July 31, 2017
Released On March 17, 2014
Released By Gondwana Records
Unlike my last two selections for Off Your Radar, this third go-round is one that became a figure of musical fascination, and decision for exploration, only fairly recently. Bandcamp being the massively diverse music hosting platform that it is, was where I found GoGo Penguin and my happening upon the trio’s music was a result of simply diving ears-first into the rabbit hole that is Bandcamp’s keyword search box. Think of a word to search for or, even words that aren’t even really words — here’s looking at you Qwert –- and odds are that some form of playable result will be returned to you. In the case of GoGo Penguin, apparently the group is the number one result when looking for penguin-themed uploads (just in case anyone out there is curious!).
GoGo Penguin’s level of impressiveness only increased in proportion with the amount of information that appeared on the screen. Acoustic-electronic? Jazz? Breakbeats? The famed Mercury Music Prize shortlist?! The more there was to read, the more an accompanying fear of the internal hype welled up inside my mind. What would ensue after hitting play on v2.0 would either be the most unexpected but applaudable blend of unlikely descriptors or, a very confusing disaster. It is a gift to the world that the case turned out to be the former — though the mention of a 2014 Mercury Prize short listing probably should have given it away.
Running a hefty 13 tracks in the deluxe edition and over an hour in play time, v2.0 is everything that its pull quotes, genre classifications, and generally excited press accolades make it out to be. Chris Illingworth (piano), Nick Blacka (bass), and Rob Turner (drums) adeptly interlace hallmark qualities of every seemingly contrasting style that permeates GoGo Penguin’s biography. Made up as a piano trio and a frequent user of plucked upright bass in arrangements, v2.0 carries an easily visible torch made of jazz embers. Rhythmically, the threesome do indeed go for it often, as the uncommon 7/4 time signature makes more than one appearance on the record (“Kamaloka,” “One Percent“); even amidst more than one change per song.
Every element of music gets a chance to shine on v2.0 and listeners will quickly find the identifying markers of the stylistic selling points that draw in passers-by. The way every part of the trio alternates standing in the lead melodic role so that different attributes of the instruments can be utilized in different capacities, makes GoGo Penguin often feel much larger than the mere three people they are. The oddity of claiming something like the inclusion of breakbeats, for example, jumps out right away on “Kamaloka.” While the piano maintains the odd timed downbeat, snare lines written with a feverishly quick breakbeat-style pattern give even more life and a deeper sense of affirmation to GoGo Penguin’s clever illusion of “acoustic electronica” style music, given that no electronics are present but there’s a clear signature of a style definitively placed within electronica.
The capture of GoGo Penguin’s work in the studio even lends itself to the band’s ability to embody seamless fusion. Not only did Brendan Williams contribute to mixing v2.0 (Williams mixed electronic artist, Bonobo’s, 2013 record, LateNightTales), but the way in which both musical and ambient sounds on the album were recorded speaks volumes to the kind of impression the Manchester trio wanted to make. Illingsworth’s piano has the kind of clarity and polish given to any professional solo piano record. Blacka’s bass receives plenty of gain in the mix but is left with enough natural sonic space to allow extraneous noises like the releases of string plucks to shine through (“Garden Dog Barbecue“) the way one might hear them in a live jazz bass set where every nuance of the instrument becomes valuable. And beyond the already mentioned shrewd skill of Turner’s drumming, the variety of how his hits are mixed and produced — from the short and snappy faster breakbeats, to the long and softer-toned releases of cymbal rolls done with mallets (“Shock And Awe“) — show GoGo Penguin took an opportunity at every decision-making turn of creating v2.0, to incorporate or blend unusual attributes. Then of course, it can’t be understated how the band excel with pure creativity, hearing the assortment of distinct but memorable and recognizable compositions themselves. All together, the best singular strength of GoGo Penguin’s second full length outing is its gifted execution; both in performance and in artistic assembly. There are a plethora of smaller aspects on the album worth praising but what it comes down to is the way this band pieced together this record and came up with this exact outcome. Truly, it’s appropriate to say the whole of v2.0 is greater than the sum of its parts.
Nick Blacka, Rob Turner, and Chris Illingworth — Inspector Gadget’s secret spheniscidaeic weapon.
Do not Google GoGo Penguin before listening to them. You’ll find reviews which stay stuff like this: “It smoothly incorporates elements of electronica, trip hop, jazz, and classical music, with the explosiveness and anthemic melodiousness of quality rock. It’s sophisticated yet catchy and fluid.” Sure, it may have elements of other types of music, but the musical landscape right now is so vast and varied, and we have access to so much. Everything is an influence. To me, v2.0M is just modern. It’s certainly not your papa’s jazz. It’s fast, bright, and no one is in it for the solos. These are compositions with drums, piano, and bass, which are written by all band members together. The sped up pace is a little surprising at first, and the melodies, played on piano by Chris Illingworth, are memorable and lovely. The band’s talents, vast influences, modernity, and style of composing make v2.0 incredibly appealing to pop music fiends who maybe haven’t dipped a toe in the giant ocean of jazz releases. “One Percent” is a goddamn treasure, one of those gems we all hope to find by participating in OYR. It begins with quiet, staccato piano, and builds until you can hear Nick Blacka’s fingers moving quickly over his bass. You hear something that sounds like glass breaking. You wonder how Rob Turner can keep the pace. The last thirty seconds are exhilarating: rhythms skip and skid and you wonder if something is wrong with your computer. And then it ends and you immediately hit repeat and think: “Oh, I get it now.”
Most people’s first thought upon starting piano trio GoGo Penguin’s album v2.0 and hearing opening track “Murmuration” for the first time is probably that it reminds them of Massive Attack circa “Teardrops.” Other points of reference heard later could also be modern classical pianists like Nils Frahm, or downtempo electronica similar to Tycho. Which wouldn’t necessarily be unfortunate comparisons on their own, but what is even better is that GoGo Penguin spends the next hour proving that they are far more than their influences. Their sound ultimately lands somewhere in the middle of IDM (if played on almost all live instruments), modern classical, jazz, downtempo/ambient, and trip-hop in a way that could easily fall victim to cheesiness in its “electronic but acoustic” tagline but never sounds anything less than complex and beautiful in a really accessible way. Chris Illingsworth and Rob Turner on piano and drums, respectively, play off one another so well, their intricate rhythms rushing about each other and interlocking in perfect manic harmony on uptempo tracks like “Garden Dog Barbecue” and “One Percent.” But the secret weapon here is Nick Blacka on Upright Bass — I personally love double bass and can always have more of it, and Nick delivers here. They might be just be a classic piano trio setup, but with all the genre-bending these guys do, Nick’s bass is a really unique color that sets these guys apart from other contemporary artists. “Home,” where he and the bass get to shine a bit more, is utterly captivating. v2.0 is super solid, really consistent, musically interesting yet still fun—an addicting and exciting excursion into new frontiers.
David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer
When I tell my students I write about music, they don’t give a shit. Soaked in the worst kinds of rap, having the raspy tones of Lil’ Boosie swirling through their speakers like the death throes of a witch burning at the stake, my kids deride my references to the most commonplace of bands. With stuff like the Stones and the Beatles falling flat, how could I expect them to care about the bands we write about here, bands like GoGo Penguin? One kid, one of the nice ones, recently said that I probably liked Metallica if I liked rock because they are one of the best, and because it’s summer and class isn’t in session really and I was hot, I told him about how much Metallica sucks. While I played one of their tracks as a courtesy, he asked how I could not like them when they “rock so hard, do you hear that guitar?! Who else rocks that hard?” Complexity is my issue, really; in a world where anyone can learn some power chords and turn up their amp, I want a depth of sound, some thought put into that thumping beat, and that’s what we have here with v2.0, GoGo Penguin’s second album. Trying to describe this album as jazz or instrumental fails to convey the driving force behind the interplay of the three members, the piano notes pushing up the drums, the arrangements creative and unexpected. Experimental with identifiable roots, this music is raucous and frenetic at times while being introspective, forcing a critical attention because you know you’re going to want to tell someone about this music later. So when my student asked me how I could not like Metallica because they rock so hard, I can always turn on an album like V2.0 and say maybe, but this definitely rocks harder, dude.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
I didn’t really discover jazz until I was in college (which feels soooo stereotypical — my bad, y’all!), and when I did get into it, it was through some of the wilder, more experimental psychedelic music I was listening to at the time. I started with the farthest-out stuff — your Albert Aylers, your late-period John Coltranes — and took years to work my way down into the more sedate stuff. Throughout that time, I tended to gravitate toward horn-focused combos; I liked the big melodic noise out front. Piano-led trios rarely made much of an impression on me. Therefore, I wasn’t too sure about GoGo Penguin, a piano-bass-drums trio about whom I knew basically nothing. v2.0 opener “Murmuration” managed to sneak under my radar, though, going from my initial impression of it as coffee shop background music to having a surprisingly engaging feel that wormed its way under my skin before long. I felt like this might be the kind of listen where, even though I couldn’t distinguish too much from song to song, I appreciated it more than it seemed like I would. Of course, then “Garden Dog Barbecue” immediately launched into mind-bendingly complex time signatures and polyrhythmic syncopation, exploding my initial impressions in the blink of an eye. Over the course of its 52 minutes, v2.0 occasionally dips back into the mellower vibes of the opener. However, most of the time GoGo Penguin are throwing you hyperspeed curveballs like 7/8 time signatures (“One Percent“) or slow piano lines over hyperkinetic beats (“To Drown In You“). At these times, I’m reminded far more of the jazzier work that Squarepusher engaged in on early albums than I am of any more conventional jazz I’ve heard before. However, unlike those ambient electronic jazz explorations, GoGo Penguin’s music is produced by humans playing instruments together in a room, in real time. You can even hear the bass player’s strings scraping across his fretboard. The human element really takes this already engaging album to the next level, and the result is absolutely gripping. In fact, if I ever did wander into a coffee shop and found this band playing in a corner, I feel sure I’d stay there all afternoon.
Your chance to watch these sensational jazz artisans at work.
v2.0 presented an interesting challenge for me this week on OYR. As a DJ/producer, I’ve been trained over many years to listen to instrumental albums like beat tapes, or in plain terms, spec tracks for artists in the music industry. It’s hard for me to listen to an instrumental and not project a singer’s voice, or a rapper’s flow onto that instrumental. So what I’d like to do this week is show you a little of how that part of my brain works. Instead of composing the remainder of this piece as I normally would with sophomoric humor and ill-conceived metaphors, I’m going to put on my A&R hat, and give you the immediate thoughts that popped into my brain as I listened and imagined what v2.0 would be like with artist performances. Here’s the play-by-play. “Murmuration:” An opening drum break. Somber tone building into an erupting frenzy. I would love to hear Coldplay on this. “Garden Dog Barbecue:” Controlled chaos of drums and brilliant piano interplay. Cee-Lo Green all day long. “Kamaloka:” Drum n’ bass pattern plus a whimsical piano equals a progressive and emotional mix perfect for a Lady Gaga ballad. “Fort:” Off-kilter drum pattern and soulful sprinkles of keys with a jazzy baseline makes me think immediately of J. Cole. “One Percent:” The deep, building chords just beg for a soaring, almost operatic performance by a skilled vocalist like Jill Scott. “Home:” Stand up bass and uptempo 4/4 drums lend themselves to a masterful emcee not afraid of the tempo or emotional weight. Black Thought, for sure. “The Letter:” Downtempo, and very heavy. This has all the hallmarks of a fantastic record for Sade. “To Drown In You:” This one needs a storyteller that can also project vulnerability. I hear Wale. “Shock And Awe:” One of those dark and bottomless interludes that Drake has made a career off of. “Hopopono:” This has all the movement and should of an uplifting Common record… featuring John Legend, of course. “Break:” Speaking of John Legend… “In Amber:” Who’s an artist that wouldn’t mind playing with tempo changes? An artist looking for a challenge. Adele would kill this. “Wash:” This is tailor made for a subject matter-driven artist with a wicked half-time flow. I can hear this on the next Logic bum for sure.
Tonight, I took a walk to V2.0 by GoGo Penguin. This was a big mistake. I don’t know about you, but I’m one of those people who walks at the pace of their music and no matter how I try, I can’t stop myself from doing it. Now, I am by no means an athletic woman, and you may have better luck with this than I did, but I just could not keep up with this album. To even stand a chance, I think I would have had to start out with SitSit Penguin and work my way up over a lifetime. By the middle of “Garden Dog Barbecue,” I took my headphones off in a huff and hobbled home. Now don’t take this the wrong way, this album is awesome! Lovely slow instrumentals quickly give way to grand explosions of intensity, raw talent, and poise, as this album kicks itself up several notches in 30 seconds or less. Each track is masterfully crafted and recorded to highlight that moment’s dominant instrument which changes swiftly and seamlessly through every song on the album. The fluidity of the instrumentals is impressive as it seems that nothing is left in the background longing for the spotlight. Perfect for meeting a last-minute deadline, running from a crazed murderer whilst still trying to keep a cool head, and probably looking more cultured than you ever would normally. GoGo Penguin’s v2.0 is essential for any well-rounded music collection.
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
It’s often said of Anton Bruckner’s massive symphonies that they are akin to cathedrals in sound. Not a bad place to start, actually, and I wonder why architectural metaphors aren’t used more frequently to describe other music. Take this GoGo Penguin album, for example. For me, their skittery, jazzy piano trio music describes a sleek modernist environment — think Kubrick or a James Bond villain. I sit alone in the half-light coming from a distant window, sunk into a low-slung couch, all chrome and white. I feel the cold marble floor on my feet and toy with my social media viewer. But I don’t activate it, preferring the void of its glass slab. My cocktail has a sphere for an ice cube and is crystal clear. Gin. I see myself reflected in the large, soul-less eye of the widescreen, but look away as there’s nothing on. Nothing I want to watch, anyway. I glance over at my bar, a lucite and blonde ash construction seemingly a football field away. Should I pour myself another? Or perhaps I should set the controls in my jet-age kitchen and cause a steak to blacken and bleed, with nothing but cracked pepper to enhance its gamy flavor. It’s all up to me. I am alone in this long, low structure, but lonely? Turn up the music.
There’s a special place in my heart for music that makes me think differently about language — about a word or phrase I’ve known and used but haven’t considered from every angle. The expression “of two minds” is typically deployed in situations that involve indecision, but v2.0 makes me think there’s an unexplored connotation that involves… you guessed it… A.I. Artificial Intelligence — the pretty good sci-fi movie Stanley Kubrick started and Steven Spielberg finished in which Haley Joel Osment is a child android and Jude Law is a gigolo android. In A.I. Artificial Intelligence (sorry, the redundancy of the official title cracks me up), there’s a strict division between Mecha and Orga — machines and humans — that Osment seeks to transcend, and I feel like GoGo Penguin does the same. “Garden Dog Barbecue” blurs the line impressively, with a frenzied and repetitious piano passage starting at the 2:42 mark that’s so exacting that it’s hard to imagine a human person executing it precisely enough to nail a studio take. (Pizzicato at the start of “One Percent” serves a similar function, only from the opposite end of the complexity continuum.) Was anything sampled or looped in spots like these? I almost don’t want to ask, because wondering where Orga stops and Mecha begins can be as rewarding as knowing, as any good J Dilla disciple could tell you. But the “two minds” division is even more literal than that. For me, v2.0 is most fun when I’m tracking pianist Chris Illingworth’s hands as separate entities — two forces with frequently divergent musical objectives. (“Kamaloka” is one example.) Is there studio layering, or is it all the work of two fiercely independent hands? Is Haley Joel Osment’s character a real boy by the end of A.I. Artificial Intelligence? You tell me. Or… don’t.
This jazz trio isn’t looking forward or backwards — they are simply expelling all the sounds they know, and making them sound like they were meant to be together.
It’s rare that I actually enjoy the first track on any album. It’s usually forgettable and overdrawn with punch just to set a tone that doesn’t necessarily carry over through the rest of the album. But v2.0 is different. There is a limitlessness to “Murmuration” — its counted speed and build-up of intensity is moving. The way this piece sucked me in was overwhelming (in a good way). The tone shifts in the second track, “Garden Dog Barbecue” and it sounds exactly as you would imagine it. Picture a big, furry dog friend running about in a backyard at high speed, chasing a squirrel as it rattles up a tree. The racing nature of this track puts one in the mindset of a dog and I felt it when it hit my ears. The lack of vocals only moves me further into the good vibrations of v2.0. “The Letter” is another hard-hitting stand out track. Its simplicity is absolutely stunning and its own macabre despair is deadly to the listener; one can truly feel the downtrodden physicality of this song. But GoGo Penguin is doing something beyond the standard of jazz. It’s more than just a fancy lick. It features some of the outside sourced personality that is unique to them, but it doesn’t feel inaccessible. This isn’t an intricate and complicated jam session. It’s picking up on raw emotion and feeling. The songs represent a glance, a touch, a speeding subway train, a cool breeze on a sunny day. I haven’t been pushed that way musically in a long time. GoGo Penguin, thank you.
I found this album quite elusive. Just when I thought, “The drums are clearly my favorite part of this album,” I’ll hear a sweet piano or bass part and then I’m back at square one. The one thought that never occurred to me, weirdly, was “This is a very talented jazz trio.” Gogo Penguin strike me far more as a rock band without a singer than they do as a jazz band with rock influences. That may just be due to my biases about what I think any jazz music that isn’t Kind Of Blue or A Love Supreme. I’m happy to be mistaken in that bias. This is amazingly engaging music. Not only do I enjoy it on its own, but it also inspires me to explore more music like it, which is what you hope music in an unfamiliar genre will do.
As a longtime amateur music reviewer, I generally try to make it a point to do even the slightest bit of research on a band before listening to them for the first time. I find that sometimes knowing a little bit about an artist beforehand helps to put their music into some kind of context, especially when I know that I’ll be writing about it for potentially dozens/hundreds/thousands of readers (that part varies depending on where it’s getting published). Due to some time constraints, or if I’m being truly honest, poor time management, I didn’t do that before diving headfirst into v2.0. I didn’t actually know what to expect from a band who calls themselves GoGo Penguin, and the minimalist album artwork only furthered my inability to guess anything about the band, but hey, as it turned out this was a nice surprise of an album. The approach and instrumentation that GoGo Penguin use to making music might be sparse, but that’s not a word that describes the actual music itself, as GoGo Penguin do a lot with a little as a three piece instrumental band. v2.0 incorporates a handful of styles that are all over the place — “Garden Dog Barbecue” is a fast tempo song that at first reminded me slightly of OYR alums Apparat Organ Quartet, but as the song continued the bouncing piano brought Dave Brubeck to mind more and more, but the comparatively mellow “One Percent” utilizes a drum and bass sound that had me thinking back to Novelty Daughter’s Semigoddess — yet another member of the OYR hall of fame. GoGo Penguin are doing a lot here, but they know what they’re doing and they do it very well. Even the album’s title is a reflective wink to their awareness, as it’s both their second album and was recorded by the band’s second line-up. (Okay, fine… you got me. During my first listen to the album, I did do a little bit of research on the band and came back with that.) Second album and second lineup notwithstanding, v2.0 is a fine listen for anyone looking for something less than conventional but still skillfully impressive.
Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie
The recipe for GoGo Penguin’s sound isn’t too hard to pin down. Combine equal parts jazz and trip hop in a bowl made by a sound classical mind. Pepper in some ambience infused with the spirit of electronica. Freely form into a modern rock structure. Throw it in an expansive studio and let rise for fifty glorious minutes. You can hear all these things (and probably more) as you make your way through this delightful musical cuisine, but I guarantee you that you can’t replicate it. Nor can that jazz group playing tomorrow at your favorite bar, even if they can tear themselves away from playing “Cantalopue Island” or “Chameleon.” Nor can the prodigy locking himself up in a conservatory practice space for twelve hours, if you can pry him away from trying to match the intonation perfectly on a random Coltrane solo. The secret is really in the execution. The order in which you add each ingredient. The speed and intensity with which you blend. The firmness you give when forming. Crucial each step of the way, it’s not something you could ever teach, and a formula the band loves to experiment with and bend until it breaks, something they beautifully show off with their wildly divergent opening tracks “Murmuration” and “Garden Dog Barbecue.” Sadly, this type of musical amalgamation isn’t that special these days. Everyone and their mother is infusing genres with other styles and sounds, so much so that straightforward rock or rap albums are hailed as “groundbreaking” now. But that doesn’t lessen the impact of GoGo Penguin. Because while everyone can make some R&B rock music or some ambient pop, not everyone can combine classic organic spirit and inorganic modern innovations so deftly under a divisive umbrella… and still be melodic and astounding.
GNV FLA by Less Than Jake
Chosen By James Anderson