Every Valley by Public Service Broadcasting

Released 7th July 2017.

The vinyl edition came beautifully packaged in a gate-fold sleeve. I opted for the clear vinyl version, bought from Rough Trade. As usual I haven’t played the record, but have valued it for its artefact appeal. Something to be handled, to admire and inspire. Ponce.

This is Public Service Broadcasting’s third album (following Inform-Educate-Entertain (2010), then Race for Space (2015)). I bought Race for Space (RFS), but not their debut. Yet.

 Their unique selling point seems to be their use of sound bites from various archives (primarily working alongside the British Film Institute for RFS). RFS generated quite a bit of media interest – I seem to recall an appearance on BBC Breakfast, but it was early and I may have imagined that. Every Valley feels to have been released with less mainstream fanfare, its appearance spreading by word of mouth (i.e. social media). It still managed to reach #4 in the hit parade, though I’m not sure that’s any kind of achievement these days.

The group is made up of members who profess to be semi-fictional characters – think a sort of Sgt Pepper’s (sic) Band with 1970s Open University lecturers. I say semi-fictional as, in the interviews I’ve read, the members come across as nerdy and invested with the ‘technique’ approach that Tony Wilson so despised (think Benedict Cumberbache with a Moog). Personally, I quite like the conceit.

In RFS authentic sounds from the technology related to space exploration – such as quasars and radio squawk – created a textural context for the music and the story. They complimented the beats and the music, and were part of the world that the sampled voices emanated from (some of which had me staring at my dashboard anxiously when I listened to the album in the car). They haven’t managed this with EV, with the samples pretty much being limited to the human voice, and the musical sounds emanating wholly from the band.

This adds to my overall feeling that the band is an outsider looking in on this particular narrative, nodding sympathetically and or angrily as the story about the decline of the mining industry, and with it the community that it supported, unfolds.

PSB were obviously using spoken samples to tell a story in RFS, but the narrative was less personal to the people telling it. The narrators – JFK, Gagarin etc – were describing an aspiration or an achievement. This time the voices are relating a story that is not only a social history, but also part of people’s lives within living memory.

I felt that the music attempted to compliment the spoken samples – through poignancy, defiance etc – without being part of what they were saying (for me, ‘The Pit’ comes closest to melding with the stories being related). The music is an observer that reacts. For this reason, I felt it was impossible to keep out a slightly patronising tone.

The album starts off strong, thanks to the thunder that rumbles through Richard Burton’s voice, but then I was left with the sense that the miners and their community were treated as children living in some sort of happy valley, and that the issues that affected the mining community have been made to seem parochial. With the artist unwittingly sympathising for a loss that they haven’t quite grasped is their own.

Because the issue of what happened to the mining industry, and more importantly to the mining communities, is one the of the fundamental propositions for mankind as we move into the age of the machine.

Thirty years in human development is nothing. It is only our perception of our own immortality viewed through the specious omnipotence of our own experience that creates a false cultural separation between then and now. History will not make that distinction.

The premise is simple. A small number of people (the establishment) assume control the mechanics of society (law making, law enforcement, spending of tax payer’s money, controlling natural resources such as oil, coal etc) for their own profit. They legitimise their control by making themselves appear special – crowns, wigs, uniforms. Historically these patricians have needed the plebs to source, enact and implement these resources on their behalf.  But a time is coming – through Artificial Intelligence and robotics – when the plebs will not be needed, certainly not in the numbers that they were in the past. And not in the numbers they exist in at the moment.

What happened to the mining industry is likely to happen to a huge swathe of jobs. Even some of those presently held by quite affluent people. Because why would you pay a human – who gets sick, gets pregnant, retires with a pension, wants days off, wants a paid holiday, makes mistakes, has an opinion – to do what a robot will do more efficiently and (after the initial outlay and some servicing) for nothing but some WD40 and a rub with chamois? It doesn’t make sense. Not if your objective is to make money.

It is then that you question is that establishment benign, ambivalent or hostile to your needs and wants? This is the Armageddon foreseen by the Luddites. And this was the fate of the mining communities in the 1980s and 90s. And then come a whole series of other questions – such as what is society for? Should we value progress above all things? Who has the right to make these decisions?

On the whole the album did what I hoped it would do – it got me thinking and feeling  – but this was perhaps because I don’t think they quite nailed it.

And, from a purely musical standpoint, I felt there was a missed opportunity at the end with the Male Voice Choir (as moving as that was). Why not write something new?