‘A Humdrum Star’ is an unmistakably contemporary kind of Jazz album. Despite operating in a genre that stretches back further than almost all others which are still popular today, Manchester’s Go Go Penguin resolutely look forward rather than back with their fourth outing – ‘A Humdrum Star’ being a clear statement of intent. The group waste no time in establishing their modus operandi, the one-two punch of album openers ‘Prayer’ and ‘Raven’ serving to illustrate, to anyone not in the know, their own particular approach. The former lays out gurgling ambient textures over languid, relaxed piano chords; it’s a track simultaneously jazzy in its harmonic progression and electronically ambient in its execution. The latter, meanwhile, sets the pace for much of the record to follow with glistening, often intricate piano parts cutting a clear melodic waypoint over a backing of tight Drum ‘n’ Bass-indebted stick work and equally flighty double-bass playing.
It’s a combination which recalls the bright textures and sonorous clarity of Aphex Twin‘s more melodic work (think pieces such as ‘Flim’ or ‘Iz-Uz’) and combines it with the forward-looking kind of jazz being made by acts such as current peers BadBadNotGood and, a little less recently, The Bad Plus. This singular brand of semi-electronic modern jazz is a firmly established sub-genre by now, and one which Go Go Penguin have been exploring for the entirety of their relatively short career so far. A perhaps more left-field aspect of their work lies within their subtle but definite knack for building up the momentum and intensity of pieces; small layers of complexity being added on mid-flight, subtle polyrhythmic touches or melodic follies finding their way into already often impressively nuanced, complex instrumentals.
It’s an affect that hints towards the slowly building grandeur and intensity of minimalistic composition, particularly the likes of Steve Reich. It’s also an aspect of ‘A Humdrum Star’ that lends Go Go Penguin a claim to being something more than simply modern jazz; it allows the band to nod towards the maturity of certain strands of modern composition. That combination of composition and free-flowing jazz works excellently and lays very much in the band’s favour; it allows ‘A Humdrum Star’ to benefit from both the minute detail and methodical approach of intricate compositions, whilst still retaining the energy and improvisational gusto of a great jazz band.
‘A Humdrum Star’ is another strong effort from Go Go Penguin. Those who’ve follow the band since their 2012 debut album will essentially know what to expect here, as the record is a refinement of the group’s pre-existing sounds and interests rather than a bold shift in a new direction but, when the results are this impressive, that’s no concern. ‘A Humdrum Star’ is deftly executed – the point where the quality of the musicianship may, for some, be reason enough to listen – but, more importantly, the band prove they boast enough raw, unfettered musicality and melodic clarity to ensure that ‘A Humdrum Star’ remains a bright, engaging listen throughout.