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GoGo Penguin: A Humdrum Star

Ian Patterson By

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In GoGo Penguin's universe distance is a particularly relative concept. From the beginning of its voyage the trio has orbited musical worlds seemingly light-years apart; jazz, classical, dance, electronica, game soundtracks and minimalism -all fall into GoGo Penguin's gravitational pull to create a singular sonic constellation. With A Humdrum Star (Blue Note Records, 2018), Chris Illingworth, Nick Blacka and Rob Turner adopt largely the same raw material that fostered v2.0 (Godwana Records, 2014) and Man Made Object (Blue Note Records, 2016) and effectively polish the same stone. If anything, there's perhaps less post-production soundscaping here than on previous releases and greater emphasis on organic, interlocking dialogs.

The peaceful "Prayer," with its chant-like piano mantra, bowed-bass drone and quasi baroque melody sets a meditative tone, though one that is soon dispelled by the more urgent "Raven," where Turner's blistering pressed rolls and Blacka's consistently probing bass provide bustling counterpoint to the measured lyricism of Illingworth, who toggles between circling motifs and finely sculpted improvisation. "Bardo" follows a similar path, though the confluence of contemporary influences that GoGo Penguin embraces—dance rhythms and electronica, the minimalism and looping patterns of Brian Eno and Philip Glass—are more pronounced. By contrast, shaker and hand percussion imbue the beautifully hypnotic "A Hundred Moons" with an earthy, ritualistic quality.

Amongst the polyrhythmic layers pockets of repose surface here and there, as in Blacka's lyrical bass solo midway through "Strid," which provides stark diversion from the ripping bass ostinato, relentlessly circling piano motif and choppy beats that frame it on either side. Sharp, metronomic cymbal pulses provide the rhythmic template for the driving "Transient," with Turner switching to familiar galloping snare patterns as Illingworth slips the mantra-like motivic tether to stretch out. A timely change in tempo and mood via Blacka's bass solo saves "Return to Text" from slipping into monotony, but like the dance-floor beats that inform GoGo Penguin's music, repetitive grooves and hooks that don't let go are part and parcel of the band's DNA.

There's a hint of the Esbjörn Svensson Trio's influence on "Reactor," an epic fusion of insistent melody played in unison and unrelenting rhythmic drive. "Window" too, is built upon similar blocks, though Illingworth's simultaneous repeating patterns at the outset give way to greater freedom as the music swells grandly before gradually dissipating and concluding with a soft landing.

With A Humdrum Star GoGo Penguin broadly sticks to a tried and tested formula that has won it fans globally. There are some great, vibrant tunes here and plenty of the infectious interlocking grooves that are the trio's stock in trade. And, as pre-release gigs demonstrated, the music gains even greater potency on stage. A Humdrum Star underlines the fact that GoGo Penguin is less interested in experiment for experiment's sake than it is with gradual evolution. For some that may spell a lack of risk-taking, for others it will no doubt signify the refinement of an already distinctive crossover sound. Regardless, GoGo Penguin's star is firmly in the ascendancy.

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