GoGo Penguin are probably my favourite thing to ever go near Jazz as a genre. It’s a genre that I have generally struggled to enjoy over time and few bands and artists have cracked through the barrier. With their fourth album “A Humdrum Star” we are treated to more of the same from the instrumental drum, double bass and piano trio.
From the brooding opener “Prayer” that opens like an opening credit from a classic sci-fi movie with drills, twisted piano notes and a foreboding bowed bass line, it sets a moody tone which the album permeates throughout. “Raven” is the bombastic full on beat track with bright piano chords and plenty of funky bass lines to keep you on your toes. You’ll notice throughout the album, the bass is allowed more time front and centre than before. Sometimes that’s for dark mood setting in what is the most reflective and tense album of the band to date. Other times it makes things funky and here’s is where the bass shines. It’s not a slight on previous albums at all, but it’s not often you get a useful bass solo that feels right in the mix. “Bardo” brings that point home best with an eerie and spacious post-jazz number where things build and build a journey into an abyss going faster and faster. Each instrument keeps turning up the tension, tempo and ferocity of the playing – it’s a true showman’s track and wonderfully melodic. “A Hundred Moons” is a welcome tour of the sky and feels more like a forest of woodlands RPG track with plenty of wooden percussion and expressive bass playing whilst the piano takes a back seat – becoming the baseline note for other to play around.
The eight-minute “Strid” essentially plays around with the same chord and then builds a melody around it. These longer tracks which characterise this album never feel boring, as GoGo Penguin have learnt over their albums how to perfect the ebb and flow of tracks with transitions and build ups. In many ways, this is their opus. “Transient State” reminds me of their debut album where it feels like their’s about ten pianos playing at once, such as the speed of the piece. In contrast, the rolling and longing “Return To Text” showcases the bands’ ability to create sweeping melodies rather than hammering out big statements. Both are equally impressive and warm your heart in the same way – just from different angles.
However, the real reason I hold GoGo Penguin aloft from the rest in the jazz arena is that they aren’t shy of mixing up plenty of minor keys, unusual noises and a few weird synths in things. “Reactor” is that dark track for me that plays with dramatic dissonance in keys. It get’s you to the point where the emotional rawness of a track is just at the point where you want to rage and scream to let it all out as it hits its cathartic finale. More melancholy and traditional are “Window” and “So It Begins” which wind down the album from it’s huge dramatic peak to something more slumberful, particularly the hushed latter track which is sumptuous and like a jazzy feather caressing your ears for sleep. An alternative version of A Hundred Moons rounds off the album nicely with a different collection of percussion and more of a clock chiming piano synth over the top of the piano.
If you check out one band in Jazz right now, make sure its GoGo Penguin. Their mastery of their instruments are second to none and the way they blend those masteries together into ebbs and flows of musical genius astounds me upon every listen. This album is possibly their least immediate since their debut but it’s crammed full of amazing tracks.
Recommended track: Raven