At one point in history, all eyes were turned towards the stars. Space captivated man like no other, as humanity pushed its limits through countless trials and tribulations to lay claim to the final frontier. The Race for Space, the latest release from the British duo Public Service Broadcasting rekindles humanity’s passion to go beyond their known limits in an album that is both breathtaking conceptually, and as a storytelling device speaking to an era filled with pride and fear, hope and anxiety, and, above all, determination and perseverance.
J. Willgoose esq. and Wrigglesworth, the Londoners who make up Public Service Broadcasting, have already made a name for themselves across the pond with their unique take on sampling. The duo utilizes speech fragments and soundbites from numerous public domain sources and BBC documentaries to retell history with the aid of new age music. Their first album, Inform – Educate – Entertain took on a variety of themes ranging from the British postal service to the first expeditions to the peak of Mount Everest, using the soundbites as chilling lyrics to back their unique mix of electronic beats, electric guitars, and banjoes. What makes The Race for Space remarkable in its own right, however, is the framing of the album. Each track builds off of the last, aiding in the telling of a grander story: The Space Race between the United States and Soviet Union. A time of “great knowledge and ignorance” in the words of JFK.
Opening with a wispy, dissonant choir to back President John F. Kennedy’s famous “Address on the National Space Effort at Rice University”, the album starts with the chilling aura of JFK’s hopeful speech, asking “God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked”. Any childhood dreams you had about space came rushing back in a flurry of emotion as the audience applauds setting the stage for what is to come. Following the opening track, The Race for Space moves chronologically from the launch of Sputnik 1 through the flight of Apollo 17 cluing a new generation into the gripping emotional journey that led humankind to the stars. The true genius of Willgoose and Wrigglesworth lies in their effective sampling of public domain sources and the NASA archives there were able to acquire for the album. The driving sound in “Sputnik”, for example, is not a driving guitar riff, but the faint constant beeping of the artificial satellite circling earth.
Despite, the flashier tracks like the upbeat groove single, “Gagarin” the real magic of The Race for Space lies in the duo’s effective use of dynamics, using the music they create to emotionally back the content taken from NASA and documentaries. Continuing down the path of history, Public Service Broadcasting provides a faithful tribute to the lives lost in the conquest of the stars. “Fire in the Cockpit” does this exceptionally well, utilizing the NASA communications during the Apollo 1 disaster and providing somber, reflective chord progressions that drift into a silent mourning for the astronauts lost in the accident. “The Other Side”, does this brilliantly as well, documenting the fear and trepidation of failure that encapsulates the entirety of the album’s concept. The track follows the Apollo 8 mission from the viewpoint of Mission Control in Houston; the duo’s music eliciting the hope and excitement for what is to come as the space craft attempts to orbit the moon. Yet, when contact between Apollo 8 and Houston is lost, the remaining beat of pulsing anxiety dips down into long breaks of silence broken only by the monologue of a controller attempting to hold it together. The silence is painful, powerful, and captures the spirit of the moment. It’s as if you’re right there in the Control Room biting your nails in fearful anticipation. The feeling Public Service Broadcasting emits in moments like those make their triumphant fanfares all the more powerful. Once Apollo 8’s radio communication is restored, a horn line flares up inducing moments of relief and pure elation celebrating the return of once lost heroes. This is what Public Service Broadcasting does best; re-tell and re-imagine our own history, not so much commenting on history as much as telling its story.
The Race for Space has done a remarkable job in providing a snapshot of an era and really deserves to be listened to in its entirety. Thus far, I have been continually amazed by the music Public Service Broadcasting has put out, and the duo have held true to their mantra of “Inform, Educate, Entertain”; bringing the emotional and historical perspectives of an era to a new generation through tantalizing musical storytelling.
Public Service Broadcasting may never top a billboard chart, but nonetheless, they deserve acclaim for producing emotionally captivating music that resonates with a global community celebrating our shared history as human beings.
Mitch Kampf serves as Station Manager for KSTO. He is a senior Philosophy and Political Science major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.