Nostalgia and appropriation might have worked so far for the members of Public Service Broadcasting with their “teaching the lessons of the past through the music of the future” modus operandi, but it turns out that knowingly referential pastiche is not one of their strengths. As the house lights begin to dim and the smoke machine gets cranked into overdrive, triggering an outbreak of spluttering coughs from those crammed against the stage, and as David Bowie’s Sound And Vision blasts out, it’s obvious that tonight’s performance is going to be a particularly subtlety-free tribute to the 1970s Berlin album trilogy and to the city’s ongoing appeal. Sadly, much as the city was back then, it’s a polluted, drab and desolate affair, with only occasional flashes of laser guided brilliance.
Bathed in bright green light rays that mimic the effect of sunlight through leaves, they open with the gradually evolving ambience of Der Sumpf, taken from this year’s Bright Magic album. Whilst it may have originally been intended as an homage to the Brian Eno led instrumentals that can be found on Low and Heroes, with its tranquil field recordings of wildlife and imperceptible chord changes, this particular moss garden never quite gets enough sun to grow and becomes a muddied mess.
Support artiste EERA joins the group for the majority of their set, lurking behind her keyboard podium as they perform Der Rhythmus Der Maschinen. On the multitude of screens behind them, a shifting display of Fritz Lang inspired machinery and gothic architecture jostle with the track’s robotic samples as they clumsily ape the modernist approach of The Man Machine. Covering the parts performed on record by Blixa Bargeld, EERA lacks the mystery and gravitas of the Einstürzende Neubauten frontman. If it wasn’t for the chorus being flashed up on the screens, you’d be hard pressed to make out the chorus of Progress which follows.
They take a break from the Euro futurism to briefly focus on homegrown discord of generations past with People Will Always Need Coal, a critique of Thatcher’s impact on the country’s mining industry, replete with wink-wink, nudge-nudge ironic visual materials sourced from the National Coal Board archives. Therein lies the dissonance at the heart of tonight’s show: they might think they’re giving us the power and wit of say, Bomb The Bass or The Avalanches, but it all falls a little flat, and they more closely resemble the uncomfortably funky Alan Parsons Project, albeit with one hell of a laser light show.
The middle section of the show is filled with the Lichtspiel trilogy, a literally grey thruple of unadventurous instrumentals, forgettable nonsense that gets redeemed only by the accompanying Bauhaus inspired montages. When they do reference historical achievements and industrial magnificence, such as on Spitfire, shot through with clips of Leslie Howard’s moving speeches from the 1942 film The First Of The Few, or on Go!, with its thrilling nods to the Moon landing, they bristle with excitement and truly ascend to a greater creative plain. However, overall, tonight these brave starmen and women fell to earth with all the elegance and grace of a rusty Trabant. Their craft definitely needs some work.