The Race For Space, by Public Service Broadcasting
Suggested by Paul Wray
When I read the title, my blood ran cold.
In September, Album 88 saw me reviewing Apollo, by Brian Eno. An ambient soundscape based on space flight, running almost fifty minutes, loved by millions, lauded as a seminal work of art.
I hated it with a fiery passion. It received a generous 2/10.
When presented with an album called The Race For Space, by a band called Public Service Broadcasting, that old apprehensive anger came flooding back.
Things weren’t improved when I did a little light Googling. Public Service Broadcasting are an art rock outfit that operate without a singer. Instead, their “vocal” is pieced together with archived clips from British Film Institute sound samples. And this album, The Race For Space, is a concept offering that relives the American and Soviet space race from 1957 to 1972.
I felt my buttocks clenching when typing that last paragraph, and I know how this review ends.
I hate a lot of things. I’m a curmudgeon, a grouch, a grumpy old man. This project? Basically a checklist of everything that’s wrong in the world. Add animal abuse, death metal growling, and low-fat mayonnaise, and you’ve got my personal vision of Dante’s hellscape.
I fired up the virtual band, having written half of the review in my head before the opening bars. And if I’m honest, the gentle choir backing a famous JFK speech on the need for space exploration did not get my motor running. However, as it swelled in importance, both in the speech patterns and in the singing, I felt my interest and immersion gently peaking. Things continued well through Sputnik, with its hypnotic electronica casting a mesmeric pall over the charming narration from the space archives. Sputnik deals with the first satellite, Sputnik 1, launched and lauded in 1957. I felt myself thawing to the project’s central premise, and warming to the prospect of the tracks to come.
Next came Gagarin, and I fall for it all, headlong, bright-eyed. This album is fantastic.
Gagarin deals with the 1961 voyage of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space. It’s a funky, swaggering triumphant song, with blaring horns and stupendous bass. The commentary is dazzling, perfectly positioned, and expertly uplifting. I started smiling a mere ten seconds in, and maintained my grin until the final note faded. It’s my standout track, and on an album this good that’s high praise indeed.
Every single song is delicious, from the dreamy The Other Side (commenting on the first human orbit of the Moon) to the bouncing and energetic Go! (commenting on the first Moon landing), to the final exultant Tomorrow (commenting on the final Apollo mission). Even Fire in the Cockpit, which deals with the Apollo 1 disaster, is beautiful, albeit with a disquieting undercurrent that’s chillingly grim, perfectly capturing the gravitas of the subject.
I can honestly say this is the most satisfying concept album I’ve ever heard. If I had once complaint, it would be that while the tracks are in a fine narrative and “musical” order, they don’t conform strictly to the progression of actual events. Such small beer in the face of brilliance.
The Race For Space gets a high 9/10. It’s Top 5 material. Public Service Broadcasting shot for the Moon, and reached it in style.