Three years ago Public Service Broadcasting released ‘The Race for Space’ and I became obsessed with it. It made me feel like I was a child watching the developments of the space race between the US and the USSR unravel through the course of thirty-odd years. I remember thinking at the time, “these guys are going to have to have a blinder to ever match this”. This brings us to their new album, ‘Every Valley’.
It tells the tale of the rapid rise and fall of the Welsh coal mining industry, leading to mass unemployment, the death of whole communities and families left in desolation under the boot of an excessively unsympathetic Tory government. Sticking to their usual method of intertwining archive audio clips with instrumental tracks, PSB relay the story like you’re watching it as it happened. Using familiar synth sounds, guitar licks and ever-expanding looped and stacked melodies they create a real sense of anticipation, excitement, anger and tragedy at each step.
The production is luscious with great attention paid to just how much every layer is allowed to poke its head out and every song makes you feel the intended different levels of sympathy, frustration and sadness for the people who were affected by these events.
Despite all this, ‘Every Valley’ is not quite as enthralling and exciting as ‘The Race For Space’. It just isn’t, the subject matter just isn’t as sexy. Initially it didn’t get the same grip on me that most of PSB’s material has done but then, a few listens in, it did fall into place. Listening to the voices in the archive clips lets the heartbeat of the album seep in.
There is still that signature cinematic quality in the music that makes most PSB releases so unique – the ability to construct audio that produces the drama of the movies in your mind’s eye is very much in attendance here, the music regularly building towards the last minute or two of a track until you feel an urge to jump out of your seat.
The closing ninety seconds of the opening (and title) track brings to mind images of hills and mountains, underneath which lies the seemingly infinite mass of fuel. This is followed by ‘The Pit’ which suggests gruelling days of sweat, toil and menacing danger in the darkness beneath the earth.
The emotional rollercoaster continues with the rising optimism, almost relief, of ‘Progress’, the unrestrained anger of ‘All Out’ with it’s writhing guitar lick playing out over the crowd noise of a public protest and then a more mournful thread running through the last four songs. ‘Turn No More’ is a love song to the towns forming the carcass of the industry, James Dean Bradfield’s delivery whiffing considerably of revolution and resistance. ‘They Gave Me A Lamp’ is much more wistful and highlights the role women played in the community following the pit closures when their men had all too often been brought to their knees. Melancholic portraits of grim ghost towns are painted and the scale of the tragedy is discussed during ‘Mother of the Village’. Sorrowful guitar lines and desperate, defeated voices give a sense of having reached the end, then the sound of a Welsh male voice choir brings the curtain down on the album too.
And so it seems that Public Service Broadcasting have negotiated the “difficult third album” successfully and the only reason it didn’t turn my head as much is the reduced draw of the story they have chosen to tell. The issues on both ‘The Race For Space’ and ‘Every Valley’ are very similar, one just occurs on a less glamourous stage I suppose. As ever though, J. Willgoose Esq. and chums have used their precisely constructed tunes to discuss another significant tale from human history and it is this that ensures their albums remain an art form that is always bit more than just music.