A Humdrum Star – GoGo Penguin
Much of the success that rubbed off GoGo Penguin’s third album Man Man Object very much continued and followed them along and the bands 4th album A Humdrum Star certainly showed by now that the band had landed on their feet so to speak. The band had spent around 200 days on the road doing a worldwide tour touring their previous album and further shows in America was attracting more of the attention over there than in their own country here in the UK.
Although they certainly never had any problems selling tickets to their live shows here in the UK and if you can afford to put on a show at the Royal Albert Hall in London then you must be doing well and something right. It’s also worth noting that they were also attracting a lot more attention in both Germany and Belgium than their own country too and their decision to cut a 3-album deal and sign-up to Blue Note Records in France appeared to be working out for both the band and the label.
I am pretty sure that the band were put under quite a bit of pressure to come up with the material to follow and measure up to the material that was written for their 3rd album Man Made Object and further the success it had brought them. It’s a difficult task for all artists to do and I would say that only a minority have successfully pulled it off as well. In the music business you are only as good as your next album when it comes to carrying on that success for most in the business.
However, it’s not always a case of how do you “TOP THAT! so to speak and some artists and bands have made such iconic albums that it would be impossible to do that. Pink Floyd’s 1973 album Dark Side Of The Moon is a perfect example of an iconic album and they were one of the few bands who did successfully manage to follow it up. Although I do not personally think they topped that album but I would say that they measured up to their high standards with the next 3 albums they released after it.
I would not exactly say that Man Made Object is an iconic album but it is nevertheless a very good album that contains a strong body of work and I do personally see it as their best album in terms of energy. I would also see it as something that would present the band with a challenge to come up with something next that would still keep their existing audience and attract even more attention and bring in more followers and fans alike to their music.
The one thing they did have in their favour judging by the bands first 3 albums is that GoGo Penguin were a band that were improving all the time. But before we take a look to see if the band had managed to carry on their success and come up with the goods, let’s take a look at the packaging and artwork as usual.
The Packaging & Artwork…
The CD comes in the same quality gatefold cardboard Digisleeve that was used for their 2nd album v2.0 where both the CD and Booklet are retrieved from the both sides like a vinyl album and it replicates a mini version of a vinyl album very well. It comes with an 8-page booklet that contains the linear and credit productions notes but does not include any informative information or photos of the band.
Unlike their previous album to which the CD format was only released in a standard plastic Jewel Case they did release their 4th album with an option of the jewel case or a digisleeve. I got mine from Amazon UK for £5.99 and it arrived in a jewel case. Having discovered afterwards it was also released in a Digisleeve I went out and brought it from a record store in London who were selling them new and sealed on eBay for £10.
You could say that the album was that good I brought it twice 🙂 but I myself prefer DigiPaks & DigiSleeves and I think they give a better overall presentation which is why I do not mind paying that bit extra for them. I dare say in the future they will eventually re-release their 3rd album in a DigiPak & DigiSleeve with a few bonus tracks and I will buy that to replace the one I already have.
The album was also released in the form of a Digital Download and also on Black & Red vinyl to which both were pressed onto 2 180-gram LP’s. The coloured vinyl was released as a Limited Edition only. I have to confess that these days with how they put a single album worth of material onto a double vinyl record sort of takes away the meaning of a double album from all those years ago.
I can see why they are doing it, and it is for quality reasons down to vinyl having restrictions of how much you can fit onto one side before the sound deteriorates. But it’s an expensive game these days and its price tag of £24.99 I personally think is well over the odds and you will never convince me that it sounds any better than a CD.
Once again the artwork was done by Paul Middlewick and I have confess that I have yet to be impressed by any of the artwork that was done for GoGo Penguin’s albums and they all look like the designs you would find in the templates you would get with a CD Labelling Kit 🙂 Here they have used a coloured spectrum of lines to represent the Humdrum Star. Not sure it does that at all and they would have been better off using a photo.
Out of their first 4 albums the only cover that made any sort of sense in the way of it being apt would have to be the design that was done for their previous album Man Made Object. The other notable thing about the album cover is that like their debut album they have included the band name and title.
The Album A Humdrum Star In Review…
GoGo Penguin’s 4th studio album A Humdrum Star was released on the 9th February 2018. The album contains 9 instrumental tracks spread over an overall playing time of 50 minutes, 41 seconds. Once again, the album was very well received upon its release and it hit number 5 in the US Top Jazz Albums Billboard Charts. Five places higher than their previous album. Although in the UK it was one place shorter than their previous album and peaked at Number 73 in the UK album charts.
The idea for the albums title was inspired by a quote by the astronomer and scientist Carl Sagan who was talking about the pale blue dot from his book he wrote back in 1994 of the same title which is about a vision of the human future in space. All 3 of the band members have an interest in space and the universe and have even played at the Bluedot Festival on a couple of occasions which has been an annual event since July 2016 It’s very much a music, science and culture event that’s held at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, England which is endorsed by the University of Manchester who are the current owners of the observatory.
The band recorded the album at Low Four Studios in Manchester which used to be the old Granada Studios where The Beatles rehearsed for their first ever TV appearance back in the early 60’s. The studio opened up in 1962 which was the same year the building was completed. It was designed by Ralph Tubbs, an architect renowned for his work on the Dome of Discovery for the Festival of Britain and the studio was used to record many TV Themes and Soundtracks for the Movies.
Dan Parrott launched Low Four Studio at the Old Granada Studios with his partner Brendan Williams in May 2016 and the space is now used to nurture and promote new local acts through live performances complete with studio audience and internet music television video live streaming. Very much the same sort of thing Jools Holland is doing these days. Brendan Williams also happens to be one of GoGo Penguin’s producers and recording engineers so you can see why they decided to use this particular studio.
Low Four Studios
As with much of the new material the band wrote, the biggest majority of it would have been road tested at their live shows as they wrote them. They took some time out to record the album in June 2017 and the album was mixed and mastered between July and October of the same year. Once again most of the mixing was done at 80 HERTZ Studios in Manchester by Joseph Reiser & Brendan Williams and they used a different mastering engineer and the album was mastered in Germany by Norman Nitzsche.
Throughout 2018 GoGo Penguin spent much of their time on the road promoting their new album and they very much went on a world tour. They kicked off the tour in their own country England on the 8th February 2018 at the Roundhouse in London and also ended it off in Europe at the La Cigale in Paris, France on December the 10th December 2018. They toured most of Europe including Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Turkey and other international countries such as Japan, USA and Canada.
They took a couple of months off over Christmas and New Year and in February 2019 they went back out on the road again adding countries like Brazil, Poland, Greece and the Ukraine and a few others to their list. GoGo Penguin have always been a hard-working band and spend a lot of their time on the road playing live. It was whilst on tour in America back in 2018 they got to do a mini concert on the 13th September and performed 3 of the tracks from the album “Raven“. “Bardo” and “Window” in Washington at NPR Musics Tiny Desk.
The Tiny Desk was set up by Bob Boilen back in 2008 after he and the editor of NPR Music Stephen Thompson left a bar show frustrated that they couldn’t hear the music over the crowd noise. The artist they were watching at the time was folk singer Laura Gibson and Thompson joked that maybe she should perform at Boilen’s desk.
A month later Boilen arranged for Laura Gibson to just do that and made an impromptu recording and posting it online and it attracted enough attention to make it into a series featuring many new and upcoming artists and more well-known artists such as Sting, Richard Thompson and Cat Stevens to name a few. It’s very popular on YouTube and by the time GoGo Penguin played behind the desk (which now looks like the counter of a book store) more than 800 concerts have been viewed a collective 2 billion times on the Tube. I’ve watched it a good few times and enjoy it.
GoGo Penguin Tiny Desk Concert
This mini concert is well worth watching and I was also quite amazed how the guys managed to set up in such a small space. I am fairly sure that Chris Illingworth does hit a couple of bum notes on “Raven” and to be honest it’s the first time I have ever heard him make any sort of mistake but that is all part and parcel of a live performance and was hardly that noticeable at all. It cannot be easy when you do not have your own instrument either and have to rely on what piano you get for each show.
Speaking of PIANOS! he also has to get permission to put tape over the strings and with an upright piano you will also need to take the front off with a screwdriver. Even though this is something that could be done on a Grand Piano without having to take it apart I often wonder how many would grant permission to put sticky tape on expensive pianos such as a Steinway and those things cost a bomb. The sticky tape does its job though and they knock both “Bardo” and “Window” out of the park on this performance.
The musical trio carried on playing more live shows and writing new material throughout 2019 and also released another EP only this time unlike the Live At Abbey Road EP they put out 3 years earlier this consisted of new recorded material. Oddly enough the EP was titled after the only new track that featured on their live EP from 2016 only this version does sound a bit different and is a minute shorter.
GoGo Penguin’s second EP Ocean In A Drop (Music For Film) was released on the 4th October 2019 it contains 5 instrumental tracks spread over an overall time of 22 minutes, 41 seconds. The EP was released in the form of a Digital Download and on 10″ Vinyl in Europe only. It was also released on CD in Japan only and like always you will pay through the nose for it and £23 for an EP that should retail at around £5 – £7 here in the UK is scandalous. To be honest even though the 10″ vinyl is only around £14 here in the UK I still find that a ridiculous price which is why I opted for the Digital Download and paid £2.79 for it on Amazon UK.
The music that is featured on the 5-track EP Ocean In A Drop (Music For Film) was the score they wrote for Godfrey Reggio’s cult 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi and performed at the HOME cinema in Manchester, England back in October 2015. They decided to re-record it and recorded it at 80 HERTZ Studios in Manchester between the 25th – 27th January 2019. It was recorded and mixed by Joseph Reiser & Brendan Williams and mastered by Norman Nitzsche. The cover design was done by Paul Middlewick and the photograph of the circuit board was taken by Alexandre Debiève.
It’s perhaps the most adventurous artwork ever seen on a GoGo Penguin release although the picture of the circuit board I personally think does very little and bares no relation to the EP. I would also say that the music they scored for Godfrey Reggio’s film also bares no relation to the title to which Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi Indian word meaning “life out of balance”. I would also say that out of the 5 tracks that make up the EP it is only perhaps the final track “Nessus” that really sounds like Soundtrack material.
Unlike the Live At Abbey Road EP to which I never seen as an essential part of the bands discography the 5-track EP Ocean In A Drop (Music For Film) is quite the opposite and very much a must to have. Most of the material that was written for it is more up-tempo and exciting and my personal favourite track and standout track from the EP would be the longest one on it entitled “Control Shift“. But they are all very well written and GREAT! tracks. The track listing is as follows: “Time-Lapse City. 3:55“. “Control Shift. 7:08“. “Four Corners. 4:29“. “Ocean In A Drop. 4:19” and “Nessus. 2:50“.
Overall, Ocean In A Drop (Music For Film) is very much up with the material that was written for both Man Made Object and A Humdrum Star and is a very solid body of work. It’s very much worthy of my rating of 10 out of 10 and like I mentioned a must for all GoGo Penguin fans alike. The band also performed the material from it live at a couple of the gigs in the States in the same month of its release.
Musicians & Credits…
All compositions by GoGo Penguin. Produced by Joseph Reiser & Brendan Williams. Recorded at Low Four Studios Manchester, England between 10th – 23rd June 2017. Mixed at 80 HERTZ Studios Manchester, England between 3rd – 21st July 2017 and Low Four Studios Manchester, England between 16th & 17th October 2017. Recorded & Mixed by Joseph Reiser & Brendan Williams. Mastered by Norman Nitzsche at Calyx Mastering Berlin, Germany between 18th & 19th October 2017. Assistant Recording Engineer Lee Aston. Additional Engineering by Rob Kelledy. Artwork & Design by Paul Middlewick.
Chris Illingworth: Piano.
Nick Blacka: Double Bass.
Rob Turner: Drums.
The Album Tracks In Review…
Like I mentioned earlier GoGo Penguin were a band that appeared to be improving all the time and regarding carrying on that success most bands are only as good as their next album. The band were put under pressure to come up with the goods when they made their previous album Man Made Object, after all they were signed up to a new record label. The fact that they are constantly out on the road playing live also contributes to a lot of the success but it can also put a strain on you when it leaves little time to be at home with your family.
Like any band there is always going to be some arguments or disputes when you are continuously working together all the time, which is why they decided to record their 4th album A Humdrum Star in their own town in Manchester. This allowed them more time to spend in their own homes with their families and helped relieve a lot of the pressure and gave them more liberation. I certainly think it paid off by how well the album came out and there is no doubt that GoGo Penguin had come up with the goods yet again.
I would also say that they stripped back on quite a bit of the elements that went into making their 3rd album Man Made Object to create what we have here. So, lets now take a look at the individual tracks on the album and see how it all worked out.
Track 1. Prayer.
The album opens with the shortest track on the album to which mostly features Chris Illingworth on the piano whilst the other two work more in the way of adding effects to the piece such as the effective use of the bowed strings on the double bass and the odd bit of knocks and noises in the percussion department. The piano is also working in a percussive way with how it’s hammering out one continuous note on the one hand whilst a darker mournful melody is crafted out of the other.
It’s quite a dramatic piece that reflects a sense or feel of sadness and loss, it would even work as a funeral march in many respects too. You could even visualize it like staring up at the stars and as a prayer of hope perhaps for those astronauts who are about to take off or those who were lost. As prayers go this is perhaps not a blessing but works very well as an introduction.
Track 2, Raven.
This is very much the first piece I ever heard of GoGo Penguin and it immediately drew me in and led me to further investigate their music. Now here I am with another 5 albums and 2 EP’s added to my collection writing about it. What drew my attention to this piece is very much the electronic side of things that the piano is playing and no doubt Illingworth has worked the melody lines around that genre of music and has even threw the odd classic elements into the pot with some of the octaves in the faster sections of the piece. The melody lines are really GREAT! and it’s a very well-structured piece.
The piece was originally worked around a little sketch that Illingworth wrote using lots of synths and electronic drums and although both Nick Blacka and Rob Turner do contribute towards the writing on certain pieces, it’s quite evident that this particular piece was very much like many other of Go Go Penguin’s compositions and was more structured around the keys. The inspiration and title of the piece also came from one of Illingworth’s strange dreams he had a few years ago about playing chess with a raven.
This video the band put out on their official YouTube channel of the band performing it live at Low Four Studios where they recorded the album is the same video, I seen that drew my attention to the band. The thing that stuck out to me was not only the well-structured melody lines on the piano, but how the lines were structured around electronic music and the fact that they had replaced the synthetic bass lines and drums with real instruments. In all honesty if I was to hear another pathetic Roland TR808 Drum Machine it would of drove me up the wall. Those things really do sound like Plastic and drive me nuts Lol…
“Raven” is very much one of the albums stand out tracks and its melodic structure is very catchy and pulls you in and draws you to it straight away. It also has all the right characteristics to work as the single release from the album and is infectious enough to make people want to go out and buy it. I dare say it pulled in many more fans when they released it too and it is one of my personal favourite tracks on the album that merits the albums TOP SPOT AWARD! for those reasons.
Track 3. Bardo.
This is a piece that sort of noodles it’s way along a repetitive sequence played on the keys with part of the strings on the piano taped up to give it more of a muted plucky effect. All three musicians do their own bit off noodling to make it what it is and they each play their part in it. It’s a piece that may of very well of been designed to take out on the road to play live and is that more interesting watching it being played live rather than listening to it on the album. Though it is quite a good album track and has been very well worked out.
The word “bardo” is associated with Buddhism and in Tibet in particular it’s also mentioned in their book of the dead. It’s an intermediate, transitional, or liminal state between death and rebirth and used loosely, “bardo” is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth according to Tibetan tradition.
The band put out an official video on their YouTube channel and once again the video production was done by Antony Barkworth-Knight. It is however, on a radio edit and is only half as long as the 7 minute, 14 second track on the album, but nevertheless portrays the transitional, or liminal state between death and rebirth quite well.
Overall, “Bardo” is more exciting to watch live and it’s one of those pieces you would want to see them play at a gig and it would perhaps standout more at their live shows. I do actually prefer the longer version on the album than the radio edit they put out in this video and it is like I said a good album track but does not stand out so much on the album sort of thing.
Track 4. A Hundred Moons.
This particular track on the album reminds me a lot of the German electronic band Tangerine Dream and is more familiar with their latter material when they themselves added the singer and percussionist Iris Camaa to their line-up back in 2003. To be perfectly honest this track even sounds more like Tangerine Dream than GoGo Penguin and if I heard it on the radio first I would of even swore blind it was Tangerine Dream. That is really how close these guys are to replicating electronic music and they have got it down to a tee on this track.
It is more down to Rob Turner’s percussion and the ambience that is reflected from the keys on the piano that does give it more of an electronic feel plus the melody Chris Illingworth is playing on the piano. The double bass would be the only instrument that perhaps does not have any electronic element. Although keyboards can quite easily emulate that sound and Nick Blacka’s bass lines work very well here in giving it a rich texture adding some strength to support it.
The band put out another live video of them playing it live at Low Four Studios on their official YouTube channel and you can plainly see how well the percussion drives this piece along. You can also see how Turner does use some strange objects including what looks to me like a metal platter from a HiFi Turntable and it works effectively very well.
“A Hundred Moons” is a really GREAT! track and another of my personal favourites on the album and no doubt there is a heavy Tangerine Dream influence here though it also quite possible that neither of these young chaps have ever heard their music. But it does speak the same language to me has that electronic band and they are doing it with acoustic instruments. It’s very much a strong contender for the albums TOP SPOT!
Track 5. Strid.
This is the longest track on the album weighing in at 8 minutes, 10 seconds and its title is referring to a stretch of the River Wharfe, in Yorkshire, England. Although the Yorkshire dales is a pleasant place to walk even alongside the Wharfe, the Strid might even look innocent to walk along but you do not want to be falling into it. It’s considered to be the world’s most dangerous stretch of water and nobody who has fallen or attempted to swim in it has ever survived. Because of its very fast undercurrent it literally carries rocks along and it will totally pulverise you if you were to go into it.
Both Nick Blacka and Rob Turner work their butt on this track and along with Chris Illingworth’s piano they have captured the danger and the innocence of this stretch of the river with how it travels along with its twists and turns. It’s built up with both pace and calmer sections to portray the drama the river beholds and they do it very well. It’s a very well structured and fine piece of work with some GREAT! progression along its path and another GREAT! album track.
Track 6. Transient State.
This is one of the more up-tempo pieces on the album with how it runs along at a it’s faster pace, although I must admit with how it opens up with Turner banging away on some tin cans it sounds like dinner is about to be served 🙂 A transient state is when a process of variable or variables have been changed and the system has not yet reached a steady state. The time taken for the circuit to change from one steady state to another steady state is called the transient time.
The idea for the piece came from a time that Chris Illingworth was on tour with the band in Tokyo, Japan and he got a rare day off to do a bit of sightseeing to which was a new experience for him and somewhere totally different to anywhere he’d been before. He packed as much as he could in that one day and it was about those experiences never being in one place very long and always on the move hence the reason for the title.
It’s quite a powerful piece with how it builds up and the piano hammers it’s way along a repeating melody line and goes through some alternating melody lines over the first 3 minutes. There is a more of a progressive change in the section that runs between 3:13 – 3:41 were things speed up on the keys. It plays a repeated sequence of notes and then develops into something a bit more like a jazzy jam and then goes back into its main riff sort of thing to end it all off. All 3 musicians are working their butt off and it’s another GREAT! album track.
Track 7. Return To Text.
This is a piece that is once again is more up-tempo but has more beauty evolving from the melody lines that Chris Illingworth has crafted out on the piano. There is perhaps a bit more sense of a purpose to this track in relation to the previous track and it’s a very well-crafted piece of work where Nick Blacka’s bass lines once again add some tonality and richness to it all whilst Rob Turner keeps it nicely ticking over. It’s a very pleasing piece to listen to and perhaps reflects its power more in its beauty.
Track 8. Reactor.
The up-tempo and pace is further fueled and ignited and “Reactor” is a track that has more excitement and a bit more adrenalin thrown in with how it pumps things up and drives them along. Driving it along is very much Nick Blacka’s powerful bass line and it ignites the flame. Musically this piece was most likely structured around his bass line and whilst Rob Turner’s drums provide the right amount of heat Chris Illingworth’s piano provides the right fuel to build it all up and it cooks very well along on gas.
Overall, “Reactor” is quite a powerful track that maintains its high driven energy throughout most of its 6 minutes and 17 seconds only dropping off the pedal on a short couple of occasions. It’s another really GREAT! album track and contender for the albums TOP SPOT AWARD!
Track 9. Window.
The album closes up with a lovely piece entitled “Window” which could be seen as the exit point whatever way you look through it sort of thing. Whatever is in this window has been very well constructed and its musical structure would most definitely have come from the piano and it really is a GORGEOUS! piece of work that once again all 3 musicians have worked their butt off with everything they have thrown into the piece.
They also put out an official video which consists of a shorter radio edit of the track on their YouTube channel. There is some really strange things going on through this window by the looks of the video that was Directed by Antony Barkworth-Knight that was made with the use of CGI by Gelato Visual Effects and captured by Matthew Melbourne.
“Window” ends off the album superbly and just like the second track on the album “Raven” it has all the right qualities to make another single release from the album. It’s very much my second favourite track on the album and a very strong contender for the albums TOP SPOT AWARD!
To sum up GoGo Penguin’s 4th studio album A Humdrum Star. It’s very much an album that is on par and equal terms with their previous album Man Made Object. The difference between the two albums is really down to how they have stripped back more of the techno, trance, dubstep, and dance that’s more associated with the club scene and worked the material around more of the electronic side of music without all those modern attributes thrown into the pot. All the jazz, classical and hip-hop elements are still present as with all their albums and it is those elements mixed with some minimalistic electronic elements that maintains and gives them their distinctive style and is the driving force behind their music.
You simply cannot tag GoGo Penguin down to one particular genre of music because there are several other genres of music that goes into fusing it all together. I would even add Cinematic to all the ones I have mentioned as well. The fact that they do work within all these different genres and manage to come up with consistent melody lines is what keeps their music fresh and why each album does manage to flow along differently from one to the next.
Personally, I do not see A Humdrum Star an improvement over their previous album Man Made Object because their 3rd album was where they had found their feet and could be seen as quite a step forward in relation to the bands first couple of albums. To be perfectly honest how they have stripped back on many of those modern genres that were fused into their 3rd album should by rights make this album appeal more to my taste. Simply because those genres of techno, trance, dubstep, and dance have never appealed to my taste.
But what appeals to me about the music that GoGo Penguin creates is really down to the fact that they are only using minimalistic elements from all of the genres they have managed to fuse into the pot, and they have successfully combined them in a way for them not annoy me and appeal more to me. What makes GoGo Penguin so successful is really their minimalistic approach to everything they do, even down to their album covers. Their music consists mostly of minimalistic motif’s and melody lines that would be completely repetitive if it was not for all the other things that is going on around it.
To conclude my review of A Humdrum Star by GoGo Penguin. I would say that once again the Trio have most certainly come up with goods in making yet another very enjoyable album that is filled with very well written material. It’s an album that has all the makings of pretty much a solid album worth of material with nothing disappointing along its path. My personal highlights from the album are “Raven“. “Window“. “A Hundred Moons” and “Reactor“.
Once again, the album is very well produced and the track placement has been given some careful attention in making the album flow along smoothly. I think all GoGo Penguin’s albums can very much be enjoyed from listening to them from start to finish with how well the tracks have been placed on them, and each one provides the listener with something a bit fresher to listen to and enjoy.
Coming up next for review is the final part of this 5-part uninterrupted series of GoGo Penguin’s discography. Their latest eponymously named album was released a couple of weeks ago and from what I have heard of it so far it does sound very promising and you can find out more has once again Lee SPEAKS! about music…
More Than A Pale Blue Dot Visualized Here…
The Album track listing is as follows:
01. Prayer. 2:54.
02. Raven. 4:57.
03. Bardo. 7:14.
04. A Hundred Moons. 4:27.
05. Strid. 8:10.
06. Transient State. 5:59.
07. Return To Text. 5:22.
08. Reactor. 6:17.
09. Window. 5:21.
Lee’s Packaging Rating Score. 8/10.
Lee’s Price Point Rating Score. 10/10.
Lee’s Album Rating Score. 10/10.