London’s East End makes a fitting location for a duo obsessed with 1940s heroics, as on their War Room EP, much of which they play tonight.
Spotlights rake bare brick walls as if hunting the Luftwaffe while Public Service Broadcasting play over the measured commentary of a Blitz documentary in "London Can Take It". You can understand why an 80-year-old would throw up on hearing the opening sirens, as the bespectacled and bow-tied musician who styles himself J Willgoose Esq claims.
As the mastermind behind the project, Willgoose has dug into archives of newsreels and propaganda films to create an eccentric concept album of evocative samples and driving dance-rock, Inform Educate Entertain, that this month made the Top 30. With stacks of old TVs showing the original footage, his accompanying audio-visual show emphasises the latter command.
Looking like a more studious Matt Smith in his Doctor Who get-up, Willgoose marshals a motley array of sounds. As well as snatches of clipped monologues, he communicates via RP voice samples: “Simmer down” and “very good, Village Underground” are favourites, accompanied by a jolly thumbs-up.
Willgoose juggles electronic pulses, guitar and banjolele, while bandmate Wrigglesworth provides the percussive foundation, anything from lolloping trip hop to muscular, Chemical Brothers breakbeats. This eccentric mix of vintage speech and cutting-edge tunes is weirdly compelling, partly because PSB have gone for such dramatic stories. Often they stick to remixing the original films, as with the iconic documentary Night Mail, retaining its original propulsion that suits an epic New Order-style backing.
Their stand-out number, ‘Spitfire’, sees the duo underscore snippets from war movie The First Of The Few with thrilling Krautrock guitars and beats similar to Primal Scream’s motorik excursions, a cunning means of updating the footage and deflating any nationalist sentiment. On the quieter ‘If War Should Come’ they distil a feeling of menacing disquiet, though the similarly paced ‘Digging for Victory’ remains aimless sketching.
As well as this nostalgic
bent, the pair also evince fascination with that retro optimism in the future,
whether that is excitement about technology or human achievement. Here, PSB
create an Anglicised take on Kraftwerk’s paeans to futures past. That is best
expressed in ‘Everest’, with images of struggling climbers matched by chiming
guitar before the pair slyly reveal a five-piece brass section whose fanfare
provides an understated finale for a performance that plays with our history
while treating it with respect.