GoGo Penguin is a unique piano trio formed in 2012 in Manchester, England. Their sound defies any one conventional category as they cross between jazz, classical, funk, electronic, trance and hypnotic. I got hooked on them about four years ago when their third album Man Made Object came out. Now they’ve just released their fifth album with the eponymous title, GoGo Penguin. They’re not really a “power” trio but their work is amazing because at times it can seem “orchestral.” The group is comprised of pianist Chris Illingworth, bassist Nick Blacka, and drummer Rob Turner.
For me, this album is super-relaxing and most of the tunes have multiple layers. Typically, Illingworth leads with an underlying complex melody, often playing the piano with one hand on the keys and one on the string board. Blacka and Turner come in with unusual syncopation and many cleverly timed patterns, starts and stops.
It’s great to review another wonderful release from this group. In these turbulent times, this one is like a stress antidote. Although the group had to postpone their 2020 tour, I definitely hope to catch them live whenever our paths cross. You can purchase the album here GoGoPenguin. Here’s my track-by-track rundown.
- 1_# – One-Space-Number(!?) leads with a repetitive two note piano and has minimal accompaniment from bass and drums but does have a torrent of background sounds. I haven’t yet figured out what the background is – it initial sounds like a door, then water, then a little like a horse drawn carriage and closes out sounding like rocks rolling. Any guesses? The number is short at just over two minutes and serves as a nice appetizer for the album.
- Atomised – This one starts with a bright four-note repeat pattern before the drums kick in followed by some extra heavy bass. The key changes on piano make this interesting and changes between singular piano dominance back and forth to the deep bass synchronization. The break comes with a slower-paced keys and softer bass for a more calming section before some slick drum, piano and bass silent spacing to close out.
- Signal in the Noise – this one comes with a sort of ripped and prolonged piano note before drums come in frenetically with some distinct bass plucking before building to a quiet storm. The piano bridge sounds nearly classical and is an excellent representation of that GGP full sound. There’s a second bridge with some multilayered sustained piano sounds and then comes back on bass with some excellent plucking. Turner’s drumming as usual is crisp and powerful. Blacka on bass leads the second half with Illingworth playing on the back layer and then it drops down to Turner on drums for the close.
- Open – Open starts with a couple of spaced out stanzas with nothing but echoes between. It’s another favorite because of Turner’s great work on the tom toms. The timing of this tune is terrific with great spacing between the three. It’s almost as if they’re playing different songs at different times, but all together. One starts, the other stops and then they reverse. Three quarters through they collectively slow down before building back to that extra rich sound. It actually like a full orchestra, I think because of layering of the strings as well as Blacka bowing the bass. Masterful.
- F Maj Pixie – Illingworth starts this one like a lullaby before Turner comes in almost with a march-like beat and Blacka comes in and it sounds like taking a walk through a forest. The piano tinkling next is so light I can picture a pixie dancing. The piece is transfixing. Midway the buildup is extremely powerful with Turner pounding the crash cymbal. This one particularly demonstrates how in tune these three are with each other. The pace slows for the last minute or so as the threesome pass the baton between them. Catch the live video recording to the right.
- Kora – Kora is a personal favorite and one that was an early release on video (right) as well. Illingworth starts with some hypnotic playing with his right hand on keys and left in the piano strings. He then switches back and forth between this setup and two hands on keys. Again, Blacka and Turner are synced to the max. Chris really is playing piano as if it were a Kora – a 21-stringed West African instrument that is featured in another of my favorite bands, Toubab Krewe. Midway through the crest on this song is amazing before a break for Blacka to solo. Chris comes back with a cross handed solo that is incredible. Watch the video and you’ll see him playing with his hands-on top of one another. Again, Turner plays very dramatically to the end.
- Totem – Chris starts slow here with Turner backing with some excellent cymbal swirls and then some rustling sounds before Blacka joins and the group builds to a rapid paced, well-balanced melody. Perhaps the Totem is that they’re all stacked on top of each other for a very rich sound. This one’s like going from 0 to 60 miles per hour and then cruising down the highway before slowing and bringing us back home.
- Embers – Chris starts this with an idyllic melody that could easily start you daydreaming. The percussive sounds give Embers a feel of a remote island and puts me in a very contemplative mood. Chris’ trilling bridge is like floating.
- To the Nth – Nth starts with some nice work between Chris and Rob, with Nick supporting with some big backing bass. It does seem like Chris has four hands on this one – how else can he play so many notes. Nick has a big, funky solo midway through, and Rob plays along with Chris very melodically. It’s the kind of tune, I can listen to all day and use it as an energy source.
- Don’t Go – This one has Chris sounding like he’s playing pizzicato with Nick actually taking on the lead role. The base line is very pronounced and has extra depth and almost a vocal quality to it. Chris maintains the pizzicato and comes in on keys as well for the second half. What fun – the last 15 seconds or so have the sound of someone walking out of a room and closing the door. Don’t Go!!!
This album gets better with each listen and is a great representation of GoGo Penguin’s depth and prowess, the blending of sounds and styles. I’d highly recommend this one and look forward to everyone getting these very tranquil vibes. It’s what we need right now.
- Chris Illingworth, piano
- Nick Blacka, bass
- Rob Turner, drums