Album Review: GoGo Penguin – A Humdrum Star [Blue Note Records; February 2018]

GoGo Penguin is one of those bands that are impossible to define within a genre or a scene. Yet, since their debut in the UK scene with their first album Fanfares, they have come out with their very own signature sound: hearts rooted in jazz and classical training exploring the realm of electronic music inspired by the sounds, techniques and “creative freedom” – as they themselves said – that the genre allows.

Essential in its formation – piano, double bass and drums – these three highly skilled musicians are able to recreate the complexity of electronic music with originality, elegance, and grace, and each of them is a fundamental pillar at the base of their music, both performance and composition-wise.

With their latest album A Humdrum Star – out on February 9 on Blue Note Records – they have established more than ever the striking beauty of their unique sound.

One of the main influences in GoGo Penguin’s sound comes from the legacy of jungle, drum and bass and breakbeat, which all come to life in the frantic and relentless, highly syncopated grooves of drummer Rob Turner. His rhythms are the propelling force in almost all of GoGo Penguin’s repertoire – like in “Raven”, the second track of the album, where the ceaseless groove sustains a touching melody enveloping on the piano – or in “Bardo”, a 7-minute track evoking old-school house music. Using rhythm to create evocative atmospheres, in “A Hundred Moons” he juggles with percussions and shakers in a groove that reminds us of traditional South American or Andean rhythms, proving his striking versatility and taste.

In-between the frantic interlocking of snares, hi-hats and cymbals, the ear might catch deep, powerful vibrations coming from the thick metal strings of Nick Blacka’s double bass.

In “Strid”, halfway through the album, the bass opens the dance and dominates the music in an accented loop intertwined with a melodic drum beat – until it is given space for a breathtaking solo that reminds us of the band’s jazz roots. Eight minutes that proves to be some of the best of this album, where music evolves organically and unpredictably just like one of Jon Hopkins’ intricately layered tracks.

In every song, Blacka plays with frequencies, slapping, bending, and pulling the strings, playing chords and harmonics-, constantly exploring the potential of his instrument and its raw, low vibrations.

The bass often opens the way to the piano loops and melodies of Chris Illingworth, who sounds more like he’s juggling with the keys of a piano rather than just simply playing. The pianist’s compositions are often rhythmical, contributing to the hectic but perfectly orchestrated whole. Be it through melancholic cinematographic melodies like in “Prayer”, the opening track of the album – or with touching chords like in “Raven”Illingworth’s compositions always find a way to touch you deeply. In “Transient State” – one of the best tracks of the album – he takes the place of a synthesiser, performing an amazing arpeggio halfway through the track which morphs seamlessly into a jazz-influenced improv.

A Humdrum Star is, in a few words, a stunning album. Every track is engaging and exciting in a different way and it goes without saying that the level stays high throughout the ten tracks.

The fast and frantic rhythms intertwined with the suggestive melodies make a perfect soundtrack to silently observe people in your metro wagon while commuting or watching the trees quickly run past and the landscape unfolding outside of the window of a train – as I am doing right now.

Needless to say that GoGo Penguin’s gigs are as intense and cathartic as few others, so if you have the chance, don’t miss it – they have plenty of dates booked all around.