No vocalist, an obviously contrived nerdy image and stage names, songs about the Blitz and steam trains – when Public Service Broadcasting first appeared they seemed doomed to depart just as quickly in a novelty haze. Yet eight years later not only are they still here, they’re just about the most imaginative, vital band you’ll find these days. It was 2015’s The Race For Space that really nailed the concept by hitting on, well, a concept and exploring a huge story arc through the art of adding historic speech samples to music. It was not only a deserved critical success but one that pushed them further up the commercial ladder that they might have ever expected.
Two years later (a very short gap given the time you’d imagine it takes to put this together) and PSB are no longer reaching for the stars but have come back to earth and then some, setting out to examine the rise and fall of the Welsh mining industry. Justin Bieber won’t be quaking his boots at the prospect but those with a sense of adventure will be handsomely rewarded. Once again, the voices of the past are brought to life with deeply affecting results right from the off, as Richard Burton reminisces about the status of miners in his village – “the kings of the underworld”.
For those with even the scantest grasp of history will know what comes next. That romance and the optimism of ‘People Will Always Need Coal’ (“the South Wales coalfield will be turning out Best Welsh for a few hundred years yet” predicts one distinctly English voice) is soon challenged by progress, detailed by the song of the same name. From there it’s a short step to the rage of ‘All Out’ and the spectre of strike action. Despite this backdrop, the second half of the album is less about political anger (certain voices that you might expect are conspicuous by their absence) and more about the personal response – from the women’s support groups on ‘They Gave Me A Lamp’ to simple beauty of ‘You + Me’ (“if we stand as one we’ll have something they’ll never break”).
And beauty is something that Public Service Broadcasting do increasingly well. Recording in an old workers’ institute in South Wales, the introduction of brass, additional musicians and vocalists (although the James Dean Bradfield contribution is the one element that doesn’t quite work) has bolstered the original idea nicely. As ever, though, Public Service Broadcasting know that they’re not really the centre of attention here, taking second place to the story they’ve decided to tell and so the album closes with the gentle sounds of a local male voice choir, proof that although the mines may have gone, the human spirit remains. Which is always where this most extraordinary of bands will find their inspiration.