(Blue Note Records, out Fri 9 Feb 2018)
Manchester’s GoGo Penguin rose to wider public prominence as token jazz nominees for the Mercury Prize. Like Polar Bear and Portico Quartet before them, someone spotted crossover potential. It’s easy to see why. The trio owe their sensibilities as much to electronic music as to jazz. In fact, on A Humdrum Star that’s far more obvious than on its predecessors. Jazz is a trace ingredient on some tracks.
On one hand, this gives the music a friendlier, more accessible face. You’re far further into the album before you approach anything a layperson might consider “difficult”. Opener Prayer is pure BBC Drama incidental music. Cut to Suranne Jones walking away, stoically. Raven‘s cascading piano could be a primetime crime show theme if it weren’t for the percussion skittering away underneath. Slow the bpm right down on Bardo and its windchime effects could be relaxing you in a new age therapy centre. On each there’s dark, icy detachment, but the overall effect is quite placatory.
On the other hand, it loses something to have the jagged edges removed. Previous albums took ugly turns. The organic upright bass used to to rub along aggressively against the breakbeats; now it’s blended in, a cool musical gazpacho rather than a chunky minestrone. Things get more rough and tumble on Strid where the frantic bass-plucking runs up against some discordant piano. Finally, a bit more friction. Reactor displays more of this. The morse code bass persistent against increasingly doomy keys, before it switches at the two minute mark into a hypnotic piano loop. The climax brings that doominess and repetitiveness to a head. The album’s most consciousness-penetrating moment, if not necessarily its most easy on the ear.
The title is snatched from a snippet about our sun by Carl Sagan on cult science show Cosmos. You can read all sorts into that. It does feel like it was recorded staring out at a wide open Scandinavian sky, rather than the more prosaic reality – the old Granada studios in Manchester. There’s a sense of escaping along empty roads leading out of town late at night into the big wide somewhere. That associative effect is partly down to a coherency to the album that wasn’t always fully achieved on previous outings.
You wouldn’t want to overstate the breadth of this album’s appeal – for all its rippling piano, it’s no Richard Clayderman – but catch the mood right and you could lose yourself in it.