It was supposedly a happy accident that Public Service Broadcasting stumbled upon correlations between the sublime Everest on their debut LP and a mention of George Mallory’s historic Peak XV explorations while working on their second.
Either way, it was clearly meant to be, that link via John F. Kennedy’s inspirational Rice University speech in 1962 a perfect starting point for The Race for Space, a truly stunning follow-up to the mighty Inform – Educate – Entertain.
I should warn you now I’m likely to use words like ‘stirring’ and ‘poignant’ a fair bit in this review, with that introductory track no exception, its celestial choir providing the first of many hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moments on an assured long player.
If the whole notion of Public Service Broadcasting suggests a love of the retro, there’s nostalgia aplenty on Sputnik, and not just for the period when the CCCP paved a way for all those later space missions, but also the less-celebrated Balaeric Beat dancehall days, Willgoose’s backing track hinting at MARRS’ Pump up the Volume.
But it’s the overlay of the audio documentary matter that proves the catalyst, the growing synth-symphony perfectly capturing the spirit of this exciting time in our relatively-recent history. And as it reaches its climax, Wrigglesworth’s percussive mettle takes us beyond the bleep of the satellite as PSB transport us to the heavens.
Then comes the pre-emptive single, Gagarin, its brass-infused funk seemingly far removed from the subject yet somehow working perfectly with this tale of ‘60s world icon Major Yuri, conveying at least something of the love felt for this folk hero.
There’s also a perception of that feeling of just what we could achieve in this momentous period. Yet PSB stress they’re not here to give us a history lesson, and the sheer joy in this unlikely tribute also shows the band’s sense of fun and play.
There were dramatic lows in this historic race of course, and there’s a respectful nod to the three Apollo 1 crew members that died in a 1967 Cape Canaveral flight test in Fire in the Cockpit, its static-fused soundtrack suitably solemn, somewhat reminiscent of Johnny Marr’s soundtrack to The Smiths’ Meat is Murder.
EVA takes us into another area, the concept of weightlessness and all the vagaries of these out-of-this-world explorations, the wonder of that first space walk beautifully replicated in sonic form.
Similarly, Apollo 8’s journey to the dark side of the moon is perfectly re-imagined in The Other Side. A sense of the mighty task of that crew and the expectation is brilliantly nailed, and while you know the outcome, there’s no less a feeling of triumph as you relive that moment with the rest of the Houston control room.
Dream-folk duo Smoke Fairies provide apposite accompaniment to the proceedings on Valentina, adding a Sigur Ros feel to the band’s acknowledgement of Vostok 6 cosmonaut and first woman in space Valentina Tereshkova’s part in the tale.
And from that 1963 landmark we reach perhaps the pinnacle, six years later, with the truly inspired Go! – the album’s second single covering the feted Apollo 11 mission.
This being Pubic Service Broadcasting, there’s no ambition to take the obvious path, with just a brief mention of the Eagle’s touchdown, the band instead opting for the crew running through their moon landing speed trial procedure, another sublime touch brilliantly dealt with. Again, it gives us a real sense of the spirit of celebration and proves a perfect album high-point.
That epochal moment is then followed by the more-pensive final program mission end-point of Tomorrow, the Apollo 17 team neatly summing up all that had been achieved ‘for all mankind’ in the years up to 1972, complemented by a stirring soundtrack that carefully builds from Tubular Bells type beginnings.
The whole concept of this album was always going to be a hard ask for Messrs Willgoose and Wrigglesworth, with a mighty fall from the heights possible after such orbits of expectation. But from lift-off to landing, they come through unscathed and have produced a mighty work to be proud of.
The Race for Space by Public Service Broadcasting (Test Card Recordings) is released on February 23rd, 2015, with forthcoming tour dates and more from the band on their official website.