Thursday 5 March 2015

Public Service Broadcasting - The Race For Space

On 21 July 1969, Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon (or not if you go along with the conspiracy theories).
12 months to the day later, I popped into this world.

As a result of this chronological quirk, there may be a chance that I have an in-depth knowledge and appreciation of all things space-y, astronaut-y and SciFi like.
Not a bit of it - I can appreciate the scientific and engineering advances, but I prefer SciFi when it is debunked via Airplane II, Spaceballs or Red Dwarf, or similar.

But this in no way reduced my anticipation for the new Public Service Broadcasting.
Previous release 'Inform - Educate - Entertain' took old Public Service Broadcasting Films and provided them with a soundtrack.  The juxtaposition of the BBC English, plummy-voiced Announcer fighting for air-space with guitar, drums and electronic beats worked so well, the apparent strangeness of the concept was gone.

The "difficult" second album continues this conceit, and uses voice tracks recorded in the 50s/60s documenting the competition between the super-powers to get a man on the moon.

On first listen, it didn't immediately "grab" me the way 'Inform - Educate - Entertain' did, but further listening reveals more depth and cohesion than the previous release (I just needed to re-calibrate my expectations).

Opening with a John F Kennedy speech of intent to go to the moon over a haunting choir, second track "Sputnick" starts up as the applause fades.  From a relatively desolate beat, the track starts slow and moody, gradually building with more sounds and atmospheres, before tailing away and launching into "Gagarin" - a throbbing funk track built around an insistent guitar riff and horn work-out.
The whole mood is brought down a notch with "Fire In The Cockpit", where you can almost feel the claustophobia and helplessness of the situation it describes.

The next track for me was the pivotal moment of the album - "EVA" opens like a collision between a Pink Floyd riff and Television for Schools and Colleges, and continues in that vein at moments sounding like TV and Film "production" music.
This is the track documents the first Space Walk, and for me encapsulates the point of the story - a statement of achievement  Built around a Tubular Bells-like base, the track bounds along, and then slowly fades, before the monotonous, almost Krautrock, opening to "The Other Side".
"Valentina" retains the musical template, and adds actual vocals, courtesy of The Smoke Fairies (albiet in the form of a choir-infused atmospheric chant).

"Go" is probably the most immediate track on the album - this track marks the actual moment of the moon landing, and includes possibly one of the most famous human utterances "The Eagle Has Landed".  This therefore should represent the conclusion of the story.

Or it would do, but ... the final track "Tomorrow" is a slow, almost melancholic account (complete with glockenspiel) which recounts the final Apollo mission of 1972.  It may mark the end of an era, but retains the suggestion that if mankind has done it once, why not do it again.
All goes quiet for about a minute and a half, and then a rousing tone begins to rise offering a rousing, almost triumphant, conclusion to the album (although many may nor get to hear this and switch the album off at the 4:00 minute mark when "Tomorrow" seemingly ends.)

The conceit of the band remains the same - to apply a contemporary soundtrack to archive voice tracks.
Both the predecessor and this album follow this pattern.  However, the tracks on 'Inform - Educate - Entertain' could be considered as stand-alone entities strung together by the idea, this album is a true concept album built around the narrative of the title.
As a result, it makes for a stronger, more complete work.

Although, I do fear for the future - there are only so many archive recordings that could lend themselves to the PSB treatment.  There may be a danger of either repeating themselves, or not finding a truly emotive, or resonant, subject to base future releases upon.

Where next?
  • A celebration of 1970s TV Adverts (including a trip-hop remix of the Shake n Vac advert)?
  • Match Of The Day Commentary tracks from John Motson over a three-chord punk rock thrash?
  • The speeches of Margaret Thatcher set to a Brian Eno inspired ambient soundscape?

Whatever they do next, I'm sure it will be as eagerly awaited, and as well received as both full albums released to date.

Public Service Broadcasting - E.V.A.


  1. Excellent review! Will have to give this a go, have held back so far.

  2. Total agreement here - much more of a grower than the first album. But I'm not sure I could bring myself to buy an album of Thatcher...