It’s fair to say that I am a fan of the London-based band, Public Service Broadcasting (consisting of J. Willgoose Esq., Wrigglesworth and J.F. Abraham) and, since their first single from May, 2012 – ‘The War Room’ and the debut album, Inform – Educate – Entertain broke in May 2013, I’ve been a willing, eager convert.
Their musical ‘formula’ is one that I find enthralling and deliciously simple (as many of the best ideas always are); a heavy drum/percussive beat and bassline, mixed with multiple, electronic sounds and backed by a return to the past via newsreel commentaries on historical events – the kind shown in cinemas in the early to mid 20th century.
PSB’s debut album covered key events of the 20th century, backed by clips from the British Film Institute. The second LP in 2015, The Race For Space, focused on the period of the 1950’s and 60’s, when the desire to be first into space dominated the political landscapes of the USA and the USSR. PBS’s third album, Every Valley, focused upon the Welsh mining community. Now, their latest release, Bright Magic gives another new concept; namely the cultural and political metropolis that is the ‘Hauptstadt’ of the Federal Republic of Germany – the capital city, Berlin.
Though PSB’s use of electronics and music remain familiar, Bright Magic uses samples, and the English language, sparingly. It differs from previous albums in other ways as it’s less linear and narrative, instead working hard to create an impressionistic portrait of a city from the ground up. In November 2018, the original founder of PSB, Willgoose, heard Walter Ruttmann’s radical Berlin tape-artwork Wochenende (or Weekend), which is sampled on three of Bright Magic’s tracks. Created in 1928, this piece collaged speech, field recordings and music into a sonic evocation of the city. Resolving to integrate these long-gone fragments with new manipulated sound sources, Willgoose set about making his own Wochenende – essentially a narrative drama which decodes and realises the dreams of Berlin that he had constructed within his mind. Willgoose states, ‘“I had the title ‘Bright Magic’ in my head and I started to get a feeling for where that title wanted to take me; towards ideas of illumination and inspiration, electricity and flashes of light and colour and sound (all the tracks would eventually be colour coded). I sent it to the rest of the band, and said, “I know it’s going to change, but we’ll see how the city itself colours that.”’
The album begins slowly with ‘Der Sumpf (Sinfonie der Großstadt)’ – incorporating some soft pads and a delicate piano, backed by birdsong. A melody appears – inspired by the 1927 German movie, ‘Sinfonie der Großstadt’, as the music becomes more frantic.
In 1928, the German capital organised a festival entitled Berlin ‘im Licht’ whose aim was to present Berlin as a progressive metropolis and this embodies the second track with the same name. The song is also inspired by two German companies who produced millions of lightbulbs in Berlin, with a lot of the percussion seeking to produce noises which relate specifically towards lightbulbs. The lightbulb here is symbolic of the industrial ‘spark of creativity’ during this time period in Berlin.
‘Der Rhythmus der Maschinen’ begins initially as a respectful nod towards the masterful and groundbreaking 1927 movie, ‘Metropolis’. According to the band, ‘The song is supposed to be about the more physical, industrial influence on the city, be it the railway or heavy engineering and manufacturing that saw it boom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries’.
‘People, Let’s Dance’ is upbeat. According to PSB, this track is ‘A celebration of both dance in general and the joyful, uniting, expressive force it can be as well as of Berlin’s legendary nightlife which continues to draw people in from all over the world – a very unifying, permissive and pan-everything scene that reflects a lot of the progressive elements in the city and has also added so much to its modern myth and appeal’.
‘Blue Heaven’ slows the pace somewhat with a laid-back Bossa Nova beat and some lyrics, sung beautifully by Andreya Casablanca. The inspiration for this song is the legendary Berlin singer and actor Marlene Dietrich and seeks to highlight ‘her ambition, her bravery and her lack of compromise on vital matters of character – ‘I am all my own invention / I’m in my blue heaven’ and so on’. The title derives from a jazz number of the same name that Marlene sang regularly.
‘Gib mir das Licht’ is inspired by another female Berliner, namely Anita Berber. PSB state, ‘this is an adaptation of a poem she wrote called ‘Kokain’ and sung over a slow, vaguely melancholic, end-of-an-era song that attempts to capture the ‘shimmering dream’ of the end of the Weimar period as it grows increasingly fragmentary and disorientating as it goes on’.
The inspiration for ‘The Visitor’ stems from a much more recent source, namely ‘The Thin White Duke’ himself; David Bowie and is named after his character in the 1976 movie, The Man Who Fell To Earth. According to PSB, this featured Bowie ‘speaking about not being an original thinker but rather a synthesiser of information, refracting ideas. Heavily influenced by the B-side of Low especially ‘Warszawa’ and with very strong Vangelis vibes too (the through line being Metropolis – Blade Runner, in my head!)’.
‘Lichtspiel I: Opus’ is named after the 1921 short, abstract movie of the same name, which the director Walter Ruttmann said was ‘an attempt to create music for the eye’. According to PSB, ‘The music is quite jagged and jumps around keys quite a lot, trying to match the tone and style of the original film’. It certainly works as a beautiful piece of music, with a strong piano ‘gluing’ the music together, while electronic keys push randomly outwards.
‘Lichtspiel II: Schwarz Weiss Grau’ is inspired by a short German movie of 1930, directed by László Moholy-Nagy. According to PSB, ‘it features his Light Space Modulator and that idea of refracting light through random encounters of a structure that you’ve engineered to have some idea of randomness to it struck a chord’.
‘Lichtspiel III: Symphonie Diagonale’ is my favourite track on the album and I use it daily for meditation. A gorgeous piano and a light, yet emotional, synthesiser join together and instantly remind me of something that Vangelis or Ennio Morricone could have composed for a specific movie, or TV show. According to PSB, ‘the patterns and light of the video do remind me somewhat of some of Blade Runner‘s imagery (e.g. the famous Frank Lloyd Wright balcony and some of the neon imagery)’.
The final track, ‘Ich und die Stadt’ is named after a 1913 Ludwig Meidner painting and features Nina Hoss reading the 1930 poem, ‘Augen in der Großstadt’ by Tucholsky. PSB says, ‘I loved discovering the writing and poetry of Tucholsky and I think this is a beautiful poem, even in a language I don’t fully comprehend. I recorded ambient rain sounds on a Berlin street, complete with cars swooshing past sounding like little washes of white noise, and a simple melodic refrain closes out the record’.
As stated before, this new album is unlike the previous three and certainly holds deeper, personal tones to it. The quality of any music produced by PSB can never be undermined and this is certainly no different. The composition, performance and production of each track is superb and it’s clear that a great deal of thought and personal energy have gone into the making of PSB’s fourth studio album. Each track comes across as unique and different in its own right and the listener is kept on their toes throughout.
For fans of electronic music, especially early examples from the legendary Kraftwerk, this latest album from PSB is intriguing , engaging and vastly enjoyable.
Bright Magic is out now on Play It Again Sam Records. Order on vinyl, CD or digital download here.
Public Service Broadcasting are tour the UK in October and November – catch them at the following dates:
Sun 24 Cardiff University Great Hall
Mon 25 Brighton Dome
Wed 27 Exeter The Great Hall
Thurs 28 Southampton O2 Guildhall
Sat 30 Aylesbury Friars Waterside
Sun 31 Birmingham O2 Institute
Mon 1 Leeds O2 Academy
Tues 2 Llandudno Venue Cymru
Thurs 4 Manchester O2 Apollo
Fri 5 Newcastle O2 City Hall
Sat 6 Aberdeen Music Hall
Sun 7 Glasgow Barrowland
Tues 9 Nottingham Rock City
Wed 10 London O2 Brixton Academy
Thurs 11 Cambridge Corn Exchange
Find out more on Public Service Broadcasting’s official website
Review by Kev Milsom