Pete ‘Sonic Boom’ Kember is unfairly pigeonholed into being little more than a drug artist. He’s guilty of propagating this legend himself to a large extent thanks to his candour about his own experimentation, his impressive grasp of the history of pharmaceuticals and his early commitment to take drugs to make music to take drugs to. But there’s a danger that his music, as evocative as it is of altered states, loses credibility if it is dismissed as merely being music to get wasted to.
It is easy to overlook that his music, including that of his Spectrum outfit, is best understood within the broader artistic current of minimalism, something touched on, but never really examined in his work. Maybe because most of the critics who should be pointing this out are themselves too lysergically distracted to notice.
Artistic minimalism has been described as “[…] that without the diverting presence of ‘composition’, and by the use of plain, often industrial materials arranged in geometrical or highly simplified configurations we may experience all the more strongly the pure qualities of colour, form, space and materials.” (The Tate Gallery, An Illustrated Companion, 1979). Whilst this definition brings to mind contemporary visual art by the likes of Dan Flavin and Richard Serra, this is clearly the effect created with Boom’s one, two chord songs. His work is often brutally formalistic, and always has been marked by a quest for pure noise – sonic minimalism – rather than just being too wasted to play more complicated songs. This approach marked the early Spacemen 3 recordings, but since Jason Pierce and Spiritualized, through their choirs and orchestral arrangements has taken a tangent firmly towards the ‘composition’, Kember has remained true to this sense of sonic purity.
What we got tonight at the Nouveau Casino, a distinctly un-minimal venue with it’s chandeliers, hipsters and location on Rue Oberkampf one of Paris bohemian-chic addresses, was a masterclass of Sonic Minimalism. The spartan setlist, just eight songs, each one teased out to it’s full conclusion, was broadly similar to that played a couple of months previously during Kembers’ last visit. Perhaps inevitably, we got the hits from Spectrum and Spacemen 3, bombarded with a similar precision to that night at the Point Ephémère; Ché, How You Satisfy Me, Suicide and Revolution. The was lineup was reassuringly familiar the with Guto Price from the Super Furry Animals, alarmingly looking increasingly like Dr Jacobi from Twin Peaks, again anchoring bass duties.
For me, the most interesting tracks played were two that didn’t make the setlist last time around, both of which showcase the gentler, melodic side of the Spectrum oeuvre, rather than the bombast. The first, set-opener ‘The Lonsesome Death of Johnny Ace’, a standout track from the 2008 album Indian Giver album that saw Kember going head-to-head with the late legendary rock producer Jim Dickson. The second, the set’s first encore ‘Undo the Taboo’, which kicked off 1992’s Highs, Lows And Heavenly Blows. Both tracks show cast aside the pummelling drone Spectrum is perhaps is best known for, showcasing a subtler, altogether more delicate side to the Spectrum sound, a side where the intersecting lines of Kember’s theramin and Jason Holt’s guitar take centre stage.
With the immanent re-issue of the first three Kember solo albums, here’s hoping that 2011 will be the opportunity for a full consideration of Spectrum’s, err, range – the light, rather than just the shade of Kember’s commitment to ‘making the most out of very little’ to be celebrated.