Album Review: Public Service Broadcasting – The Race for Space

Race For Space Artwork
Race For Space Artwork

The Race for Space is the much anticipated follow up to Public Service Broadcasting’s May 2013 debut ‘Inform – Educate – Entertain’, which reached number 21 in the UK Album Chart and garnered rave reviews and award nominations in it’s wake.

Public Service Broadcasting are pseudonymous musical duo J. Willgoose, Esq and Wrigglesworth who weave samples from archival footage, public information films and propaganda material into tunes layered with synths, beats and real instruments to create thematic and stunning narrative soundscapes. Further biographical details remain scant as Willgoose and Wrigglesworth prefer to maintain their privacy and let listeners focus on their music.

As part of the creative process for The Race for Space, PSB were granted unique access to historic footage from the British Film Institute archives which allowed them “to go back in time and explore the period when the USA and USSR fought to gain the upper hand in a new frontier – space”. It’s very much in the same vein as similar archive footage and music mashups such as the excellent From the Sea to the Land Beyond by British Sea Power / Penny Woolcock and the also excellent From Scotland With Love by King Creosote / Virginia Heath.

The album kicks off with the title track, combining archive recordings of President Kennedy’s famous words on September 12, 1962, in front of a crowd of 35,000 people at Rice University in Houston, Texas: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Set against an angelic, vaguely religious, choral piece – recorded at historic Abbey Road Studios – The Race For Space encourages the listener to look skyward and dream about possibilities.

“I get a bit frustrated when we’re asked questions about ‘nostalgia’,” says PSB’s mission controller J. Willgoose, Esq. “The samples are archival, but the songs aren’t using antique or period music, at all. We’re bringing things from the past and framing them in new ways, to engage with them in the present.”

Willgoose’s words could not be more appropriate. In the 50+ years since Kennedy’s bold speech, against the backdrop of the Cold War and a perception that the USA were losing it, it’s easy to think that the advances in world geo-politics would have rendered that East-West tensions an anachronism, but you only have to look at the current strife in Ukraine or the ‘War on Terror’ to understand that learning from the past is always current. The themes presented in The Race for Space – global tensions, the search for new possibilities, tragedy, hope, loss, endeavour and the advancement of humanity – will never be out of fashion and are just as crucial today.

Next, we hear about the event that preceded Kennedy’s words, and fears, the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to be sent into orbit. At less than 60cm in diameter this small piece of metal changed the history of the world “and introduced a new word into the vocabulary” when it entered into orbit on 4th October 1957. Sputnik’s radio pulses were detectable on earth and the eponymous song mimics these radio pulses as if heard from the Earth, getting louder and softer as they circle the planet.

The following track Gagarin comes on like a funk theme tune for a superhero, featuring a 6-piece brass section, a 5-piece string section and some awesome guitar riffing that Nile Rodgers would be proud of. It’s fair to say that being the first human in space deserves a superhero theme tune and you can’t help but imagine James Brown in a space-suit when listening to this, not the humble Russian cosmonaut of the song’s title.

We then have a change of pace, a sombre reminder of the hazards of space travel and the price that often has to be paid for scientific progress. Fire in the Cockpit tells the tragic story of the three Apollo 1 astronauts – Grissom, White and Chaffee – who were killed on the launchpad during a rehearsal. “I was wary of covering the subject for fear of seeming disrespectful, but in the end felt it would have been more disrespectful to leave them out,” says Willgoose.

E.V.A (which stands for Extravehicular Activity in case you were wondering) tells the story of the first spacewalk and cleverly builds the excitement and anxiety of the event before beautifully crafting the sound of someone floating in space. “I’m beginning to move away” says the astronaut as delicate piano accompanies his flotation thousands of miles above the earth. Clever, clever PSB!

The Other Side follows Apollo 8 on it’s journey to the moon and around it. The archival mission control audio is fabulous here as is the arrangement of this song. You can really feel the tension as Apollo 8 approaches the moon and disappears around the other side – The Dark Side of the Moon anyone? The song builds the tension so well and you can imagine the mission control staff just before Christmas 1968 looking up at their screens in anticipation, fear and hope. The relief that gives way to euphoria as Apollo 8 emerges from the other side of the moon and regains contact with mission control is described with beautiful rising synths that makes you want to punch the air. The Other Side is a standout track amongst a number of standout tracks on The Race for Space.

The first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova – another icon of Soviet cosmonautics – is saluted on Valentina. Sounding a little like Sigur Ros, it also features Sussex dream-folk duo Smoke Fairies. “It’s an attempt to give her voice back,” says Willgoose, “instead of her being used as a tool of Soviet propaganda, standing on podiums surrounded by men.”

We hear the immortal words “the Eagle has landed” as Apollo 11 is recalled on the upbeat and urgent ‘Go!’ which manages to build archival audio of what would normally be mundane system checks of mission control staff into a stunning race to land on the moon, each system check ticked off in time with the rhythm of the song.

The album ends with ‘Tomorrow’, a reminder that searching and striving to understand why we are here will never end which explains why the theme of Space was chosen for this album. Willgoose says:

“To me this is the most extraordinary period of history there ever was and quite possibly ever will be. The story’s part of trying to understand, literally, what on Earth we’re doing. What is the point of us? Why are we here, on this strange blue and green orb? And what did the first ever journeys leaving this planet tell us about ourselves, and our place in the universe?”

These questions still have the same resonance today which makes The Race to Space a nod to the past, present and future. And whilst you can learn a lot about human history and endeavour from listening to The Race to Space, Willgoose wants us to remember that PSB are also here to entertain.

“People are coming to gigs, not bloody history lessons. I always said to entertain was what we were aiming to do.”

Willgoose can rest easy. The Race to Space is definitely entertaining; add to that epic, engaging, educational and emotional and PSB have created something very special here. A fitting tribute to the heroes and heroines of the greatest era of space exploration.

The Race for Space is released on February 23rd 2015 via Test Card Recordings.

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