Monday, October 04, 2021

Public Service Broadcasting’s Berlin-inspired ‘Bright Magic’ provides a breathtaking city soundscape

Some musical success stories are harder to fathom than others. In the case of Public Service Broadcasting, few people would ever have thought that combining a little light electro-prog with samples from old public information films and archive radio recordings was an idea worth pursuing, let alone a recipe for mainstream musical popularity.

Make no mistake, in the hands of less competent composers, Public Service Broadcasting could easily have become a niche novelty act for history geeks. Instead, they’ve been delighting audiences with their “edutainment” for more than a decade, achieving album chart success along the way for both 2015’s ‘The Race For Space’ and 2017’s ‘Every Valley’.

In truth, ‘Every Valley’, a concept album about the Welsh mining industry, wasn’t Public Service Broadcasting’s strongest work. Perhaps eager to avoid being seen as a one-trick pony, the band expanded beyond their trademark archive samples to include a series of guest vocal performances that ended up jarring with the innumerable clips of Welsh miners. It was rather disjointed as the band grappled with its own identity, so it’s encouraging to find that everything on the band’s newly released fourth album, ‘Bright Magic’, feels more deftly integrated. The vocals frequently sound like samples, and vice versa. They blend in with the music rather than sitting awkwardly on top of it, making for a more improved immersive listening experience.

It helps that ‘Bright Magic’ is looser conceptually than Public Service Broadcasting’s previous output. Chief songwriter J.Willgoose, Esq’s intent is to create an impressionistic portrait of Berlin, exploring the city’s multiculturalism, industry and creative energy over the course of three short acts, and that’s precisely what the band manages to achieve.

The music is Public Service Broadcasting at their propulsive best, returning to the fertile synth-powered territory of ‘The Race For Space’. Vocally, far from being disruptive, the continuous shifting between the German and English language only adds to the sense of immersion. What made ‘The Race For Space’ so effective was the band’s unerring conviction in the concept, and the same is true on ‘Bright Magic’. It’s an album that perfectly evokes the kineticism of life in a metropolis.

The first two tracks are swirling instrumentals, with ‘Der Sumpf (Sinfonie der Großstadt)’ slowly gaining momentum and ‘Im Licht’ channelling M83 as the song builds to its soaring conclusion. From here, the album goes from strength to strength. ‘Der Rhythmus der Maschinen’ starts out like full-on ‘Fragile’-era Nine Inch Nails before morphing into a more comfortable, industrial-lite groove. ‘People, Let’s Dance’ is five minutes of pure Eurodisco joy. It’s hard to imagine any other band managing to pull this off without sounding ridiculous, but therein lies Public Service Broadcasting’s genius – always sincere, never over-serious.

Blue Heaven’ is a brilliant peculiarity. Practically the only song on the record to be sung throughout, it combines heady new wave guitars with a delightfully eccentric vocal performance from Andreya Casablanca. The following tracks, ‘Gib mir das Licht’ and ‘The Visitor’, don’t quite match its intensity, but they’re both pleasantly atmospheric nevertheless, the latter recalling side two of David Bowie’s Berlin classic ‘Low’.

Bright Magic’s final act is an epic suite of largely instrumental numbers, the highlight of which is the foreboding ‘Lichtspiel II: Schwarz Weiss Grau’, with its moody bass, spiralling synths and sinister Kraftwerk-inspired vocals. It’s a glorious conclusion to the record and demonstrates that when Public Service Broadcasting are firing on all cylinders, they’re able to explore and experiment musically while still sounding recognisably like themselves – a unique skill given the absence of a permanent vocalist to anchor their sound.

Far from being a one-trick pony, Public Service Broadcasting have proven themselves to be adept, versatile and frequently inspired songsmiths, and ‘Bright Magic’ is the sound of a band back to their best and, crucially, once more comfortable in their own skin.

Tom Kirkham / @finestworktom

Image: Public Service Broadcasting Official Album Cover


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