Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) and Sonic Boom (Peter Kember) have represented one of the more interesting (and rare) intergenerational collaborations of the past several years. Technically, they are both Gen Xers, though at opposing ends of that generation’s spectrum: Kember was born in 1965, and Lennox in 1978. From a musical standpoint, their differences become more apparent with their artistic origins located in two distinctive cohorts of indie music. Their partnership has consequently posed something of a litmus test.
Kember is best known for his work with Spacemen 3, an English psych-rock/garage blues act founded in 1982 along with Jason Pierce (a.k.a. J. Spaceman). Spacemen 3 developed a raw elemental sound that returned to and updated the early workings of rock and roll on the albums Sound of Confusion (1986) and The Perfect Prescription (1987). Like the Cramps and the Jesus and Mary Chain, Spacemen 3 seemed intent on reviving a guitar-based aesthetic through volume, distortion, and repetitive, drone-heavy chords as an antidote to the 1980s turn to keyboards and synthesizers.
Less pop-oriented than the Brian Wilson-inspired songcraft of the Jesus and Mary Chain and less rockabilly than the Cramps, Spacemen 3 took their cues from the 13th Floor Elevators, the Stooges, and the Velvet Underground. They also gamely explored the rapport between narcotics and music, as indicated in the album title, The Perfect Prescription. Two fan-favorite collections of demos – Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To (1990) and For All the Fucked-Up Children of This World We Give You Spacemen 3 (1995) – have further solidified this reputation.
Despite their somewhat abbreviated lifespan, Spacemen 3 has been credited with inspiring shoegaze and dream pop acts – there’s a clip of a young Dean Wareham citing Spacemen 3 as an influence during a 1990 performance of Galaxie 500 on MTV’s 120 Minutes – as well as projects like the rock deconstructionism of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and the heroin chic of Royal Trux. This stylistic range of successors is unified by the guitar-centric nature of these bands, which may raise questions regarding Kember’s unlikely, even antithetical, connection to an artist like Panda Bear, who has been part of the post-2000 electronica revival.
Lennox is a founding member of Animal Collective in addition to recording solo as Panda Bear. Animal Collective is best known for their eighth album, Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009), a breakthrough work that had chart success and received critical acclaim. Similar to peers like LCD Soundsystem and Caribou (Dan Snaith), Animal Collective perfected an addictive and danceable exuberance on tracks like “My Girls”. Much, if not all, of the development of this sound can be found in the preceding solo work of Panda Bear stretching back to 1999 and on the then-recent LP, Person Pitch (2007).
Returning to the litmus test, one might listen to Reset (2022), last year’s collaboration between Panda Bear and Sonic Boom, and think this sounds nothing like the music for which Kember is known. Yet, despite initial surface contrasts between both artists, the final Spacemen 3 album, Recurring (1991), gives some indication of potential affinity between Kember and Lennox, with the opening track “Big City (Everybody I Know Can Be Found Here)” embracing a notable synth-pop sound.
Kember’s post-Spacemen 3 projects, Spectrum and especially E.A.R. (Experimental Audio Research), went further in this electronic music direction. Albums from the latter project, like the abstract The Köner Experiment (1997) and the spooky Millennium Music: A Meta-Musical Portrait (1998), unapologetically ventured into the terrain of ambient minimalism and musique concrete. Locating himself somewhere between Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (1975) and Boards of Canada, Kember’s attempts to bridge the traditions of electronica and a more rock-oriented sound approximated that of contemporaries obscure and popular alike, whether the For Carnation or Radiohead.
Added to this, Kember has benefited from collaborations across his career, whether with Pierce (who went on to establish the highly regarded Spiritualized), bands like Yo La Tengo and Stereolab, or now with Lennox. Prior to Reset, Kember produced Panda Bear’s Tomboy (2011) and Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper (2015). Meanwhile, Lennox contributed vocals to Sonic Boom’s All Things Being Equal (2020), his first solo album in 30 years. Further collaboration seemed fated.
The conceit of Reset was to revisit and remix the (primarily American) pop sounds of the 1950s and 1960s. The result is a sentimental, summer-infused séance in which the past is devotedly updated on tracks like the acoustic, declarative opener “Gettin’ to the Point” or the surf pop number “Edge of the Edge”.
Contra that track’s title, however, there isn’t too much edginess to Reset, which is perhaps the point. Depending on your taste, songs like “In My Body” may inspire with its carefully curated Beach Boys vibe, or it might not. One senses a furtive irony to this project, like an inside joke that became serious. To this end, their new album Reset in Dub, in collaboration with Adrian Sherwood, is, to my ear, a more interesting listening experience.
Reset in Dub is the same nine-song album track for track, albeit a few minutes longer at 44 minutes rather than the original 38. Adrian Sherwood has worked with a range of musicians and acts, most notably with Spoon and their recent album Lucifer on the Sofa (2022), which he refashioned as Lucifer on the Moon (2022). Several decades ago, he apprenticed with the legendary dub producer Lee “Scratch” Perry. On Reset in Dub, his work is more effective than with Spoon, largely because the music of the original Reset lends itself more fully to dub treatment.
Unlike the three-dimensional band energy of Spoon, there is a tonal flatness that can sometimes ensue on electronic remixes, however well conceptualized, like those on Reset. The repetitiveness of its tracks is subsequently pulled and stretched in different ways on this new LP, with notes squeezed and space filled in with additional layers of instruments, whether bass, piano, or strings. A greater sense of spatial imagination is generated through echoes, beats, and loops, which not only works musically but enhances the pop nostalgia at play.
The outcome is that Reset in Dub is a denser and more fully formed work. It is an improvement on its predecessor. Beyond the dub work of Sherwood, an argument can be made that this project reflects the artistry of Panda Bear more than Sonic Boom. The long-ago track “Bros” from Person Pitch foreshadows Lennox’s interest in this material. Yet, Kember has also noted his affection for Lee Perry and the Beach Boys. In different ways, their collaboration circles back to their established mutual interest in psychedelia and the narcotic capacity of music.
Taken together, Reset in Dub marks another attempt by Kember and Lennox to arrive at a new alchemy between past and present musical traditions, a concern that has long defined their respective careers.