Not to be confused with The Go-Go’s or Oswald Cobblepot, back in 2014, the year Young Fathers won it, GoGo Penguin were shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. Like Seed Ensemble this year they never had much of a chance of actually winning it. The event is noted for tokenism, which of course it denies, and if you are practitioners of jazz, electronica, dance, or metal you are unlikely to get a look-in when push comes to shove. (If you’re peddling metal you won’t even get as far as push).
Which is a shame because the UK contains some of the most innovative contemporary genre-crunching bands you’ll find anywhere, and GoGo Penguin – pianist Chris Illingworth, bassist Nick Blacka and drummer Rob Turner – are at the top of their game just when everyone’s lapping up politically-influenced grime.
The Mancunians have been together for seven years and have four albums and an EP under their belt, including the second, ‘v2.0’, which was the shortlisted one. The most recent was ‘A Humdrum Star’ in early 2018.
While fundamentally a jazz band in my opinion (they are signed to a French jazz label, Blue Note, owned by Universal) they incorporate a wide range of other styles such as electronica, rock, trip hop and classical and for that reason the list of artists they’ve been compared to ranges from Massive Attack via Brian Eno and Aphex Twin to Phillip Glass. At least one band member is inspired by Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and for their collective part they describe themselves as a ‘leftfield piano trio’, which sounds like one of Pep’s experimental football formations to while away the boredom of a routine 8-0 victory at The Etihad. Someone else labelled them “drum’n’bass for posh people.”
Two of the members having met at the Royal Northern College of Music (where they will shortly play the music that forms the basis for this EP), all have had prior experience of many other styles, from trance to wedding reception covers.
They are known for conceptuality. ‘A Humdrum Star’ was driven by a desire to be open-minded about the cosmos, after the manner of Carl Sagan, or Oldham’s finest, Dr Brian Cox, late of D: Ream.
But things can only get better. ‘Ocean in a Drop: Music for Film’ is released as a 10-inch vinyl EP, the five tracks stemming from, and inspired by, GoGo Penguin’s celebrated live soundtrack for Godfrey Reggie’s 1982 cult film ‘Koyaanisqatsi’. The title nods to a quote from 13th-century Sufi scholar Rumi: “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.”
Anticipating the live shows that begin on 8th October in Los Angeles (see below for UK dates) Chris Illingworth says, “Performing the soundtrack live is hugely demanding, both physically and mentally, and the recording was no different.” They recorded the tracks together live as with previous ones, rather than overdubbing and layering individual parts together.
Koyaanisqatsi means ‘chaotic life’ and opening track ‘Time Lapse City’, which reflects the time lapse footage nature of the film, could easily be musically representative of, say, the stop-start nature of freeway traffic in the Los Angeles rush-hour. Or perhaps something a little more dangerous, such as a scene from ‘Collateral’, Tom Cruise’s best film and shot in that city. Its irregular time signature underscores an inspiring piano riff contested by duelling bass and drums.
The challenging seven-minute long ‘Control Shift’ is played in double-quick time, has as many notes as are found in some entire albums, and in some sections made me wonder if this is what Keith Emerson would have been doing now. Or ELP as a whole, for that matter. It seems that inspiration came from the audience response to the live performance of their original Koyaanisqatsi score. The bass guitar, which plays a central role, should have been a double bass but the velocity of the track was too much for that instrument. It will be an even bigger challenge to pull this off faultlessly live, but spectacular if they can. There’s one section midway through, and then again towards the end, where it twists and turns so much it’s in danger of going up its own backside.
Starting off more gently (and finishing in much the same way) it isn’t long before ‘Four Corners’ erupts into one those complex pieces that Louis Balfour would have described as “nice” on ‘Jazz Club’. But as with the ‘bands’ which appeared on that TV comedy programme item it loses its way a little to the casual listener, and along with it any real sense of melody while the piano riff starts to become a little irritating.
The title track previously featured on GoGo Penguin’s 2016 EP ‘Live At Abbey Road’, but here it takes on new form, with a revised arrangement including two added melodic/improvised bass sections and a more intense finale. Apparently, the piece is fixed around a 12-tone row – a technique to ensure that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are sounded as often as one another in a piece of music while preventing the emphasis of any one note – which is traditionally considered difficult, although it does get used in folk music.
To be honest that’s over my head so I’ll limit my remarks to saying that the early piano riff is vaguely similar to that of the opening to ‘Tubular Bells’, the intensity towards the ending is exhilarating and it’s the most satisfying piece on the EP.
Wrapping it up, ‘Nessus’ is a short (two minutes 50 seconds) reflective piano-based track that could soundtrack a first dinner date.
This isn’t music for people who are more interested in the politics than the melody (there are no lyrics, at all, and there were occasions when I thought some might be merited), the madness of the stage performance, or in how pretty the singer is. Rather, listening to it might be an alternative to having a game of chess, debating the purpose of life, or reading the closing stock prices in the FT. It’s serious, demanding stuff, but GoGo Penguin have come very close here to finding a way of bringing it to the masses while classical music and jazz still struggle to register with the casual listener.
Personally, I’d love to see them working with other bands that are equally pushing the envelope, such as Pom Poko.
The EP is released on 4th October 2019 by Blue Note Records.
UK Tour Dates: (both are ‘sold out’ according to the GoGo Penguin website)
21 Oct 2019 EartH (Koyaanisqatsi live) London
27 Oct 2019 RNCM (Koyaanisqatsi live) Manchester