By Kieran Cannon (@kiercannon)
Sampling in music is something of an art form. Finding a balance of originality when using snippets of other artists’ recordings is crucial but in popular music, as evidenced by countless lawsuits and public spats, this is a notorious grey area. Public Service Broadcasting, however, have sidestepped this particular minefield by sampling from old public information films and over the last few years have established their M.O. – modern instrumentals narrated by speakers from a bygone era. The success of the group has so far been their ability to rake through a near-limitless gold mine of old audio clips and interviews, piece them together meaningfully and write music to match without sounding gimmicky.
On the subject of mines, their latest LP Every Valley documents the rise and steady decline of the Welsh coal mining industry through the eyes of the workers themselves using footage from the British Film Institute archives. Following in the footsteps of their 2015 studio album The Race for Space, their newest release is very much a concept album and the music reflects this. The first half of the album, noticeably more upbeat and optimistic, chronicles the golden age of Welsh coal mining while the mood in the second half becomes progressively more sombre as industrial decline begins to take its toll on communities, the music slowing in pace towards the end of the album in tandem with the industry itself.
For J. Willgoose, Esq., Wrigglesworth and recent addition J F Abraham the irony of self-confessed ‘middle-class Londoners’ recording music about working-class struggle clearly isn’t lost. Relocating to the Ebbw Vale Institute in South Wales to record this album, they wanted to become fully immersed in their project by getting first-hand testimonials from members of the community as well as sifting through archives at the South Wales Miners’ Library. The end result of this meticulous research is a sincere, moving account of the impact felt across Welsh communities and a tribute to the unsung heroes who stood up for workers’ rights throughout the hardships of the 20th century, aided by guest vocals from a Celtic repertoire of Tracyanne Campbell, James Dean Bradfield and Lisa Jen Brown as well as contributions from Haiku Salut and the Beaufort Male Choir.
The eponymous opening track, Every Valley, sets the tone with atmospheric strings and guitar playing over the baritone voice of Richard Burton as he describes “the arrogant strut of the lords of the coal face” in a song which beautifully evokes images of the sweeping Welsh valleys, tinged with both optimism and melancholy. Following on from this, The Pit immediately crashes back down to earth as the narrator describes the dark, dangerous facets of the day job while the horn section mirrors the sound of underground descent and drums play with industrial repetition.
People Will Always Need Coal and Progress, one of the standout tracks of this album thanks to Tracyanne Campbell’s heavenly vocals, depict the enthusiasm shared by workers and communities alike – that mining represented a viable, secure future for all. The cruel irony of such upbeat music is that, viewed retrospectively, listeners get a sense of inevitability; recruitment-ad clips assure young workers that “there’s a future, a secure future, in Welsh coal today” throughout People Will Always Need Coal, however promises of wealth and stability quickly unravel in the coming years. Progress has a significant Kraftwerk flavour, ruminating on the need to modernise and usher in an era where man and machine work in harmony; for many workers, however, this rosy future does not appear to have materialised.
The latter half of the album deals with strikes and discontent at the death of an industry which has played such a critical part in the local economy, personified in All Out – undoubtedly one of the heaviest songs PSB have released to date, an emphatic outburst of anger as strikes commence and miners announce “we’re not gonna take it anymore, we’ve just had enough”. Outrage turns to dejection as the pace begins to slow but They Gave Me A Lamp offers a glimmer of hope. An uplifting account of political awakening and determination among Welsh women around the time of the strikes, it details a collective realisation that their voices do matter; that they deserve the right to protest.
These moments of optimism are undoubtedly the strongest points of the record; sadly some others, particularly Go To The Road and Turn No More, don’t quite deliver the same impact when trying to convey the despondency of post-industrial South Wales. On the whole, though, this record is enlightening and most tracks, including the heartfelt a cappella closer Take Me Home, manage to capture the beauty and sadness of the valleys and the people who have lived through its hardships.
Highlights: Progress, All Out, They Gave Me A Lamp