The world that Penguin Cafe creates in the meditative and otherworldly ‘Handfuls of Night’ is one that took me just a few minutes to fall in love with. From the opening drone soundscapes and flowing piano flutters to its more full-bodied tracks, it draws you in. Undoubtedly one of the most curious albums of 2019, it is a technical marvel too.
Inspired by the life of a penguin, each track evokes an icy, vast cavern of the winter lands or some of the clumsy but loveable personality of the animal itself. ‘Winter Sun’ opens the album almost as if the watery but bright sun is casting a musical glaze over the ice. The deep droning synths nod to the vast emptiness and glacial feel of things whilst the piano chippers away with marvel. ‘Chinstrap’ is more autumnal. The beautiful mix of acoustic guitar, piano and strings feel optimistic and bountiful for the most part. As the music glides and soars it reaches huge tonal shift of dread and poise. As with all things in nature, beauty and danger are never far apart. Penguin Cafe manages to create a stir of both and switch between them effortlessly.
As the album moves on, Penguin Cafe begins to take on the wilderness in more symphonic ways. ‘Chapter’ is an utterly sublime piece that revolves around cute string arrangements, cinematic cues and hand percussion. It feels so alive and bountiful – much like the Penguin’s long journey. ‘Adelie’ on the flip side is all about longer pulled string notes masking flurries of a filtered piano and double bass. It sounds like a winter mirage. It hints at some of the whimsical folk elements of the album which come to the fore on ‘At the Top of the Hill, They Stood’. The music reminds me of the band Amiina and how they create something cinematic but homegrown. Penguin Cafe has a similar vibe.
Whilst the majority of the instrumentation is acoustic, synths do play a part in the undercurrent. ‘Pythagoras on the Line Again’ revolves around a dial tone bleep that is layered upon with violin, piano and vast spacious synth pads. If Imogen Heap did nature documentaries is how I’d describe it. It doesn’t stay that way for long as ‘The Life of an Emperor’ and ‘Gentoo Origin’ return back to the natural whimsy of the album. Both tracks have a fluidity to them and a hint of a scatterbrain. For me, they work hand in hand to create the resolution of the story of the penguin and for the founder of Penguin Cafe himself.
‘Handfuls of Night’ began life as four tracks for a Greenpeace work and then took life from there. Penguin Cafe’s Arthur Jefferies visited Antarctica on a few occasions and you can hear the layers of emotion throughout each piece. Some of the songs chronicle a journey and you can hear the sweeping emotions, the harmonics and the clever recalls of motifs. Whilst is may chart penguins, its Jefferies eyes that their story – and his – are seen through. This comes to fruition with the closing track ‘Midnight Sun’. It is a piano rendition of the opening track that is full of reflective closure. It is warm and comfy but misty-eyed of what has gone before.
To say ‘Handfuls of Night’ is an emotional album is an understatement. Penguin Cafe has captured the beauty, the danger, the epic scale and the personal battles of life in Antarctica. For me, this album came from out of nowhere and blew me away. Play it with headphones on at night and let your imagination run wild. You’ll be having an adventure of your own. Magical.
Recommended track: Chapter
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