Blue Note B003198202
GoGo Penguin’s last release, Ocean in a Drop: Music for Film (2019), was a five-track EP of music the trio wrote to accompany recent screenings of director Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982). Philip Glass had composed the original film score, and it was while listening to the EP that I finally heard a connection between Glass and GoGo Penguin -- the group’s use of repetitive melodies that change subtly and shift in emphasis owes something to Glass. Still, GoGo Penguin’s rhythmic elasticity and grasp of everything from jazz to various pop genres set them apart. Glass is just one of their many influences.
GoGo Penguin’s new, eponymous release has much of the drive and speed of their four other full-length albums, with a few new wrinkles. Sound effects and children’s voices fill in behind Chris Illingworth’s simple piano melody in “1_#,” building in intensity and depth as Illingworth introduces chords. The song evokes both the innocence of childhood and the noise of everyday life before fading into a few seconds of silence.
A loop of Illingworth playing a series of notes announces “Atomised.” He then moves between the upper and lower registers of the piano as drummer Rob Turner adds some funk with a loose dance beat. Nick Blacka’s bass lays a foundation on which Illingworth develops the opening melody, expanding on and deepening it. The track soon slows, Turner moving into a steady groove as Illingworth plays a subtly changing melody that, by the end, is sampled and fractured.
GoGo Penguin isn’t afraid to use studio technology to manipulate the sound, and jazz purists might be put off by that aesthetic. Enough is left to chance to make the music improvisational, but, for example, the sustained, electronically enhanced piano halfway through “Signal in the Noise” owes more to electronica than to jazz. Illingworth returns to stretch out on the melody as Turner’s drumming circles around him and Blacka holds down the center.
“Open” begins with a halting melody, but soon more layers of sound appear, the percussion thickens, and Blacka overdubs with a bowed melody. “Totem” also starts tentatively, Illingworth then introducing countermelodies as Blacka’s heavy bass lines darken the sound and Turner’s flailing drumbeats skirt chaos. “Kora” grew out of Illingworth’s interest in re-creating on piano the sound of that West African stringed instrument. The piano strings are at first muted, then alternate between passages for muted and open strings. Blacka’s stirring bass lines help drive the music -- his solo here is one of the album’s high points.
In “Embers,” GoGo Penguin takes an interesting turn by slowing things down considerably. Illingworth plays a beautifully impressionistic melody over a relaxed arpeggio as Turner and Blacka support him with sensitivity and grace. In this ballad Illingworth shows off his formidable technique and talent for writing beguiling tunes. I wish the band and producers Joseph Reiser and Brendan Williams had left this track alone in post production -- the occasional flanging effect on Turner’s ride cymbal is distracting.
The ballad “Don’t Go” highlights Blacka’s skills and closes the album on a calm note. GoGo Penguin often leans towards speed and densely packed arrangements, but in “Embers” and “Don’t Go” the trio takes a new direction, giving melodies and ideas more space to register. “F Maj Pixie” also impresses with its shifts in dynamics, which create tension and release as the group demonstrates its considerable chops and inventiveness.
Throughout, the sound is even more compressed than on GoGo Penguin’s previous releases. Low-frequency bass notes and kick drum have visceral impact, but the sound could be more open, to let the instruments resonate more. The positive energy and creative flights on GoGo Penguin are impressive and often mesmerizing, but after five LPs and an EP, I think they need to widen their horizons and further explore their talents to ensure a long career. Cleaner, more open, less doctored sound would be a good place to start.
. . . Joseph Taylor