Public Service Broadcasting, live in Manchester

Public Service Broadcasting take their retro space rock to Manchester's Albert Hall

Public Service Broadcasting on stage in Manchester with an impressive light show
(Image: © Mike Gray)

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Justin Bieber might be in town, but the opening night of the Science Festival is the hottest ticket in Manchester. There’s plenty to satisfy lab-leaning types over the coming week or so: art installations, films, visiting boffins, astronaut Tim Peake and the Chronarium, a sound and light environment designed to give you a better night’s sleep.

But all that can wait. It’s entirely fitting that Public Service Broadcasting are here, given that J Willgoose Esq and Wrigglesworth are still riding high on the success of The Race For Space, which detailed the exploits of the US and USSR during the golden age of lunar exploration.

Heavy metal: PSB break out the brass

Heavy metal: PSB break out the brass (Image credit: Mike Gray)

The real boon tonight is that PSB are playing the album in its entirety for the first time. Much like those who boldly went where no man had been before, they’ve gone the extra mile or two. On hand is a brass section and players from the Royal Northern College of Music, including a string quintet and 13-strong choir.

With its creaky balconies and stained glass arches, the Albert Hall (an old Wesleyan chapel that, until recently, had lain dormant for 40 years) is an apt venue for the retro conceits of The Race For Space, dusted as it is with fusty sound samples from the BFI.

The music itself reflects the euphoric highs and harrowing lows of the space race. Gagarin, a homage to the pioneering Yuri, is a prog funk riot of trumpets and trombones, complete with nerdy syncopated dancing and an unstoppable bassline. By contrast, Fire In The Cockpit, its ambient synth sliding under sombre cellos and static fuzz, evokes the horror of the Apollo 1 disaster, in which three astronauts perished in a command module.

Such changes in tone are sensitively handled. Augmented by regulars Mr B (visuals) and JF Abraham (bass, keyboards, flugelhorn), PSB prove as adaptable to minimalism as they are to maximalist party bangers like E.V.A. and Go!, both of which showcase big-screen effects, light projections and a glittery Sputnik replica.

It’s particularly fascinating to witness the band as a mutable live entity, subtle sound impressions suddenly bursting into blissful noise or tricky rhythmic patterns. However, it has to be said that once final track Tomorrow fades into silence, there’s an anticlimactic air to much of what follows. Ultimately, they wrestle back the initiative with a throbbingly great Spitfire and an encore of Everest that sees them rejoined by choir, horns and a daft dancing bloke in a spacesuit.

It’s been a triumphant night, for sure. And it’s hard to imagine how they’re going to top The Race For Space. But with the album nearly two years old and having already spawned a remix project, it’s something PSB might have to think about sooner rather than later.

Public Service Broadcasting: The Geeks Shall Inherit The Earth

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.