‘The musical unpredictability of ‘The Pit’ demonstrates PSB at their best’
Sometimes you hear an artist and immediately want to know more about them. Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) are indeed one of those and when I initially discovered them just over a year ago, I was captivated and confused at the same time. Based on their musical mantra of ‘Inform, Educate, Entertain,’ PSB fuse historical audio recordings with modern-day music to create a listening experience like no other. However, while their albums ‘The Race for Space’ and ‘The War Room’ are crammed full of successful creativity, ‘Every Valley’ (which focuses on the ceasing of mining in Wales), unfortunately serves to prove that not every album works just as well. However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t discover them. Read on to find out why.
Opening with the title track, you are immediately met with a contrasting combination of Steve Reich-esque string sounds (reflective of the mining signal), an electric guitar riff and delicate bell tones. This highly minimalist atmosphere, which works as an accompaniment to the introduction of a male voice telling us the background to the mining story, gets you engaged from the start and as the track develops there are some really clever moments. Take the mid-point, where the focus is on the storytelling as a prime example. Here the drop in texture draws us in before the machine like sound created by rhythmic drums and high-hat shocks us with their emergence. Equally, the low brass helps to build ever-increasing tension. As an opener to an album, it’s exactly what you want: Impact.
Blending in from the opening track, Track 2 ‘The Pit’ is equally attention grabbing with its panned rhythmic drumming and air-raid like brass giving a sense of doom and dread. This sense of impending danger is also enhanced by the voice recording which with its mentions of ‘the temperature often reaching 80 degrees’ and the fact that ‘a landslide could at anytime bring down the walls’ you get a real sense of the extreme conditions the miners would be working in. It’s a track that is full of unpredictability from the off and with its constant fusion of moving voice samples, acoustic instruments and electronic sounds, it demonstrates PSB at their best.
After what are two very strong tracks, Track 3 ‘People Will Always Need Coal’ turns out to be just as good, even though the opening feels somewhat disconnected from the ending of ‘The Pit.’ The recording used links in brilliantly though with the piano and palm muted guitar chords which follow making it a perfect reminder PSB’s ingenuity. Equally the recordings, which talk of there being a ‘secure future in Welsh coal,’ are set alongside relentless drum patterns, suspense filled cello lines and an ever-returning guitar accompaniment. This fortunately means that the track ends in a much more connected way than it started.
In a slight change of musical direction, Track 4 ‘Progress,’ shows PSB in a different, almost mainstream sounding guise and one that is reminiscent of ‘Go’ on their 2015 release ‘The Race For Space.’ This time, while there is their trademark approach of narrative recordings combined with electronic music, there is also a ‘true vocal’ in the form of Tracyanne Campbell, singer-songwriter of Glaswegian band Camera Obscura. As the title suggests, the track is focused entirely around the idea of the mining industry moving forward and with the constant repetition of ‘I believe in progress’ in sung, spoken and vocoder-affected forms, there is a real sense of drive and belief within the track. However, after what has been an incredibly strong first section to the album, the musical direction changes again, taking us unfortunately away from the coherent creativity we have become used to and to one of confusion.
Taking us to the closing of the final pit in Rhymney Valley, Track 5 ‘Go to the Road’ starts off strongly with a similarly driving but less positive sound. The female voice, informing us of the closure, is set against acoustic drums and an electric guitar riff and shortly after the broadcast, a male voice replaces this. However, this is pretty much where the track stays: an instrumental track with selective, under-used recordings. For me, this makes for a rather under-whelming listen and one that doesn’t feel as good as it could be. Unfortunately, the same can also be said for the majority of the remaining tracks and with Track 6 ‘All Out’ having a disconnected heavy rock feel about it and Track 7 ‘Turn No More’ being empty of recordings and sounding indie-rock-esque, I am left unexpectedly cold.
Taking us towards the end of the album, Track 8 ‘They Gave Me a Lamp,’ and Track 9 ‘You + Me’ both offer us tracks in a similar manner. There is, thankfully though, a greater use of recordings – in the first of these at least – which helps to take us back toward PSB’s roots. Regrettably though, we never seem to quite get back to these fully and while ‘You + Me’ is beautifully composed, and in places has the capacity to move you, the best way to enjoy both of these tracks is to forget you are listening to an album by PSB.
Guiding us calmly to the final track, Track 10 ‘Mother of the Village,’ takes us on a journey of reflection through the most welcome return of narrative recordings. Unlike earlier in the album, these appear frequently and set against the unobtrusive accompaniment, you not only connect with the message within them, but are reminded of how great PSB are when they work in this way. However, while this would be a fitting ending, Track 11, which sees the Beaufort Male Choir performing the miner’s song ‘Take Me Home,’ makes for one that, with its warm sound and message filled storytelling moves you more than any other track.