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Spacemen 3 - Sound of Confusion / Performance

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Artist: Spacemen 3

Album: Sound of Confusion / Performance

Label: Fire

Review date: Jul. 15, 2009

Though arguably one of the more influential bands of the late 1980s and early ‘90s, the Spacemen 3 remain something of an overlooked enigma. The band’s imprint is on everything from My Bloody Valentine, Ride and the Brian Jonestown Massacre to newer acts like Entrance, Wooden Shjips and Kurt Vile. Yet, to many, the band is nothing more than Jason Pierce’s pre-Spiritualized outfit. Existing in an era during which the British music press seemed to come up with a witty soubriquet for every possible musical style, the band never fit neatly into any one of them. Equally perplexing, they never graced one of their country’s venerated indie labels such as 4AD, Creation or Rough Trade; the band’s first three full-lengths, including Sound of Confusion and Performance, were released on Glass before the band jumped to Fire.

While Spacemen 3 share some aesthetic similarities with Spiritualized and Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember’s Spectrum (and perhaps in a more theoretical sense his E.A.R. project), there is something considerably more primal about S3’s approach. Even during their quieter moments on, say, Perfect Prescription, they employ an ultra minimalist foundation of organ and acoustic guitar, repeated ad infinitum. Yet the most notorious element of the band’s image, and the one delivered with the most brute force, was its relationship to drugs. Few bands have been as blatant about their medicinal intake – and the relative joys and horrors it provides – as the Spacemen 3.

The earlier incarnation of Spacemen 3, perhaps best exemplified by the debut full-length Sound of Confusion, is all drugged-out piss and vinegar. From the album’s opening salvo on, Pierce and Sonic Boom (here listed as Peter Gunn) drill the listener into a narcotic netherworld. It may not be bliss exactly, but it’s practically tactile. Kember and Pierce replace sex with religion in the infamous triumvirate, dodging perdition by way of smack-addled riffing and oceans of fuzz. The band’s nakedly indulgent motto “Taking drugs to make music to takes drug to” most likely proves accurate for those inclined to find out, but for the more cautious, Sound of Confusion (and to a slightly lesser extent Performance) transports via endless drones.

While divided by song title, the faint dots of Sound of Confusion are connected primarily by allusions to the band’s stylistic forbears. The S3’s druggy image, at least in this early stage, gave them an air of nervous menace. Yet beneath all the Technicolor hellfire, the Spacemen 3 were in fact playing quite catchy music, influenced by the likes of Bo Diddley, the Velvet Underground, Nuggets psych, and the animalistic drive of the Stooges and MC5. The obvious embrace of their idols, in fact, makes for one of the most genial aspects of the band. It’s long been savvy to deny one’s influences and project the notion that one’s art comes fully formed from an organic neutral zone. The Spacemen 3 chuckled at such a notion. Sound of Confusion alone contains covers of the 13th Floor Elevators, Juicy Lucy and the Stooges, while “Hey Man” is both a nod to Bukka White and a play on the gospel standard “Amen.” (Performance also adds one of the band’s several versions of the Red Krayola’s “Transparent Radiation.”) All of them, however, sound unmistakably like Spacemen 3 songs, and it’s not much of a stretch to say that they all sound like the same Spacemen 3 song, so consummate was the band’s final creation. It’s as if Pierce and Kember’s M.O. was to recreate what their record collections sound like at the apex of their high.

In the end, the whole album pulses with a vibrancy that, depending on your own mental state can be both unsettling and beautiful. Quite literally, the experience of the music comes first here, and the blunt instruments the band uses to fashion the contours of that experience produce a minor classic.

The recent reissues of The Sound of Confusion and Performance, part of Fire Records “Embers” series reinforces both the band’s impact and its mystery. Frustratingly, these editions are as stripped down as the band’s sound. Issued in gatefold CD slips, the packaging is certainly nice, but it offers absolutely nothing new to the Spacemen 3 story. The music certainly hasn’t changed, which makes these sets practical if nothing else, but it does make one wonder why this band hasn’t gotten the full-on deluxe reissue treatment with extensive liner notes and all that good stuff. With that in mind, those interested would do well to track down Bomp’s Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To, an excellent and rather nicely annotated collection featuring earlier, supremely raw alternate versions of tracks found on Sound and Perfect Prescription.

By Nate Knaebel

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