It’s very seldom you come across an artist or band for whom no comparison exists. There is no “RIYL”. There is just brilliance, creativity, and expanded boundaries so you can truly say, “I haven’t heard this before – no one else is doing this right now”. That in a nutshell describes Public Service Broadcasting.
PSB started as an experimental project consisting solely of Willgoose in 2009. After teaming up with Wrigglesworth on drums, they played their first festival in 2010. It was in 2014 when the brilliance of PSB was witnessed firsthand at SXSW in Austin. To listen to their music is one aspect, but to see the entire show with visuals to back up their unique form of pedagogic pop is something one must experience in the flesh.
2013’s debut album Inform-Educate-Entertain did just that with PSB using various, old historical videos and audio samples from the British Film Institute as inspiration for songs. The brilliant “Everest” chronicles the climbers of Everest and “Spitfire” (Originally from the War Room EP) tackles the dream of aerospace so that we can fly like the birds.
Their sophomore LP, The Race For Space, was released in 2014 and was PSB’s first fully themed album that brought musicality to the very heated race for space with the most notable singles, “Gagarin” and “Go!”. Last week, they released their third record, Every Valley, which tackles the historical heyday and then fall of the Welsh coal mining industry. Being an American with no historical knowledge on the Welsh coal miners does not necessarily detract from this album as a listener. On the other hand, it forces curiosity to become more educated about the history and to realize the lives that were affected during this time. As Mr. Willgoose states about the album:
“What’s certain in my mind is that this album isn’t just about mining, and isn’t just about Wales. It’s a story reflected in abandoned and neglected communities across the western world, and one which has led to the resurgence of a particularly malignant, cynical and calculating brand of politics.”
Every Valley was recorded in Ebbw Vale, historically a steelworkers’ town but one surrounded by coal mines, and in the former lecture hall of their former workers’ institute. The album is definitely PSB’s most cohesive group of songs yet. PSB has moved from clever composers to musical storytellers with only a handful of songs even having actual lyrics. The progression with this new album is astounding.
Richard Burton lends his signature voice to the opener and title track, “Every Valley”, which chronicles the pride that was taken for coal miners as they were considered “the kings of the underworld”. The track is expansive and brooding and sets the stage for this historical story set to an emotional score. “The Pit” then takes us on a journey with the dangerous job of actually being in the pit of the coal mines set against telltale drums and soothing wind instruments.
The album then segues to some upbeat audio that is most likely a commercial recruiting new coal miners . On “People Will Always Need Coal” the vocals declare, “There is a secure future in coal mining today”. Despite its uptempo nature, the message is a warning that the industrial landscape is about to change.
The next track, “Progress”, is a wonderful and positive turn, as PSB uses vocals in their music for the first time. Doing the honors is Camera Obscura’s Traceyanne Campbell, and she declares “I believe in progress” as a futuristic and Kraftwerk-like vibe stream in the background. This is clearly the standout single on the album. It also is a declaration – that even though this progress ultimately became the demise of the coal mining industry, we must realize that this world is in a constant state of change. We should, therefore, embrace evolution, even if it means entire industries dying out.
“Go To The Road” is the beginning of the end as the coal mining industry starts to decline and the track ends with a grand display of strings. On “All Out”, PSB become urgent and angry, releasing a track that chronicles the coal mining strikes. A female voice declares, “We are not going to take anymore”. It’s clearly the most hurried track on the album, and it explodes with screaming guitar and fast paced percussion which is perfectly appropriate for the state of the industry.
“Turn No More” is lyrically an excerpt from Welsh poet Idris Davies’ Gwalia Deserta XXXVI sung by none other than Welsh singer James Dean Bradfield (Manic Street Preachers). It’s another brooding track that explains the loss of the industry and community due to the demise of the coal industry.
“They Gave Me a Lamp” features the brilliance of instrumental trio Haiku Salut and speaks to the political aspect of the industry as glorious winds, brass and strings create a harmonious stage. The role of the women in the communities eventually were to hold support groups in favor of the strikes and helping support the miners during this time. On “You+Me”, J. Willgoose for the first time lends his vocals to a PSB recording and only because the original vocalist fell through. The duet is with Welsh singer Lisa Jên Brown, who sings in her native language.
“The Mother Of the Village” is a somber track and explains the fact that the ‘pit’ was the mother of the village and now it is no more. With the coal mines no longer running, it’s over and the community is now dying. The finale, “Take Me Home”, is a historical track mostly sung by male choirs and originally penned by the 60’s Welsh pop duo Edwards Hand. It’s a beautiful closer that is about the son of a coal miner who does not want to follow in his father’s footsteps.
With Every Valley, PSB took a risk. They expanded away from something as pivotal and wide known as space exploration and focused on a historical event that has a regional significance. They also for the first time used vocalists to complete the album theme and further explain the landscape of the industry in a more cohesive way. The risk was successful as the trio have further expanded their creative boundaries and provided an album that provokes certain emotions throughout the storytelling (almost like a movie score). As with each new release, it’s always intriguing to see what new historical event is going to inspire the artists and cause the listener to not only become more educated on a certain subject, but also be entertained with a variety of genres and sounds needed to tell the story.
Public Service Broadcasting are J. Willgoose, Esq. (guitar,banjo, other stringed instruments, samplings, electronic musical instruments) and Wrigglesworth (drums, piano, electronic musical instruments) along with newly added third member J. F. Abraham (flugelhorn, bass guitar, drums and assorted other instruments including a vibraslap).
Every Valley is out now via Play It Again Sam.
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