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’s drawn to the year’s numerological potency, and this intentionality shines into every corner of All Things Being Equal. 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 analog toolkit and protective of the plants and trees that support our lives.
Sonic Boom’s second album 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.”
Over the vivid, calculating arps of opener “Just Imagine,” Kember nudges listeners to do 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. “The Way That You Live,” a rollicking drone powered by drum machine rattles and bright chord beds, morphs political distrust into a revolutionary 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.
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. What emerges from these considerations on technology and humanity is a honed collection both philosophical and grooving, spacious even as it fills to its brim. It’s distinctly Kember—more than that, it’s distinctly Sonic Boom.