playing with fire / spectrum / melomania / highs lows and heavenly blows / pure phase

Spacemen 3, 1988 / Sonic Boom, 1990 / the Darkside, 1992 / Spectrum, 1994 / Spiritualized, 1995

By the time I came across the Spacemen 3, they'd already broken up, with solo careers underway. Of course, they were barely an obscure cult band at the time. The Spacemen have grown in reputation as the years go on. I was just in time to catch a wave of reissues before their catalog plunged back into out-of-print obscurity. Even still, getting it all, took some serious doing, but I was obsessed, and needed everything. It's no exaggeration to say their records ended up molding a good portion of my current sound character.

As they've vinyl copies started to return to the market, I was faced with the difficult decision of just which one to get. Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs to is a perennial favorite. In actuality, Taking Drugs is a collection of demos for their first album, leaning more into their rockist side and only hinting at their spaced-out potential. Their last album, Recurring, is amazing, but fragmented—playing more like a split LP for their subsequent solo gigs. That left Perfect Prescription and Playing with Fire, which felt like deciding which arm to lose.

Ultimately Playing with Fire was too alluring. It's the wobbling imperfect balance in the middle of their transitions. It churns with overdriven guitars on Revolution, blisses out brilliantly on How Does It Feel? and features an unrelenting, locked-groove tribute to their heroes, Suicide. (Plus, it was released on double 10-inch.)

Before Spacemen 3 dissolved in acrimony, Sonic Boom fired off his first solo album, Spectrum. It's a clear continuation of Playing with Fire (and featured help from most the band). I ordered an expensive copy from Japan off ebay, long before the reissues arrived. If I had waited, I would have scored a copy with the interactive psychedelic wheel on the cover (alas, mine's just printed). Spectrum's centerpiece is Angel, a variation on themes from Spacemen 3's Ode to Street Hassle, but so much improved.

With the Spacemen over, Sonic Boom formed a group (confusingly, also) called Spectrum that was to be his pop outlet. Soul Kiss (Glide Divine) is perhaps the most under-appreciated shoegaze album (this, by a man who helped made the genre possible), but I could never get over Highs, Lows and Heavenly Blows. I waited decades for it to be reissued. It's another transitional record, showing both where Sonic Boom had been as well as where they were headed. And Then I Just Drifted Away is a brilliant rework of How Does It Feel? and the instrumental simply called Feedback showcases what Pete Kember was up to with his other, more ambient project Experimental Audio Research (more on that another time).

Jason Pierce (aka J.Spaceman) quickly launched Spiritualized, debuting with an ambitious single, turning parts of a Spacemen 3 instrumental into a 13+ minute dream pop epic. The band was lush and lavish from the outset, sounding less DIY-experimental than any of Sonic Boom's projects. Spiritualized was defined by extended songs built of diaphanous layers, like Feel So Sad. While Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space has been minted a classic, I believe Spiritualized peaked with Pure Phase. The album sounds enormous (apparently you're hearing two different mixes simultaneously). That depth in the album's sound gives an extreme punch to their loud-quiet-loud dynamics. Pure Phase moves as a suite, strung together by the cosmic tones phasing in and out of nearly every song. It's atrippy, frightening, beautiful and groovy record, often all at once.

The Spacemen 3 was, at heart, a duo, but Pete Bassman has probably in the strongest claim as their third. He played on nearly all the Spacemen records (and most of the Spectrum material as well). He's fronted a couple of bands himself, the most successful being his psychedelic garage band, The Darkside. They had two solid albums, that fit neatly into the Spacemen canon, while still carving out their own, distinct voice. Darkside's second album, Melomania, lacks a killer single like Waiting for the Angels (from their first), but it's the more ambitious of the two. They experiment with their formula, courting a heavy-lidded madchester sound on This Mystic Morning, and ending with a near-10-minute Velvets-style jam, Rise.

While these are all records I argue to be objectively classic, they're also indelibly soaked in time and place. When you spend that much time searching for and listening to something, it seeps into your very experience—not just the soundtrack to your past, more an unseen character in your story. I certainly can't imagine my life without the Spacemen 3 by my side.