GoGo Penguin Runs with Imaginative Momentum on Self-Titled Album

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Brandishing instruments traditional to jazz, GoGo Penguin (Chris Illingworth, piano; Nick Blacka, double bass; Rob Turner, drums) seem familiar enough for a jazz group at a passing glance. However, as a band whose melodies are easily labeled a modern hybrid for their cleanly-stacked chord progressions and fast-paced rhythms that are oft-likened to electronic breakbeats in play style, this differentiation between what GoGo Penguin presumes to offer based on its conventional lineup and what it delivers through its highly meticulous and inventive compositional structure, are what set the group apart over three albums and multiple EPs. Now with new eponymous LP, GoGo Penguin, the Manchester, England band shows how to successfully maintain its carefully crafted sonic identity all while continuing to pursue change.

GoGo Penguin upholds several of the band’s most recognizable performance characteristics: nimble cascades of upper-register piano melismas that form the cruxes of impressive melodies (“Atomised,” “F Maj [Major] Pixie”); rhythms spaced between parts that create either odd meters or the sensation thereof (“Signal in the Noise,” “Totem”); and minimalist song form that makes for pieces of a very atmospheric and meditative nature (“Embers,” “Don’t Go”). Additionally, all of these attributes receive the utmost care in production. Each piano hammer, bass fingerboard slide, and closed hi-hat tap is given plentiful space to sustain and decay or a massively refined sense of definition that makes the instrument seem as though its being played right in the same room with the listener. The new self-titled takes these established stylistic pillars and incorporates a notable amount of experimentation, assuring listeners that the band hasn’t settled into a complacent groove.

The intrigue of “1#” can’t be understated in this regard. Crumbling, snapping, smacking, and creaking sounds; the gradual influx of lively children playing in the distance; single piano notes and infrequent chords; all together it unfolds more like ambient sound art than any kind of jazz – traditional or not. Experimentation might not appear as overtly over the rest of the album but plenty more fastidious differentiation awaits. The decay of Illingsworth’s piano notes for example, go from being elongated, distorted, and given a tremelo-esque wave in “Signal in the Noise,” to being manually dampened to sound like rounded string plucks, rather than strikes, in “Kora.”

Meanwhile, Blacka forges his own fresh sonic stamp with plucks so intense during a solo in “To the Nth” that their tone at times reflects a density and bluntness similar to an electric bass anchored by aggressive, pitch-shifted tone articulation. Similarly, Turners’s drums, which already employ a diverse arsenal of percussive accessories, seem to expand in their tonal range beyond his already inventive physical play with the kit. Straightforward ride cymbal splashes on “Embers” appear to break apart mid-release, leaving the reverberations to sound more like intermittent white noise – or perhaps more fittingly, the crackling of burning embers – than a smoothly dispersing strike. Experimentation might seem a hyperbolic proposition in the face of GoGo Penguin already straddling electro-acoustic and Euro dance club music qualities. Nonetheless, GoGo Penguin not only persists but unequivocally succeeds in its pursuit of originality. Understanding the limitations of composition and performance, this album’s embrace of tonal transformation by way of unconventional instrument manipulation brings the music to even more avant-garde heights than unconventional rhythms or technical harmonies could alone.



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