It’s a mid-Autumn afternoon in Houston, Texas. Some 35,000 people are gathered in an American football stadium, but there is no game to be played. Instead, President John F. Kennedy steps forward.
The year is 1962, and the space race is in full swing. “We meet in an hour of change and challenge”, JFK tells the crowd, “In a decade of hope and fear.”
And so begins Public Service Broadcasting’s latest concept album, The Race for Space.
Public Service Broadcasting is a duo made up of two friends from London who like to mix samples of old speeches and information tapes with electro-rock music, producing a unique sound.
As the title suggests, the album forms around the narrative of the political race for space, and is told through the voices of the politicians, T.V. presenters and space crews involved, along with underlying music.
As a concept album, the idea works, creating an absorbing, spacious ambience. A long pause in “The Other Side” captures the silent, lonely and uncertain nature of space travel, while lines like “Go!”’s “Okay keep the chatter down in this room!” reflect the excitement and pressure involved.
At a time when lyrics seem to be largely ignored by audiences, Public Service Broadcasting does a great job in utilising quotes; the euphoric “Go!” is testament to that. Detailing the 1969 Moon Landing, listeners are made to feel like they are in NASA’s command centre as the story of Apollo 11 unfolds.
But while the pair fulfil their promise to “teach the lessons of the past through the music of the future” with this, their second album, the music sometimes isn’t as pleasing compared to their previous releases.
“Fire in the Cockpit” is appropriately silent as it deals with the death of three Apollo astronauts in 1967, but sounds more like a radio report than a song. “The Other Side” seems to take on a cinematic/story-telling structure (beginning, suspense, climax and end) halfway through and loses the momentum in its synth built up.
Tracks like “E.V.A”. and the upbeat “Gagarin” show what the band is capable of however and are the best mixes on the album, blending the music and old tapes seamlessly. It’s hard to listen to “Sputnik” without thinking of Daft Punk’s “Contact”, perhaps unsurprising with the space theme so prevalent.
Concept albums are often ambitious and criticised when they don’t live up to expectation. Add to that a record dealing with moon landings, cosmonauts and failed missions and a lot could go wrong. Not for the first time, Public Service Broadcasting has produced a satisfying and educational release to defy this.