Few jazz bands have enjoyed more crossover appeal in recent years than GoGo Penguin; their modern, electronica-influenced approach to this classic genre has brought them a devoted fanbase and critical acclaim alike. Now, about two years after their latest record Man Made Object, they are back with their fourth full-length release A Humdrum Star. Reason enough for It Djents PR/social media manager Inter, staff writer Jake and writer/editor Dominik to offer you their thoughts on this anticipated new album in another Roundtable Review!
Perspectives and expectations are funny things. They can completely change every experience you might encounter, and it’s hard, if not impossible, to have some sort of power over them. Tell yourself to have no expectations, or force yourself into a perspective which might be in favour for the upcoming experience your are about to face, and it’s likely that you won’t get the desired outcome. I’m here to write about GoGo Penguin‘s new album A Humdrum Star, and how my expectations altered my experiences.
I’m a longtime GoGo Penguin fan. I’ve stumbled upon Fanfares in 2012, but didn’t pay that much attention. It was v2.0, which continued a style already foreshadowed by musicians like Avishai Cohen or Esbjörn Svensson that really enkindled my passion for the band. I’m talking about jazz musicians who listen to TONS of electronic music and incorporate grooves, dynamics, and arrangements from said genre into their work. GoGo Penguin‘s music was always traversed by a pumping and steady flow, with the other elements maneuvering around, playing compelling and modulating figures, and surprising the listener with twists and turns. They did this with a smooth finesse and an intimate warmth, which was always impressive and inspiring for me.
You see, I’m kinda dodging having to write about A Humdrum Star. This cowardice is based on a very tricky case of confirmation bias, which I tried hard to get rid off, only succeeding partially. If a band released three amazing albums, you automatically think that the fourth album will be equally great. The band has the recipe, they proved how to execute it multiple times already, so why should they change it? Or, to be more clear, why should they change those exact 5% which are essential for my enjoyment? There you go, perspectives and expectations. A Humdrum Star is still GoGo Penguin, obviously; it’s full of clever ideas, delightful arrangements, and interesting melodies, but there is something missing. The warmth, the coziness, and the intimacy aren’t as powerfully present as on their previous efforts, the motifs are a bit too accessible, and the overall vibe didn’t reach their capable spell. This is critique on an extremely high level, and while A Humdrum Star is my least favorite album by the Manchester-based trio, it’s still a beautiful record full of joy, and will be amongst my favorites in 2018, simply because it’s more of GoGo Penguin‘s greatness.
Personal score: 7/10
One of the trickiest things in any review for me is walking the tightrope of my own expectations and the artist’s intentions. This was ever-present in my time with A Humdrum Star. I’m a relative newcomer to this band (within the last year or so), but my enjoyment of their catalogue is immense. GoGo Penguin just have a knack for creating interesting arrangements, and those are to be found in abundance on this record. Opening with “Prayer”, which is more of an ambient prelude, A Humdrum Star gets started rather quietly. However, the second track “Raven” is where I consider the album to get started in earnest. Reverb-soaked keys, thumping bass, and pristine drumming all coalesce into an extremely engaging track that lets the talent of this band be fully showcased. Following this is one of the best tracks on the record, “Bardo”. Showing more of the GoGo’s electronic sensibilities, it’s an extremely dense track that is a genuine treat.
Another standout is “Transient State”, which is a song where the keys are incredibly active and the percussiveness of the rhythm section is at an all time high. With extensive melodic passages and a real sense of adventurous fun, this is a song that should be playing in your car stereo while driving through the city at night. That could be the case with this album in general though. There’s a delightful sense of motion throughout the running time of A Humdrum Star. With this motion, though, there can come a little bit of meandering. Songs such as “Return To Text” and “Reactor” failed to engage me in the same way as the other tracks earlier on the record. This is where finding the balance of expectations versus intention becomes a little difficult. Personally, I think the aforementioned songs are a little too subtle and disconnected from the vibe of the others.
GoGo Penguin are an instrumental band, so it’s up to the compositions and performances to literally and figuratively sell the record to you. I am happy to say that I have bought in on A Humdrum Star. It’s a solid album with plenty of amazing moments, intricate compositions, and genuinely joyous moments. While I think this falls a little short of greatness due to the segments of the album that I consider somewhat aimless, it’s a powerful and percussive set of songs. If you have a longstanding interest in modern progressive jazz, don’t miss this one.
Personal score: 7.5/10
There are few burdens that can weigh heavier on a band than being at the forefront of a whole musical movement. With their unimposing yet highly technical, electronica-informed brand of modern jazz, GoGo Penguin have become veritable tastemakers, and have changed the face of the scene for years to come. Amidst all my gleeful anticipation of A Humdrum Star (being an admitted fan of the English trio myself), I was concerned that the pressure put on them by outside forces might prove to be an encumbrance to their music.
Good news first: they have lost none of their fleet-footedness or their penchant for airy, free-floating compositions. Bad news is, however, that they’re perhaps playing it a bit too safe on their second album for renowned jazz label Blue Note Records.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like they experienced a sudden, shocking drop in quality of their music, far from it. The songs are very much still there. “Bardo”, for example, has an almost trance-like quality with its hypnotic piano motif and ambient background instrumentation. Skippy drums and warm, understated double bass lines allow for high dynamics, while the focus mainly lies on the shifting piano rhythms. “Transient State”, on the other hand, is a much more lively track, featuring bouncy piano grooves, a bubbly bass delivery and yet another high-energy drum performance.
The almost bittersweet tone of “Return To Text” is carried in the dancing, punctuated piano delivery, which sits neatly atop the incredibly tight rhythm section of GoGo Penguin (this has been a particular strength of theirs from day one). The more restrained, contemplative moments have an especially emotional weight to them. As does “Window”, the final track on A Humdrum Star. It wears its classical influences on its sleeve, which, in combination with the danceable, EDM-like rhythm work, generates an interesting clash of elements.
I hate having to draw comparisons to other bands in my reviews, since I believe that a band’s own context is usually enough to properly evaluate an album. In this case, though, I have no choice but to look at what similar groups have achieved lately. Former GoGo Penguin labelmates Portico Quartet and Mammal Hands both released spectacular new records last year, on which they made adventurous strides forward in their own styles. Compared to those releases, A Humdrum Star gives off the impression of the trio being glued to their one sonic identity, or even playing it safe for lack of further innovation.
GoGo Penguin have, in summary, kept their high level of musicianship, but traded in some of their spontaneity for consistency. Whether that’s a problem or not depends solely on you, the listener.
Personal score: 7.5/10
Overall Score: 7.5/10
Notable Tracks: “Bardo”; “Transient State”
FFO: Portico Quartet, Esbjörn Svensson Trio, Avishai Cohen