A Humdrum Star
GoGo Penguin is a trio based in Manchester, England with a penchant for atmospheric music that merges acoustic and electronic techniques, touching mostly on jazz while bringing in classical elements and more than a few nods to Brian Eno. While that description may give the notion that their music is a bit too esoteric, inaccessible, or too “new age like,” it’s surprisingly accessible due to the melodies, the brooding, transporting nature of their music; and the interplay of the three band members. This band is attracting and building quite a buzz too, globally. The New York Times highlighted them as one of the 12 best bands at last year’s SXSW, proving that their appeal extends well beyond just a jazz audience. This, A Humdrum Star, is their third album following the widely acclaimed 2014 Mercury Prize nominated (England equivalent to Grammy) V2.0 and 2016 Blue Note debut, Man Made Object.
Bassist Nick Blacka, who generates some of the most interesting sounds from his electric bass that I’ve heard since Jaco Pastorius, says this about the new offering, “I think we felt even more liberated on this album—and I think there’s more of each of us on it. When we were making V2.0, we were just getting together as much as we could, hustling spaces to work. Man Made Object definitely had more of an immediate sense of pressure. Having been through those experiences, the most difficult thing about making this album was that we tour so much. But when we do find time to record, there’s never a shortage of inspiration. That’s what’s great about this band; someone brings an idea, then it snowballs into this other space nobody was expecting.”
Nick is speaking about the flow between pianist Chris Illingworth and drummer Rob Turner, as well as their enduring relationship with producer and sound engineer Joe Reiser (credited as the “fourth member” of GGP, both on tour and in the studio) along with co-producer Brendan Williams. It’s not only a meshing of acoustic and electronic. You’ll hear beautifully melodic passages offset by those that are dissonant, apparent immediately with the opener, “Prayer.” Drummer Rob Turner elaborates, “We started with this idea of ‘inner and outer’, and opposing things that are essentially the same,” says Rob. “A lot of the textures and sounds do come from the electronic writing, but Brendan also wanted everything to be made as organically as possible.” This provoked various DIY twists, such as chains and even a tape measure held against Nick’s bass strings to create the rustling rhythms on “Prayer.”
Although it’s a vastly different piano style than that of Thelonious Monk’s, Illingworth has that same quality of hitting the unexpected, unpredictable note. Here’s an example of one of his approaches where he likens the interplay on “Strid,” between the edgy funk of Nick’s bassline, Rob’s loops, and his own more chilled-out chords to “the fader on record turntables, where you flick it to another groove and then back again.” That description holds for many of the tunes. There’s both a contemplative, quiet kind of peace that never quite becomes settling as the grooves shift to another dimension. Even the titles provide clues – “A Hundred Moons,” “Transient State,” “Return to Text,” for example.
Perhaps the origin of the album’s name best summarizes the overall effect. It’s taken from a quote by American astrophysicist Carl Sagan, on his 1980 TV series Cosmos, which reads: “Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.” Yes, GoGo Penguin conveys that intergalactic feeling – one that is a deceptively simple yet complex sound that grows in appeal with continued listens.
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