Review: Public Service Broadcasting – The Race For Space

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Unearthly

A perfectly-executed oddball unlike any other album you've listened to, The Race For Space is absolutely worth the listen.

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Okay, full disclosure: if you asked me to describe to you my perfect album I would have shouted “electronic concept album about space” before you even managed to finish the question. Perhaps this makes me an unfairly biased reviewer for The Race For Space (an electronic concept album about space) but equally I suppose there’s never more risk of disappointment than when your dreams come true.

Certainly, I can’t say it’s entirely what I was expecting: the opening track, also named ‘The Race For Space’ takes the form of JFK’s ‘We choose to go to the moon’ speech set to eerie choral backing, which rises slowly to an echoing climax along with the speech. Followed up by ‘Sputnik’, a 7-minute epic crescendoing into a bubbling 70s synth-fest, the plan behind the album gradually becomes clear.

It turns out it’s a (roughly) chronological history of the space race, told through contemporary audio recordings and a backdrop of hypnotic synth music. Public Service Broadcasting’s personal motto is ‘Inform, educate, entertain.’ and this potted history of space flight aims to do just that. In short, listening to The Race For Space is basically like visiting the coolest museum exhibition of your life. If synths and vintage samples are your definition of cool.

It’s not all synths and samples though, third track ‘Gagarin’ is something else entirely. Presumably bored of whimsical electronica, Public Service Broadcasting here takes a brief foray into jazz-band territory. Depicting the instantaneous international celebrity status attained by first-man-in-space Yuri Gagarin, this surreal track goes all out, with a horn section and funk guitars, no less. It’s by no means an unpleasant surprise – to the contrary, it’s hard to listen to without breaking a smile. This is likely no accident – the following track, ‘Fire In The Cockpit’, telling the story of the catastrophic Apollo 1 mission, is doubly sobering immediately following the daft fun of ‘Gagarin’.

For jaded millenials like ourselves, born in a chapter in the history of space exploration that future readers will skip through to get back to the interesting bits, it’s often difficult to fully grasp how mind-bendingly exciting it must have been to actually live through a time when space was happening for the first time: in its own weird, occasionally irreverent way, The Race For Space demonstrates that feeling better than any dry museum exhibit could possibly attempt.

Ultimately your enjoyment of The Race For Space will depend entirely on what you’re hoping to get out of it. It’s not the “sound of the summer”, something you’d play at a house party, or even something you’d be likely to listen to more than twice. It’s not danceable or catchy and you can’t shake the feeling that it’s trying to teach you something without you noticing. But go and listen to it from start to finish late at night while reading Wikipedia articles about space travel, and you’ll see what this album was designed for.

The Race For Space is out now, and is available to stream on Public Service Broadcasting’s website.

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As The Edge's resident design monkey (and occasional album reviewer), Joe can usually be found sweating over a Wacom tablet colouring in drawings of celebrities, or getting over-excited about typography.

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