Bizarrely named Manchester-based instrumental trio GoGo Penguin made their initial breakthrough back in 2014, when their album v2.0 received a Mercury Prize nomination. Their music, built around pianist Chris Illingworth’s minimalist piano motifs, fuses elements of modern classical, electronica and jazz, with the bass and drums combination of Nick Blacka and Rob Turner completing the triumvirate.
Because of their influences, GoGo Penguin have been compared to everyone from Aphex Twin and Massive Attack to Brian Eno and Debussy, but on new album A Humdrum Star they don’t really sound like any of these stellar artists. The electronic and percussive elements are generally subtle and unobtrusive, there to complement and support Illingworth’s virtuoso piano work, rather than propel the compositions in their own right. At times, the artist they recall most is early Four Tet, who shared GoGo Penguin’s fusion of the organic and the electronic.
The sonic canvasses GoGo Penguin paint are meticulously structured, deftly paced and feel futuristic without tipping over into wilful weirdness. Prayer is a mellow, elegantly understated opener that feels slightly bland, but second and third tracks Raven and Bardo don’t take long to show that the high bar the band have set on their earlier records is going to be maintained.
The soaring piano work, spacey dynamics and rhythmic undertow, which owes as much to 1990s drum and bass as to jazz, all combine to produce a sound that is hypnotic and quietly epic. With their strong melodic sensibility, these two compositions showcase GoGo Penguin at their most accessible. As Humdrum Star progresses, there are more sharp edges, but this is still a record you can immerse yourself in without ever being rudely jolted out of your repose.
Not everything works – the industrial cymbal clangs of Transient State feel intrusive for example, and the trio’s style will always be open to accusations of repetitiveness from listeners for whom their music is not familiar terrain. But for every small hiccup there are multiple successes – Blacka’s wonderfully supple bass work on Strid and Return To Text being particular instances where Illingworth’s piano willingly cedes centre stage to his fellow performers. Overall, A Humdrum Star is GoGo Penguin’s most cohesive, pleasing record to date.