NPR logo Review: Public Service Broadcasting, 'The Race For Space'

Review: Public Service Broadcasting, 'The Race For Space'

The Race For Space

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In 2015, it's easy to take for granted how important and far-reaching the space race was. But imagine yourself in 1957: News breaks that there's something in the sky — in space — and if you tune your shortwave radio to an especially high frequency, you can hear its signal chirping back to you as it circles the Earth. It's called Sputnik, the first man-made satellite launched into orbit. The Soviet Union's groundbreaking success ushered in a new era, and nothing has been the same since.

Five years later, John F. Kennedy's "We choose to go to the moon" speech persuaded the American public that space was a frontier beckoning to be pioneered. Ascending to the stars would be the next step in mankind's evolution. To many, that idea of space and the awe of discovery permeated practically every aspect of American culture with a sense of possibility and excitement — but also deeply felt dread as we pondered life's meaning in the cosmos.

These themes lie at the core of Public Service Broadcasting's new album, The Race For Space, a song cycle that retells the American and Soviet tentpole events between 1957 and 1972 — roughly from Sputnik to Apollo 17 — and lets us hear that historical arc the way many experienced it at the time.

Part musical group, part performance-art outfit, Public Service Broadcasting is the innovative and geeky work of Londoners J. Willgoose, Esq. and Wrigglesworth. The two earned their reputation for marrying looped dance beats and electronics with spoken-word passages culled from old public-service messages, synced to meticulously edited film footage projected while they perform. With The Race For Space, Willgoose and Wrigglesworth incorporate original news broadcasts and communications between the astronauts and NASA's master control. From song to song, this tapestry of source material narrates each chapter chronologically, placing the listener inside the drama of the moment — propelled by futuristic Kraftwerk-meets-Aphex Twin-meets-Daft Punk sounds suitable for a laser show at the local planetarium.

The Race For Space opens with a mood-altering choral overture and JFK's inspirational speech as a haunting invocation. "Space is there, and we're going to climb it. And the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there," Kennedy says, as a soaring choir gives every line extra resonance.

The duo crafts tiny instrumental flourishes that illuminate the story. "Sputnik" includes the distant yet unmistakable bleeping of a satellite. In "Valentina," chiming wordless voices from folk duo Smoke Fairies honor cosmonaut Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova, the first woman to fly in space. And the somber celestial silence in "Fire In The Cockpit" recounts the deaths of Apollo 1's three crew members.

Yet The Race For Space's biggest showstoppers use sound to build cinematic excitement — as in the exuberant "Gagarin," which bursts with slinky disco riffs and funked-up horn blasts while playing reports about cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space. Meanwhile, "Go!" channels fiery, motorik beats, intricate guitar licks and TRON-era synths as the Apollo 11 team counts down before landing on the moon — a moment punctuated by Neil Armstrong's famous line, "The Eagle has landed."

The most stirring moment of all comes in "The Other Side," about Apollo 8 slingshotting itself around the dark side of the moon. Public Service Broadcasting demonstrates its masterful touch for storytelling when the dusty drum machines momentarily drop out — just as the astronauts lose contact with NASA ground control. The song builds anxiety and tension as we sit nervously for what feels like an eternity — and then swells to a joyful release when the voices from space finally reconnect.

Public Service Broadcasting fittingly closes with "Tomorrow," a melancholic and meditative final statement that admires how far we've come. Decades later, all this can seem like far-off history. But Willgoose and Wrigglesworth's ambitious concept music allows listeners to rekindle that same wonder again. Space still has the capacity to captivate.

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