Fanfares – GoGo Penguin
About five or six weeks ago I stumbled across what looked like a jazz trio and to be honest jazz is perhaps not really the sort of thing I would buy even though I have a GREAT! deal of respect for it, and my taste in jazz is more along the lines of jazz fusion. However, whatever these three young chaps were doing sounded quite different and in many ways fresh and new to me. It was also another kind of fusion in many respects and since I stumbled across them on Youtube I have more or less watched and listened to a rake of their music and watched live concerts of them. They go by the name of GoGo Penguin and are from Manchester here in the UK.
I would not say what I heard in their music was entirely new but it was certainly a more newer and fresher approach to a genre of music that I myself over the last few years have got very bored of to the point that I can no longer really listen to it in large doses. That genre of music is electronic or electronica how its perhaps more described these days. It’s certainly not the style of music you would associate with acoustic instruments either, and that is what really drew me into what they were doing immediately and grabbed my attention.
Today there is very little out there in the world of music that is that much different for it to be really fresh and exciting enough to immediately grab you. I would even consider myself to be very OLDSCHOOL! and still mostly live in the 70’s regarding my preferred musical taste. It’s very rare to find anything new and invigorating enough that is really going to stand out and make a new statement so to speak and the last time I seen anything like that was when I came across the 2 Cellos.
In many respects with how GoGo Penguin go about their own approach to music I could perhaps liken them to the 2 Cellos in some ways. They both use acoustic instruments and effects and have a unique style and approach to music that appeals to a wider audience and attracts a lot of attention. Although these 3 guys are certainly not as flamboyant like the 2 Cellos and have not quite gathered the masses of popularity like they have accumulated. Though nevertheless their concerts sell out quite quickly and they are continuously on the road playing all over the world and they are without doubt attracting attention everywhere they go.
Unlike the 2 Cellos who more or less gained their popularity by playing covers of famous rock songs to which was the very thing that had given a certain amount of popularity to the violinist Nigel Kennedy much earlier. GoGo Penguin very much play their own material which is perhaps why they are not quite as popular. The other difference is that their music can also be enjoyed by simply listening to it on record. Where as the 2 Cellos are perhaps more or less a dynamic duo you would get more out of watching them rather than just listening to them.
Having listened and watched GoGo Penguin over the past six weeks I noticed they have a new album due to be released on the 5th June to which I have pre-ordered on Amazon UK. But whilst I was over their I very much decided to also purchase the rest of their entire studio album discography at the same time. So, I thought I would start this series of reviews from the very beginning of the bands career with their debut album Fanfares. But before I go any further let’s take a look at the packaging and artwork.
The Packaging & Artwork…
The CD comes in a slim Gatefold cardboard DigiSleeve and the CD is retrieved from the side like a vinyl album. It also comes with the usual linear credits production notes although they do appear to have left out whoever done the artwork and it provides no informative information. Overall, it’s quite neatly presented and I purchased my copy from Amazon UK for £11.99.
Having done some research I found out that the artwork was done by Daniel Halsall, the brother of Matthew who runs Gondwana Records. It’s perhaps very minimalistic and looks a bit like they were trying to make the earth a pretty colourful planet. It has very little to do with albums title of Fanfares and the bands pianist described it like looking at the universe, from the outside and that perhaps make a bit more sense.
GoGo Penguin In Brief History…
The three-piece trio who go by the name of GoGo Penguin all came about when pianist Chris Illingworth, bassist Grant Russell and drummer Rob Turner bumped into each other whilst studying at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England. They became good friends and would often jam together and never even gave any thought to them becoming a band or going out and playing live gigs. A friend of theirs was running a night at one of the many live venues in Manchester and one of the bands had pulled out so he asked them if they would fill the vacant spot. The band obliged though not having a name they had to quickly come up with one.
It’s not clear how the band arrived at the name GoGo Penguin from my research of the interviews of the band I have come across. One example goes along the lines of them seeing a weird, stuffed papier-mâché kind of magpie thing that looked more like a penguin. The other is that a friend of the bass player brought a stuffed penguin for his girlfriend and she would not have it in her house as it freighted her. In the end the penguin had to go and it winded up in the bass players house.
It was during these jamming sessions and playing live that the band created their own music to which they all contributed their own input to music with their individual lines complementing each other and fitting together to create a coherent whole. The band spent a couple of years working on the material that would eventually find its way on their debut album Fanfares.
It was also during this period of playing live around Manchester’s music scene where they were spotted by the jazz musician, composer, producer and founder of the independent jazz label Gondwana Records Matthew Halsall and that very much gave the band a good starting point in the right direction.
However, it was not the direction that the bass player Grant Russell had in mind and in late 2012 he left to continue with his own projects. The bassist Nick Blacka who they knew was recruited and this new line-up has gone on to make many more albums and are still going very strong today. The bands 5th studio album is about to hit the record stores next month so to speak.
The Album Fanfares In Review…
GoGo Penguin’s debut album Fanfares was released on the 19th November 2012. The album contains 7 instrumental tracks spread over an overall playing time of 35 minutes, 12 seconds which is a very comfortable playing time for an album making it much easier to digest. That shorter time slot is also much more suitable for a vinyl release without having any restrictions to which many recordings put on vinyl certainly do have. Although the album was only released in the physical form of a CD and a digital download back in 2012. It did get released on vinyl 4 years later in 2016.
Having played and reshaped the material that was going to be put on their debut album it did not take them that long to record it. The album was recorded in 5 days in early January of 2012 at The Lodge Recording Studios in Northampton, England. The studio was first established in 1979 and co-owned by Robert John Godfrey and Stephen Stewart and was situated in a large farmhouse in the Suffolk countryside. Famous artists such as Kim Wilde, The Ruts, Katrina and the Waves, New Model Army, Mari Wilson, Marillion and Paradise Lost used it on a regular basis until it closed in 1988.
The Lodge Recording Studios
In 1992 The Lodge relocated to Northampton, where it currently operates two studios. It’s co-owned by Jason Ducker of the British prog rock band The Enid and Max Read. Studio 2 was built in 2004 to cope with overflow work from Studio 1. The larger main studio still has the vintage 1976 Cadac analogue desk, which was originally installed in Battery Studios in London. Studio 2 has a digital desk and features a Yamaha G3 Grand Piano. There is also a large live recording area used mostly for recording the drums.
The bands debut album Fanfares was very well received and picked up many positive and promising reviews. All About Jazz gave them the Band Name of The Year Award at the end of 2012 and in January 2013 it was nominated for the Jazz Album of The Year by Worldwide Awards. BBC Radio 3 invited them to play at the London Jazz Festival and they had a GREAT! turn out for their second gig in London at The Vortex Jazz Club. They really did get off to a very positive start.
Musicians & Credits…
Produced by GoGo Penguin. All compositions by Chris Illingworth, Grant Russell, Rob Turner. Recorded at The Lodge Recording Studios Northampton, England between the 3rd – 7th January 2012. Recording Engineer Joe Willes. Mixed by Joe Willes & Max Read at The Lodge. Mastered by Max Read at The Lodge. Album Cover & Design by Daniel Halsall.
Chris Illingworth: Piano.
Grant Russell: Double Bass.
Rob Turner: Drums.
The Album Tracks In Review…
Having heard some of the bands more later albums Fanfares is perhaps an album that is a lot more refined with how the music is presented to you. For example, the electronica side of things does not stick out or is apparent as much and you do have to open your mind up a bit more to spot it sort of thing even though no doubt it is still eminent in parts but not as much. There are more jazz and classical styles also lending to how some of the music is structured and it’s very clever how all three musicians have a unique ability to synthesis and develop each other’s melodic and harmonic ideas.
All three musicians are no slouches and have studied their instruments very well and they are all very talented accomplished players and have studied hard. Both the drummer Rob Turner and bassist Grant Russell studied jazz whilst the pianist Chris Illingworth studied classical music and with them all being young and around the same age, they are all into the same modern-day music and they use elements from a wide range of musical styles.
Combinations of classical performance, jazz improvisation, dance and electronica are all thrown into the pot and that is what gives GoGo Penguin their own unique distinctive style and makes them stand out from the crowd so to speak. Their debut album Fanfares is quite a strong body of work so let’s now take a closer look at it as I go through each track individually.
Track 1. Seven Sons of Bjorn.
The album kicks off very well with quite a sprightly piece that runs along at quite a good hurried pace, it’s one of the more up-tempo tracks on the album and gets the album off to a flying start. The title and the music is dedicated and a way of a tribute to the Swedish jazz pianist Esbjörn Svensson who was one of Europe’s most successful jazz musicians at the turn of the 21st century before dying, at the age of 44, in a scuba diving accident back in 2008. I am not sure what the “Seven Sons” in the title is pertaining to, but his 7th studio album is entitled Seven Days of Falling.
Being a person who likes to have a tinkle on the piano myself. I can tell you now my fingers would be knackered trying to play a piece like this over its 5 minutes, 17 seconds and Chris Illingworth certainly has his work cut out and has a busy time throughout the piece on the keys. That’s not to say the other two have not got their work cut out either and Rob Turner certainly keeps everything tight nit on the drum kit.
One of the interesting sections is the contribution that the bass player Grant Russell gives to the piece. Not only does he play the bass very well but with his double bass he can also effectively use it like a cello and that is what precisely he does in some parts and the section that runs from 2:20 – 3:18 is the part that breaks it up and the interesting section. I have no idea what the music is trying to describe but the way it runs along is a bit like being on a Formula One racing track and that section is putting across a sense of danger or fear.
The “Seven Sons of Bjorn” is one of the couple of more exciting pieces on the album and it instantly draws you into the action and these young chaps are executing everything with fine precision. It’s my personal favourite track on the album and merits the albums TOP SPOT AWARD!
Track 2. Last Words.
There is no doubt that some of the musical pieces the band write and play would be suited for film music or a play. 7 years later they did release a 5 track EP entitled Ocean In A Drop which was made for film music. Although oddly enough I feel that this piece is more suited to film than the material they wrote for that film and EP. I quite like the official video that Antony Barkworth-Knight animated for “Last Words” and he’s put quite a sad story which is well apt for the music to run along too.
Listening to this sad yet lovely piece of music you can literally hear how each individual member of the band have contributed to it and play their own role to go along with the story. The story in question portrays the day to day life of a family getting up in the morning and going about their daily routine of going to work, school and so on and how fate can sometimes play a part when one does not return. The last words so to speak are all we have left to remember them by.
Illingworth’s piano tinkles along like it’s ticking out the time, the bow on the strings of Russell’s bass resonate with the sadness (although they cannot be heard in this video and were overdubbed for the final mix that’s on the album) whilst Turner’s drums portray the hustle and bustle of it all. No doubt the story is very sad but the music not only portrays the sad side of things but also has a touch of elegance and beauty about it and it’s a very well good composition and another really GREAT! track.
Track 3. Unconditional.
This next track changes the mood and tones things down to a darker shade and has more of a solemn or sombre feel to it and this would also easily be suited for a film or play. The title is often associated with the word “Love” and in the case of unconditional love it can have both a down and upside to it. Although “Love” is omitted from the title, it is as if both Russell’s bass and Turner’s drums are providing the downbeat whilst Illingworth is meandering along in a melancholic way lifting things back up to counterbalance things out.
No doubt the piece does have a jazzy flavour but you can also hear the classical side of things that Illingworth lends to it on the keys. It’s also a piece that reminds me of the material that Jon Lord wrote for his wonderful album Pictured Within which is my personal favourite album of his. “Unconditional” is a piece that will not set the world on fire so to speak. However, it does have a cosy and warm presence and feel about it and is also a lovely piece to chillout too.
Track 4. Fanfares.
The albums self-titled track is very much like the album cover and bares very little or no relation to what the word “Fanfare” is generally associated with. OK! you could say there is like a bit of showmanship going on here but its not exactly as bold as brass to which brass instruments are more of the thing to make a bold statement and stand out for a very important person to which a fanfare is more widely used for. Even Keith Emerson had the common sense to use a bold brass synth sound to make such a statement when he did “Fanfare For The Common Man” with ELP.
According to an interview it was Illingworth who came up with the title and the inspiration came from him playing one of the 18 piano études that the Hungarian composer György Ligeti had written that just so happened to have had the same title of “Fanfares“. He suggested to the other two members of the band that it would be good title for their own piece they were working on at the same time and they all thought the title was apt to their new piece and for the title of the album.
However, I feel that they missed out on why Ligeti chose the title for his piece in the first place and the motif which could also be a short musical flourish that repeats itself (and is associated with music that is written for a fanfare) was also actually used in the second movement of Ligeti’s Horn Trio. It appears that even Ligeti himself seen sense to add some brass to the piece.
I do feel that Illingworth had studied Ligeti’s piece very well though and this is a very complex piece of work he and the other two members of the Trio have come up with. Like the opening track on the album it runs along at a lot faster pace and helps to lift up the album and gives it more weight. This live video that is posted on the bands Youtube channel was performed on the 20th June 2013 a good 6 months after Grant Russell had left and features his replacement Nick Blacka on bass.
It’s a lot more complex than it looks and all three members appear to play it a lot more comfortably but then again, they are very much all accomplished musicians. “Fanfares” is very much another strong contender for the albums TOP SPOT!
Track 5. I Am That.
This is another fine example of how each band member contribute their own individual parts to the writing. It’s got quite a sharp haunting introduction and Illingworth’s opening ambient keys on the piano cut through you like a guillotine. Russell is equally adding to the haunting horror with the effect of his bow on the strings whilst Turner’s drums are weaving out the role of the executioner. I do get the feeling that the title given to the piece describes the role of the executioner and not the poor chap who is hanging on the rope in the picture I chose here. Though I should stress that is my own interpretation of how the music speaks to me.
Like the second track on the album there is no doubt that “I Am That” does have the dramatics for film music and once again it’s a very well good written piece where you can plainly hear how all 3 members had a hand in the composition. It is without doubt another GREAT! track and works very well with how it’s been placed on the album to bring things down from the previous track.
Track 6. Akasthesia.
This next piece is perhaps the least interesting track on the album for me and I certainly do not think the music fits the title we have here either and perhaps does the complete opposite of the disorder the title relates too. Akasthesia is quite a fiddly, twitchy and fidgety movement and disorder that makes it hard for one to keep still. It’s a feeling that creates constant, repetitive movements like pacing, rocking back and forth, or swaying and I do feel that the pace this moves along at is very much too much on the slow side of things for it to fit the title. Personally, I think they could have done something a bit more adventurous and been a bit more meandrous and meandered their way through it at a faster pace.
That’s not to say it’s by any means it is a bad track and the first 2 minutes, 12 seconds features some GREAT! bass work from Russell and it’s around the 1:46 mark that he brings in the main melody that the other two work around and they help build it up a bit more. But apart from that there is not much more to it and over its 6-minute distance its mostly saying the same thing. You could also say that Russell wrote it as well even though it’s credited to all 3 members.
Track 7. HF.
The final track on the album has an abbreviated title and in general it can stand for either high frequency or have fun and as the latter of the two is typically used at the end of a conversation and this is the last track, I expect that is what its referring too. It’s the longest track on the album and although it does not have the energy of the albums opening and self-titled tracks there is more going on, certainly with the creative input that all three members of the band have put in to compose the piece and it does have more progression thrown into the pot too.
“HF” is a piece that starts off quite gracefully with its opening melody line on the keys and it gradually builds its way up into a powerful crescendo before coming back down to its opening melody line to gracefully end it off. Chris Illingworth’s classical influence is more present and he even mutes the piano keys in a short section which is the sort of thing that was very much a part of Jamie Cullum’s act. Although I am pretty sure other well-known pianists were doing it long before him.
You can individually hear the work of all 3 of them have put into the piece and Rob Turner’s work on the drums and how he works them into it all is outstanding. During the powerful crescendo Grant Russell uses his double bass like a cello and it adds to the dramatics and like a train winding itself up to full speed. It really is another GREAT! track and another contender for the albums TOP SPOT!
To sum up GoGo Penguin’s debut album Fanfares. I think it’s quite a strong album and very good body of work. It’s quite different in relation to the style that they do today and have been doing since the release of their 3rd album Man Made Object which came out 4 years later in 2016. There are more jazz and classical influences here although it still does have more of a modern approach and this is strictly not jazz or classical music by any means. I would also say that it’s not a chillout album and there is a lot more to the way the music presents itself to you and it’s a very comfortable album to listen too.
The album is not only comfortable to listen too but is an absolute pleasure to listen too because it has been extremely very well recorded and mixed and I take my hat off to both Joe Willes & Max Read. This recording is very much what I would call a high-quality reference audio recording and mix and even these days they could be seen as a rarity to come by. I quite often find the biggest majority of stereo mixes are made for headphones and not for loudspeakers and in general with most stereo mixes you will get to hear more of the recording with headphones unless you have spent a good few grand on a pair of speakers.
That is why I am more of a surround FREAK! these days and also prefer Hi-Res stereo recordings because they can sonically sound better and bring out more detail in your loudspeakers and you do not have to spend a fortune on them to achieve such results. It’s very rare that a CD or vinyl album can get anywhere near that quality and it’s only those that have been recorded so well in the first place that are capable of giving you these results. Every essence of the 3 acoustic instruments used has been well and truly captured in the recording including the resonance and vibration of the timbre. Listening to this recording is even like listening to a surround mix with how the sound projects and reflects across the room.
No doubt most people would say that they cannot hear the difference between a CD and a 320kbps MP3 Download and even argue the point that Hi-Res recordings recorded at 24-bit 96khz or higher are no different to a recording at 44.1khz. I can assure you there are major differences in the quality and you would be seriously wasting your money buying a 320kbps digital download of this album.
Fanfares by GoGo Penguin is an album that mostly lends its style to a fresher and more minimalistic approach to jazz music without the swing sort of thing. It is quite different from the style that they went on to develop from 2016 onwards and to be perfectly honest it was the material that they was doing much later that attracted my attention to them in the first place. But nevertheless, I quite like this album a lot although its perhaps not an album I would recommend as a starting point to the bands music. But then again it might be worth starting from the beginning to see just how they developed and shaped the music to give it even more of a modern approach to jazz.
Since discovering GoGo Penguin I have recently noticed there are more young musicians forming jazz trios who are doing more or less the same thing they are, and I have also noted that GoGo Penguin’s particular style has also been likened to some jazz trios who were doing it before them. I think it’s very good to see more young musicians who are developing a taste for jazz and doing something a bit more modern in presenting it. I also love the fact that they are playing real instruments and have studied their instruments very well to play them at an accomplished level.
I have to admit it’s very rare for myself these days to step outside the boundaries of prog rock or even the new neo prog bands that we have today. But I do realise there are quality musicians in all genres of music and I like it when I see something different now and again. I can honestly say I am also enjoying all 4 of the albums I brought in one go and it is interesting seeing how further their music has developed over the years.
Personally, I cannot fault anything on the bands debut album Fanfares and the recording is purely STUNNING! and is well worth it’s price point. My personal highlights from the album are as follows: “Seven Sons of Bjorn“. “Fanfares” and “HF“.
Jazz In A Newer Form And Without The Swing…
The Album track listing is as follows:
01. Seven Sons of Bjorn. 5:17.
02. Last Words. 3:05.
03. Unconditional. 5:15.
04. Fanfares. 4:53.
05. I Am That. 4:05.
06. Akasthesia. 6:01.
07. HF. 6:36.