The follow-up to the acclaimed ‘The Race For Space’, the new Public Service Broadcasting album debuts in the album charts at Number 4, not bad for a concept album about the decline of the coal mining industry in South Wales. Given those perhaps limited parameters this is a superb result, it is more introspective and less immediate than its predecessors but repeated listens brings overall reward and many glistening nuggets like that which no doubt were sometimes found in the coal seams (…enough for another 400 years…).
The narrative starts with the perceived and semi-romanticised nobility of the miners in the opening title track with of course spot-on sampled voices including a too-short snippet of the legendary Richard Burton (which made me want to re-listen to his voicing of The War Of The Worlds!). ‘The Pit’ tells us what it was really like, the 80 degree heat of the tunnels …three feet six inches high from floor to roof… (for further reading see Orwell’s Road To Wigan Pier…).
There are lots of acoustic instruments on these opening tracks, using local strings players and recording in their purpose-built studio in Ebbw Vale. The wryly titled ‘People Will Always Need Coal’ is a favourite of mine, the band using a more familiar electronic-based sound underneath the subtle ironies of a recruitment campaign film ‘….you’ll discover the excitement of going underground, there will always be something new…’. It builds up well, I can imagine it as a future live favourite. ‘Progress’ follows in a similar vein, with the vocal hook added by Traceyanne Campbell.
Then this optimism begins to crumble; the closures, strikes and strife reflected in the angry rock guitar of ‘All Out’, PSB’s noisiest track since car crash opus ‘Signal 30’ on their debut album. The rest of the album deals with the aftermath and how local communities were affected. Guest vocalists (James Dean Bradfield, Haiku Salut, Lisa Jên Brown) contribute effectively but it is those real-voice clips that really hit home.
And if listening to the gradual mellowing of the music towards the end of the album doesn’t leave you spiritually part of the landscape and its uncertain future, the final emotional heft of the male voice choir singing ‘Take Me Home’ is a glorious coda to an affecting musical journey.