Every Valley, Public Service Broadcasting’s lush, sweeping ode to Welsh miners, sees far past the National Coal Board’s touting of the industry’s fantastical, misperceived longevity, and instead peers into the lives of a proud working class that lived and died by the dank tunnels in which they methodically toiled.
The wildly shifting post-rock concept album documents the rise and fall of British coal mining, where many were highly dependent on the black rock for personal prosperity. When the need for coal began to diminish, and the resource ultimately tanked, economic instability and sadness followed. Recent estimates put the number of miners in England at about 2,000, and all deep coal mines are extinct. Another example illustrating the copious number of pits that eventually closed: In 1920, there were more than a million miners in places like North and South Wales, Yorkshire and Kent. In 2015, there were just 2,000.
It’s a part of the energy business that PSB drives home the strongest in the contemplative “Mother of the Village,” which documents the almost maternal role a lucrative mine could fill for a village. Where once there were picturesque shops and the vitality of a unique coal town, there is now just abandoned buildings and quiet streets. “I don’t think it will ever return to all of these valleys,” says one man, possibly decades earlier.
PSB—guitarist and electronic sampler J. Willgoose, Esq., drummer and pianist Wrigglesworth and multi-instrumentalist J F Abraham—use archival film, audio of old commercials and voices of coal workers themselves, culled from the British Film Institute’s Public Information Films, to interpret miners’ stories. Delicately layered over those sound bites are uplifting instrumentals aided by weeping, billowy modern synths.
The title track sets the tone, at least for the first half of the album. A volley of strings and a delicate melody mimics the familiar London police siren. Weathered voices then speak of the lure of the coal mine, with workers being lauded as “kings of the underworld.”
The vintage narrator in “The Pit” throws us down into the coalface with refined British pomp, boxing the listener into 3-foot, 6-inch high rooms. The delicate dawn of strings in the first song are now replaced by heavy, ricocheting drums and a deep, moaning horn section.
“People Will Always Need Coal,” includes audio of a 1975 mining recruitment commercial with a peppy cruiseship jingle which boasts “lots of money and security” from working in a Welsh coal mine. The song speaks to now arcane ideals of masculinity and the “be all you can be” mentality.
The youthful vocals of Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell on “Progress” signals the start of the modern era of clean-energy production and an increasing dependence on machines, while “Go To the Road” crisply announces the closure of yet another pit mine.
The post-rock blast of “Turn No More” acts as the changing tide of the coal industry as well as the turning point on Every Valley. “All Out,” which chronicles a miners’ strike, serves a barrage of harsh guitars and pounding drums. It’s jarring, though, to hear forceful vocals where ambient sounds and clean, flowing orchestral arrangements carried most of the album to that point.
Once PSB described the lure of coal mining in the first half of Every Valley, the mood becomes more muted, yet buoyant toward the second half, which mostly deals with the industry’s decline and aftermath. Later songs like “They Gave Me A Lamp” and “Mother of the Village” highlight the resilience coal miners and their families exhibited, how they accepted their fate and still pushed on. “Politics is life,” says one woman. PSB found deep kernels of truth and constancy in these archives and made sure we heard them.
The album continues to slow considerably with the folk song “You Me,” a pretty tune with lush strings and pure vocals, partially sung in Welsh by Lisa Jen Brown of 9Bach and Willgoose. What’s lovely about “You Me” is that it meanders without ever feeling lost, and speaks more toward miners’ inner emotions than does the tense flash-bang beginning of the album.
As a listener, it was often difficult to reconcile with this transition. The mood at the start feels like the dawn of a new age of prosperity, but the last song on is bare—a men’s chorus that sings of simply coming home, which is all they wanted at the end of every workday. It’s almost as if we’re sold a false bill of goods, which is exactly what the working class in South Wales and elsewhere in Britain were handed. Public Service Broadcasting put that political and economic disconnect into sharp relief, placing human lives and industrial mining on a broad spectrum that let both sides be heard.