP, All Things Being Equal—three decades after his solo debut. Peter Kember, the multi-instrumentalist better known as Sonic Boom, made Spectrum way back in the innocent age of 1990, just before the dissolution of his long-running alt-rock outfit Spacemen 3. “Spectrum” also became the name of Kember’s next psych-leaning band, which by the mid-90s had morphed into his primary solo outlet; at the same time, he explored more expansive sonic territory with the loose collective EAR (Experimental Audio Research). Both projects have slowed down considerably in recent years, making way for relatively fleeting collaborations and production work, lending some 90s psych authenticity to the current generation of indie scenesters. I’d all but given up on ever hearing the old classic Kember sound again, so it’s pretty astonishing that All Things Being Equal picks up more or less where he left off on Spacemen 3’s final LP, 1991’s Recurring—created while he was feuding so bitterly with the band’s other creative engine, Jason Pierce (later of Spiritualized), that they made the album by each writing one side of it and recording separately. On Spectrum Kember had flirted with electronica while retaining his guitar-stormin’ edge, but on Recurring he revealed a new synthy sound indebted more to Kraftwerk than to Spacemen 3’s nods to the Velvet Underground and the 13th Floor Elevators. The initial backing tracks for All Things Being Equal were recorded in 2015, and Kember considered releasing them as instrumentals after encouragement from Stereolab’s Tim Gane. He never did, though, and three years later, Mr. Boom felt the need to “ice the cake,” as he put it: after moving to Portugal in late 2016, he’d started spinning 60s soul and pop records, and their catchy vocal vibes appear throughout the new album. But Sonic also does classic Sonic, which he clearly defines on opener “Just Imagine,” a mission statement of a song that features gurgling synths, Speak & Spell-style bloops ’n’ bleeps, and the drony, catchy vocals Kember has used since day one of his psychedelic career. He consistently evokes the groovy sounds and shiny machine music of a 1960s vision of the future, and the womblike “Just a Little Piece of Me” pulses like a computer on Star Trek (or like the chill-out room at a 90s rave) while recalling the shoegaze era that S3 helped inspire. Drum machines invade “The Way That You Live,” which mines the new-wave territory of early OMD or New Order and adds rippling ambient accents reminiscent of the 1960s experiments of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. On “My Echo, My Shadow and Me,” Sonic brings back his trademark spoken-word ruminations, sounding either like the bored headmaster at a British school in outer space or like a malfunctioning B-movie supercomputer that’s somehow become sentient—when he exclaims “I am the fire,” you’re inclined to believe him. The Boomster says he was influenced by the numerology of the year 2020, and the songs on All Things Being Equal gesture toward the mathematical interconnectedness of human consciousness, memory, space, consumerism, and much more. The album is not only a reflection of the strange moment in which we find ourselves but also a timeless, retro-futuristic pop masterpiece that music scholars should be studying and deciphering for (fingers crossed) generations to come.   v

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