If there was ever a time to immerse yourself in GoGo Penguin’s music, it is now. Coming off of a string of popular and highly acclaimed albums as well as a recent New York Times piece that named them as one of the best acts at the 2017 SXSW conference, the Manchester Trio have outdone themselves on their latest release. In some ways, A Humdrum Star follows the same electronic music-influenced modern jazz formula that has worked for the band for their past couple of releases. This time around though, they aren’t afraid to stray quite a bit further away from their more straightforward acoustic based jazz roots into territory untouched by the band on previous records.
Tension and release play a large role in the compositions on the record. While GoGo Penguin have never been afraid to let their hearts bleed onto their work, album opener “Prayer” does so in a very different context, immediately grabbing you with it’s anxious, taught harmonies and seamlessly flowing into more fluttering, dreamlike textures. Songs such as this and album highlight “Bardo” would sound just as natural in a Jean-Luc Godard film or American film noir as it does on a 2018 British jazz release. But as Western as this album feels at times, songs such as “Transient State” pull heavily from the bands experiences on tour in Japan. Pianist Chris Illingworth explains: “We had a day off in Tokyo last year, and Nick and I wandered around the Shibuya district; we saw a Shinto shrine in Yoyogi Park, which was mind-blowing. The entire day was an amazing mixture of different things: rockabilly dancers outside the park, a traditional wedding procession… It relates to the idea of being on tour, in that constant flux—and experiences that might be positive or negative, but are all part of a bigger thing.” Worldly as they may be, GoGo Penguin do feel distinctly Western, which is not a bad thing.
There seems to be a trend in much of today’s Western scene where bands are placing their sonic focus more on creating a particular atmosphere as opposed to flexing their chops. While several bands that come to mind that do this well, GoGo Penguin clearly lead the pack. The melodies in songs like “Strid” and “Return to Text” float gracefully above the rhythm section. And while it can be easy to get completely lost in these trance-like numbers, a closer listen reveals incredibly deliberate and thoughtful compositions, wasting not a single note nor being superfluous in any way. It absolutely took a group effort to achieve this. When so often the rhythm section is relegated to simply keeping time and playing in the pocket, that is simply not the case here. Rob Turner and Nick Blacka play as important a role in creating moving atmospheric qualities to these tracks as Illingworth does. They also do an admirable job of making creative use of negative space on tracks like “Reactor” and the stunning album closer “Window”.
A major complaint of this specific brand of electronic music-influenced jazz is that it can be harsh and unemotional, lacking any sort of warmth or soul. This record proves that it just takes the right minds to throw these preconceived notions out the window. Though it is still early in the year, A Humdrum Star is easily the best record out yet in 2018, and an exciting view into what the future of GoGo Penguin potentially holds.
GoGo Penguin’s A Humdrum Star is out now on Blue Note Records