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GoGo Penguin: A Humdrum Star

Geno Thackara By

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"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."
-Carl Sagan


GoGo Penguin's snappy-yet-offbeat name is a pretty good indicator of their personality—partly inspired by an actual penguin statue that lurked in the corner of their rehearsal space in the early days—but it seems the chameleon is turning out to be their true spirit animal after all. Their amorphous musical DNA has woven jazz, chamber/classical, techno, trance and myriad other things from the start. Meanwhile the trio's evolution has always been a series of gradual but unmistakable steps: there's a feel in there that's always recognizable as their own, while each recording manages to both refine and redefine what they're all about.

The latter half of GGP's trademark "acoustic electronica" makes a noticeable shift to the fore on A Humdrum Star. Everything is still played on analog instruments, and any alterations to the sounds (a pickup or two for the piano, objects draped across drums and cymbals) are handled live in real time. Nonetheless these judicious tweaks go a long way toward expanding their soundscape this time around. Album number four finds the trio sounding more spacey, more picturesque, simply more vast than ever before. That's partly a function of Chris Illingworth's piano getting a lush dose of reverb from time to time, but more so because the compositions become downright cinematic.

The production is evocative and even sharply futuristic, melding organic rhythms and dramatic atmospheres with hints of something indefinably alien. Rob Turner's frisky Elvin Jones-on-a-bender breakbeats keep the boilers stoked like mad, still leaving breathing space aplenty for lovely oases like the tribal "A Hundred Moons." Nick Blacka nimbly co-leads the affair with warm double- bass thrums and odd-textured arco fuzz; Illingworth's crystalline notes can settle into earthy groove chording, weave themselves into flighty lines or simply float and revolve like dust motes in sunlight.

The band's chemistry was already impressive when this lineup debuted on V2.0 (Gondwana, 2014), but the years in between have brought them to a sizzling combustion point. The three sound effortlessly smooth even when hopskotching through the staggered five-over-four of "Transient State," for instance, or chugging through the brain-twisting "Reactor" in what feels like three different time signatures at once. With music so rhythmically dynamic they don't simply play in synch, but they don't quite go against each other either—the friction of their three-way counterpoint is the kind that only pushes them all to more adventuresome heights as it goes. GGP certainly has the defining qualities of a jazz group, but also so much more that they've become a complete breed apart. We're witnessing another electrifying leap forward and there's nothing humdrum here in the least.

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