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.
Public Service Broadcasting arrived at a sold-out Corn Exchange as part of their biggest tour so far. Support was from the excellent Smoke Fairies, playing dreamy, atmospheric folk-guitar based songs, the dual female voices blended carefully in the mix to become like another instrumental texture for most of the time, occasionally with a single lead vocal. Sustained bass and deep keyboard notes hovered over some mighty drumming and the atmospheric retro/future look of black and silver for simple stage set and costumes worked well.
Then there was an intriguing half hour while the stage was set, roadies and band members all up there fixing the bits and pieces. No doubt there was probably more technological power than that used to control the moon landings. The three bespectacled and necktied musicians of PSB, complete with visuals and effects co-ordinator opened with ‘Sputnik’ (including a satellite rising from the stage) and set the tone for a great show. They were playing live drums, percussion, various guitars, keyboards, loops, flugel horn and banjo (!)….on CD the music and sampled voices work well (see my earlier review), but beef up the concert sound and add the visuals too and it makes the band a formidable live attraction.
Two large screens at the back and flanking towers of retro TVs show images of the space race, film of the band as they played and in the most arresting and poignant section of the show, civilian preparations for World War Two and the development of the Spitfire. All communication with the audience was through pre-recorded then manipulated soundbites in a robot voice, which is either a subtle comment on the artifice of modern rock shows or actually just a very entertaining joke (why are robot voices intrinsically funny?).
I was stunned by the hypnotic roll of ‘Night Mail’, the rocking out of ‘The Now Generation’ and ‘Signal 30’, the pulsing electronica of ‘Theme From PSB’ and the newer space songs were woven in to maximum effect. Smoke Fairies were back on stage to add heavenly voices to ‘Valentina’ and the final Moon landing song and new single ‘Go!’ closed the main show. Back for the encore with the musically different and extra-funky ‘Gagarin’, complete with brass section and astronaut dancer. Finally it was ‘Everest’ (have the band peaked?!) and that was it, the crowd were very happy and it was one of the best shows I have seen at the Corn Exchange for a long time.
I think there is much more to come…
Public Service Broadcasting are an electronic and acoustic duo, ‘on a mission to entertain and educate’. By combining the original recordings of speeches and commentaries with different musical settings they create a variety of involving and atmospheric pieces. Careful crafting of the voices meld perfectly with the sentiments of the added music. It is not the normal expectation that a song will inform you of historical or cultural events, but here we get the full rundown of the competition in the 1960s and 70s between Russia and America to get people into space and on the Moon.
The prologue is John F. Kennedy’s stirring 1962 speech setting out plans for the future Moon landings over a background of ethereal voices, then the electronic pulsing of ‘Sputnik’ evokes the worldwide excitement of the first satellite. ‘Gagarin’ is a lively brass-funk workout, released as a single, then the optimistic mood is brought down with ‘Fire In The Cockpit’ reminding us of the fatal dangers always present in the early days of space. ‘The Other Side’ is brooding and tense electronica with commentaries from the Apollo 8 mission into lunar orbit. ‘Valentina’ commemorates the first woman in space with gentle strings and acoustic guitar and the heavenly floating vocals of Smoke Fairies, who will be accompanying PSB on their upcoming tour.
At last it is ‘Go!’, building genuine excitement in music and words as Apollo 11 finally lands on the Moon. ‘Tomorrow’ uses a looser structure to end the album on a speculative note, finally playing out with layers of keyboard, drifting off into space of course (a nod to the end of Holst’s Planets Suite?)
In concert they combine the sampled audio with live playing and visuals, I am looking forward to it…..