Hailing from Manchester, experimental trio GoGo Penguin have been one of the most consistently interesting, uncategorisable instrumental acts in the UK over the past decade. Comprised of pianist Chris Illingworth, bassist Nick Blacka, and drummer Rob Turner, their sound fuses elements of modern classical, electronica and jazz without ever coalescing into one genre, the most defining element being the virtuoso musicianship of all three members.
While GoGo Penguin’s second album – 2014’s v2.0 – remains their best-known due to its Mercury Prize nomination, their last outing, 2018’s A Humdrum Star, was arguably their best. Meticulously structured, deftly paced and pushing boundaries without ever descending into wilful weirdness, it was accessible and melodic, yet with enough surprises to keep the band far from dinner party background territory.
It’s something of a disappointment therefore that their new self-titled release doesn’t quite maintain the same high bar. All the same ingredients are still in place – Illingworth’s Steve Reich/Erik Satie-influenced piano motifs, the pulsating upright bass of Blacka and the intricate percussion patterns of Turner – but while they still defy easy pigeonholing, in the main the tracks here somehow fail – like the bird in their name – to really take flight.
After the short, somewhat inconsequential opener 1_#, an early peak is scaled with Atomised, released as a single earlier this year. A composition of distinct parts, it builds around cascades of piano and a propulsive, drum and bass-influenced rhythm, before suddenly shifting tempo in its final quarter to a slower, more reflective pace. The dynamics of the track are beautifully judged, but regrettably, Atomised is rarely emulated thereafter.
That’s not to say the record doesn’t have its moments. It’s been said before that GoGo Penguin have much in common with early Four Tet, with both acts characterised by their ability to juxtaposition the organic with the futuristic, combined with a strong sense of mathematical precision. This similarity is apparent again on Open, with its shuddering, skittering percussion punctuated by sudden slivers of mournful strings, and on the meditative, gently lilting final track Don’t Go. A mention too for second single Kora – inspired by the African instrument of the same name – which sees GoGo Penguin trying to recreate its hypnotic, shimmering arpeggios, with Illingworth’s piano and Blacka’s bass both rising to the stylistic challenge admirably.
Elsewhere though, we get bland, rather faceless fare, like Signal in the Noise and F maj Pixie, which feel like the trio on autopilot. And while there’s no denying that when they hit their default groove – as on To the Nth, for example – GoGo Penguin are a mightily tight, impressive unit, this album does leave you wanting more from a very talented band clearly capable of greater things.