The Royal Albert Hall, London, November 1 2018
Ask Lordi, The Darkness and Okilly Dokilly– a gimmick will only get you so far. At some point you’re going to need some substance. In the case of Public Service Broadcasting, their brainwave of mingling danceable synth rock and alt-pop with the soundtracks and footage from Queen’s English public information films from the ‘40s to the ‘70s built them a devoted festival fanbase who realised that dancing to grainy film of spitfires and Everest campaigns was even funnier than the silent disco. Now, as PSB’s scattergun, semi-comic mission to inform, educate and entertain has cohered into more in-depth pop lectures on the space race (2015’s ‘The Race For Space’ album) and the decline of the Welsh coal mining industry (last year’s ‘Every Valley’), these besuited boffins seek a greater respect for their dusty disco art. If they are, as they seem, out to document pivotal moments in history with their music, they need a fitting exhibition space.
To the Albert Hall then, Wrigglesworth, J Willgoose Esq., JF Abraham and chums, and don’t spare the mining winch stage adornments! Backed by a Welsh string section, a gaggle of bouncy brass players and copious guest singers, PSB set about giving ‘ Every Valley’ the high-art impact they feel it deserves. At first it seems a ludicrous idea – the random, stoic voiceovers of tracks like ‘People Will Always Need Coal’ clash so randomly with its murky grooves that it would only make sense if the miners in the footage were digging up funk punk albums. When they’re accompanying antique visuals with banjo twangles and hula electronics to turn ‘Theme From PSB’ into a librarian’s ‘Loaded’ the incongruity is its strength, but when trying to make more serious points the import is lost in the sheer ridiculousness of the thing.
They’re better when mood-matching their sonics to the archive material, such as on ‘Signal 30’, a hysterical road safety film set to a fire-tyred motoric pile-up of sound, or when a Sputnik satellite rises side of stage and they dip into their space race album – songs like ‘Korolev’ take off as majestic as a moon lander. And the further they dive into ‘Every Valley’ the better it gets. As Tracyanne Campbell joins them to sing on ‘Progress’ PSB reflect the scorching synthrock of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, and ‘They Gave Me A Lamp’ builds to a euphoric lush pop swoop, with Haiku Salut at the vocal reins. The Albert Hall suits them; they sound just as monumental.
The more confident they grow, the more their brainiac vintage aesthetic gels. Volcanic dream pop soundtracks Titanic footage on the recent ‘White Star Liner’. Ominous, edgy synths accompany Blitz film on ‘London Can Take It’. They go full-on doom metal as miner’s riot on ‘All Out’. Most artful of all, they drop the stratospheric space echoes of ‘The Other Side’ to near silence as, on screen, Apollo 8 goes out of contact behind the moon. The tension they build until radio signals are restored could be directed by Ron Howard.
Eventually the tongue-in-cheek dourness breaks out into mischievous frivolity – dancing astronauts invade the stage for ‘Go!’ as the crowd chants its mission control commands, the brass section whip off their blazers to reveal golden jackets during ‘Gagarin’ and, once ‘Everest’ has rounded off the PSB set, a male voice choir takes the stage to round off the evening with ‘Take Me Home’. One day, when we’re all but grainy faces in the backdrop of history, expect a permanent dedication plaque to this gig to be unveiled on the upper circle by King George VII.