We Love Music: Spectrum @ Velvet Lounge 5/13/10

spectrum at velvet lounge
courtesy of Spectrum.

It was a psychedelic throw-down at the Velvet Lounge on Thursday night when Spectrum dropped in to kick-off their current U.S. tour. In what is easily the best live set I have personally seen performed at the Velvet Lounge, the equipment heavy 4-man unit turned the tiny stage into their own personal sound laboratory and dazzled the small but dedicated crowd with an explosive evening of controlled feedback and groovy repetition.

For the uninitiated Spectrum is the most traditional of the many music projects led by Peter Kember aka Sonic Boom. Sonic Boom was one of the members of the hypnotically brilliant Spacemen 3, a legendary UK guitar band from the 80’s underground. Since Spacemen 3’s demise in the early 90’s, Sonic Boom has been pushing the envelope with experimental projects like Experimental Audio Research and Spectrum. The material Sonic Boom records as Spectrum began with a sound very similar to his former band but quickly evolved away from guitars and for many years became based around vintage keyboards and organs. His music has always maintained a ‘head’ music atmosphere even with the move away from guitars and feedback into tone drones and synth symphonies. On Spectrum’s latest EP, “War Sucks“, the band’s sound seems to be cycling back into guitar freak-out territory. I first saw Spectum at All Tomorrow’s Parties NY in 2008. The set was an equal mix of keyboard and guitar manipulations that also featured a nice dose of Spacemen 3 songs. The whole 2008 set was a laid-back fuzz-fest. So it was with the new EP and the 2008 show in mind that I went into Thursday night figuring the concert could go either way. In other words I didn’t really know what to expect.

Thursday’s show featured exactly one keyboard-centric song. The opener was a nice, mellow drone instrumental. After that they played two dreamy numbers both featuring the lyrical theme of “set me free”; the second of which was the tune ‘How You Satisfy Me’ from the first Spectrum album. ‘How You Satisfy Me’ began a ramp up in energy and noise level that would continue to grow through the rest of the show. By set’s end the Velvet Lounge was literally shaking from the sonic thunderstorm being created onstage. I leaned on the railing next to the stairs during ‘War Sucks’ and it was vibrating like crazy.

Ultimately Spectrum played more songs by other people than their own tunes. But that is sort of par for the course with Spectrum. Sonic Boom is a master at re-arranging songs by his peers and influences. Among the covers on Thursday were Spectrum versions of the Spacemen 3 covers of ‘Che’ by Suicide and ‘When Tomorrow Hits’ by Mudhoney. Spectrum also played their version of ‘The Lonely Death of Johnny Ace’ as a tribute to the late Jim Dickinson aka Captain Memphis. All of these songs were guitar-based, feedback filled, repetitive masterpieces. Each featured its own special sonic signature though, most notably ‘…Johnny Ace’ which had Sonic Boom jamming on a theremin. I’ve never really seen a theremin used so intensely before.

Repetition is a key ingredient of Spacemen 3 and Spectrum songs. The tunes can stretch upwards of 10 minutes with a repetitive rhythm section hypnotizing the listener while Sonic Boom invents and innovates with looped effects pedals, amplifier tweaking, keyboard manipulations, and other usually studio-based trickery. It was phenomenal watching this master at work in such an intimate venue. Half the tiny stage was cleared for him to move around while he whaled on a guitar, dropped to his knees soloing with just an effects pedal, or attacked the theremin like an angry hummingbird. Sonic Boom is a pale, skinny man and an intense performer. His eyes roll back into his head, his cheeks sink in, his face twists into a grimace while he sings. He stumbles around triggerign effects like a zombie or, more appropriately, a junkie high on feedback.

The culmination of all of his gear manipulation was the one-two punch of Spacemen 3’s ‘Revolution’ into Spectrum’s ‘War Sucks’. It was during this 15? 20? minute stretch of the show that Sonic Boom brought his career in music full circle. One of his oldest classics and his latest song are sonic twins. They combined for one of the craziest, most intense feedback assaults I’ll hear this year. At one point, Sonic Boom was lightning-strumming his guitar while see-sawing the guitar’s body on the keys of his keyboard! It was one of the most maniacal things I’ve ever seen a musician do. I didn’t really know what to expect going into this concert and I was really caught of guard by the intensity of it all. I don’t know if it was the intimate venue, Sonic Boom having a new amped-up attitude, or a combination of the two but this show felt like an adrenalin shot to the heart. Thursday night the wall of sound was in full effect in Washington DC and the air shook.

Michael splits his free time between defending the little guy and championing the underdog. He has been haunting the concert halls, dive bars, and greasy spoons of DC for the last 16 years. His interests include live rock music, researching obscure military/political conflicts, and good hamburgers. He is a friendly grump, has wisdom beyond his years, and is on a life-long quest to attain music nirvana. Follow him on Twitter if you dare!

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