GoGo Penguin - GoGo Penguin (Album Review)
12 June 2020
Blue Note / Decca Records France
Album Rating 3 / 5
Live Potential 4.5 / 5
Solo Performances 5 / 5
Diversity in Songs 3 / 5
Favourite Songs Totem, To The Nth, Kora, Signal In The Noise
Manchester-based trio GoGo Penguin have released their eponymous fourth studio album, another record that really emphasises their electronic and classical influences that edges them further away from the jazz scene and into their own hybrid-world they have magnificently curated over nearly a decade as a group.
Double-bassist Nick Blacka notes how he's gradually come to accept jazz is not a part of their music, with new album offering a 'liberating and freeing' moment of realisation that they are not a jazz band. Whilst traces of the Esbjörn Svensson Trio's style live on in GoGo Penguin, the guidance of minimalist composers like Steve Reich and John Adams, as well as the techno of Aphex Twin and Carl Craig’s Innerzone Orchestra, credits their music to be far from the jazz world, contradicting their position on the roster of Blue Note, one of the biggest jazz labels in history.
Drummer Rob Turner confesses he spends considerably more time on Ableton than he does on the drums, as they all try to find ways of making their electronic compositions they write to record and be performed acoustically with as little use of effects pedals and delays as possible. Since the Mercury-nominated v2.0 in 2014, the move towards this sound has evolved with each release and GoGo Penguin is a record where each member, according to pianist Chris Illingworth, can confidently say "this is how I want to play my instrument, and this is how we want to play as a band".
Despite a busy schedule since 2018's A Humdrum Star that included numerous tours and an EP release of Ocean In A Drop (Music For Film) to accompany their second tour of the live score performance to the cult film 'Koyaanisqatsi', the group wrote for six months at the start of 2019 with time to experiment and produce a more 'sophisticated' album, a process often rushed on their previous releases. Turner states:
"We had quite simple lives in the past [...] this time, there's a lot more facing the realities of becoming older, facing mortality, and watching people that you care about being very close to death. At the same time, Chris became a dad. The longer you live, the more complicated your reality becomes, so we felt our music had to reflect that.”
GoGo Penguin offers an amalgamated approach to writing, rolling three or four tunes into one to reflect their new 'sophisticated' music that represents their more complicated realities. The maturity of the trio who have played together in other projects for years before forming GoGo Penguin makes this complex approach easy, whilst never ceasing to amaze with their own incredible individual technical ability at the same time. As a group, this transforms into a ferocious intensity, whether in their high-energy repetitive sequences or contemplative moods that strike emotion with every note.
However, this album feels somewhat 'typical' of the GoGo Penguin sound and does not go beyond the high expectations devoted GoGo fans desire of them, especially after the recent 'Koyaanisqatsi' project which was astounding in its audiovisual effect. The lead singles, in particular, do not seem to hold up well on their own compared to how they sound when played with the other album tracks. 'Atomised' does have a beautiful piano passage that glides over the UK garage-style drum beat and the urging bass, whilst the last section in 'F Maj Pixie' is the product of Ableton manipulation as the tempo change offers a clear reference to the amalgamation of different sections put into acoustic form.
The other two singles grab your attention more, as 'Kora' is guided by the piano that jabs throughout, something worked on from a computerised drum beat changed into piano notes. The typical rush of sound ensues midway through before the calm ending, whilst the piano in 'Don't Go' arpeggiates to allow for Blacka to solo on the bass as his picking is warm and sensitive to the gentle tone from Illingworth.
'Signal In The Noise' is split into three sections and creates nicely textured buildups throughout, all in a brooding atmosphere that fuzzes from the dirty bass as it goes on. 'Open' allows for the toms to ricochet against the piano, as Illingworth notes that the piano parts were formed from using a delay pedal where he would improvise and try to play back what he heard in the delay in reverse. The bass comes alive halfway through 'To The Nth' as it growls a new melody to displaces the different piano phrasings, another example of merging separate tunes together.
'Totem' goes for it and is noticeably a lot more lively and loose from Turner on the drums. Whilst the drums are a lot tighter in most of the tracks on this album, the appeal of GoGo's better tunes usually involve having wilder drum patterns, and in 'Totem' they create a chaotic commotion that adds strength to the twisting and busy piano and bass movements. Probably the best tune on the record, but it still feels like an extra section is needed to accentuate the chaos.
The album isn't that bad at all and there is plenty to admire in most of the tracks, but there does not seem to be a noticeable progression in their sound which may be expected at this point in their career. The wish for a developed sound would be offset if there were some clearer standout tracks, as in some respects all of their previous records have a distinct but very similar sound, but often they all have some big tunes that make the albums really pop. This is where the album is lacking in many ways, as on A Humdrum Star, 'Strid', 'A Hundred Moons' and 'Reactor' really captivate and are undeniable bangers in their own right.
Their usual extra sparkle is missing on this record, maybe to allow focus on the concept of the record as a whole as they experimented more with their writing and wanted this to come across on the record. Either way, GoGo Penguin is a record that exhibits the power the trio possess on their acoustic instruments, and GoGo Penguin are still one of the best bands around to be able to offer dramatic and compelling takes on their electronic and classical influences. They can play anywhere between subtle and tender songs to intricate, aggressive, and high-tension stompers, and they can do this just as well live as they do in the studio.
Maybe avid fans like myself expect more from them, but there is certainly enough to enjoy from this record for everyone.
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