When I heard the first single from this album, ‘Progress’, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It’s what PSB do best; it fuses old reports with modern styles (via Kraftwerk). However, it felt like a departure from work they had done before. It was an enjoyable track, but I approached with trepidation when I learnt that this was, basically, a concept album about the rise and decline of coal mining in Wales. Obviously, this is not indicative of one period of history, as it speaks to the rise and fall of industry worldwide, but uses the example of coal mining, and does so very well.
The album begins with the eponymous ‘Every Valley’. What PSB are masters at is sucking you into a situation, and teasing you with winks and nods. ‘Every Valley’ does this, as it welcomes you to wake up in the working world. The addition of a string section makes this quite a fragile number, but soon gives way to a bigger sound. The sound of the rhythmic drums reinforces the notion of coals being at the heart of communities in Wales; a theme that is carried throughout at least the first half of the album.
The album moves forward, as your working day moves forward, and you’re drawn underground with ‘The Pit’. Once again, the scene is set perfectly, as you’re told “you’re in a 200-yard-long coalface” with temperatures reaching 80C. If the opening track was fragile, this is anything but. This is a living beast of a track that carves out sounds and images in your mind. One way these images are rendered is the intriguing use of the guitar towards the end, which chisels away at your eardrums. Of course, it would be wrong not to comment on the ending pieces of narration. We’re told that “to coal we must now turn again”. Whilst it’s tempting to dismiss this as nonsense, we must remember that coal powered communities, not just families. We might look back and see it differently, perhaps in environmental terms, but as this album points out, entire communities survived because of the mines.
Following this is possibly the sexier side of mining. ‘People Will Always Need Coal’ succeeds at demonstrating why coal mining was popular among young men. “There’s money, lots of money, and security” might also be seen through a rose-tinted view. It’s a song which revels in the good times of mining. And it would be wrong not to revel. It does have, however, the first mention of family, which becomes a bigger theme from here. This is another song that really feels alive, and one that mirrors the one time seemingly eternal business of mining.
Coming back to ‘Progress’ it’s a track that really grew on me. The first time I heard it I thought it was a bit too simple to be a PSB song. But now I think that’s the point. A song about changing industrial processes being quite simple fits with the theme. It’s also a first for PSB as guest vocalist Tracyanne Campbell sings over and over “I believe in progress”. PSB, sticking to their ideals of entertaining, nod to this with the narrated “continually experimenting with new ideas.
‘Go To The Road’ represents a distinct change. Gone are the chiselling guitars. Instead, a melancholic melody is almost forced out of the guitars and synth. It’s a reluctant sound that aligns perfectly with the theme of not wanting to even consider losing your job. The theme of family returns, with the line “You’re selling your son’s job” indicative of the quandary of losing mining work. Not only did it affect communities; it impacted on generations. There is a little more aggression in this track, but that’s only a taster.
‘All Out’ is by far angriest track on the record, and quite possibly the most emotionally-charged song PSB have ever recorded. The decision to close mines, which prompted miners to go on strike, is captured in this fever-pitch which lasts just over 3.20. The chaos associated with the strikes and the violence which ensued is brought to a head after we hear a woman say “I was brought up to respect the police. I don’t respect them now”. It’s by far PSB’s most vicious song, and one that departs from their clean and smooth sound.
Anger remains on the agent, as another guest vocalist joins the PSB boys. ‘Turn No More’ features Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield, furthering the Welsh connection. We’re welcomed into this song with an alarm-like guitar ringing out, as Bradfield weaves a typically MSP melody over the top. The bridge in this song is hauntingly scarce, echoing the post-mining era. As the song fades out, Bradfield sings about the mines he knew in a lamenting manner, but one that could equally be proud; proud of the physical and emotional mark they left on Welsh life.
‘They Gave Me a Lamp’ is arguably the most uplifting track on the album. Whilst regrettable that it took strikes and unemployment for women to become fuller citizens, this track highlights just how important they were. By getting involved in politics and support groups a new voice was found by women. The drive of the bass and drums from the middle of this song echoes how “damn determined” women became, before ending in a celebratory fashion. No song on this record comes close to the elation of this track.
‘You + Me’ is where this album takes a step back for some reflection, as well as giving us the opportunity to hear some Welsh (which is only fitting giving this is a Welsh-centred album). From here until the end, the album becomes intensely personal. This track is the catalyst for that, even if it is the weakest on the record. Notwithstanding, it is an apt bridge which spans the anger of the mob and massive social movements to the intimate, and to the private acceptance of life without mines. It refocuses on what one had, rather than didn’t have.
The bleakness continues with ‘Mother of the Village’. It’s completely bleak, and there’s no such thing as normal. There never can be again. Real accounts from miners help us to see this lack of hope. There is no colour in this track, and that’s reinforced by the lack of any effects on the guitar. There is layered guitar, but it’s dull, it’s bleak, and it’s that way for a reason. It highlights the wider implications of mines closing, in that shops and pubs were forced to go out of business. The mother of the village died, and with her died the main source of income. The abrupt end is there on purpose. It’s hard to ignore.
What follows is one of my favourite tracks on the album. ‘Take Me Home’ is simply a Welsh male choir singing about meeting their father and then going to work in the mine themselves. It highlights the positivity of the mining experience. But more than that, it pushes the message of family and friends. That might have been lost when the mines were closed, and it might have played second fiddle to the perceived glamour of working in the coalmines. However, once that was stripped away, what people were left with was family; something that has been explored quite a lot on this album.
In summary, this is quite possibly PSB’s most accomplished work to date. ‘Inform, Educate, Entertain’ was the sound of a band cutting its teeth. ‘The Race for Space’ was a band experimenting and finding their feet more in the studio. ‘Every Valley’ represents their finest work. The blend of actuality, guest vocals, and appropriate tone and music means they’ve raised their own bar considerably.
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- QR Album Review: Public Service Broadcasting – Every Valley - July 13, 2017