Gogo Penguin’s debut on Blue Note is a relentless, electronic-influenced collection of rhythmic jazz that would make Miles Teller jealous.
It’s just like Dave King of the Bad Plus says on Episode 47 of his YouTube series, Rational Funk (title: “Drummer Jokes”): “Your band sucks ass if your drummer sucks.” He then goes on to riff on some bad drummer jokes, feigning angry about the disrespect. But it’s true: ever since they started spontaneously combusting on Spinal Tap, drummers have been an unnecessarily easy target. This despite the utter and ongoing cruciality of the groove. Gogo Penguin, a jazz trio in the tradition of the Bad Plus, have a fantastic drummer in Rob Turner, and as such, do not suck.
Despite their recent jazz ordainment in the form of signing to Blue Note, their first break was telling -- that of their nomination for a Mercury Prize, a prize that went home with Alt-J in 2012 and Arctic Monkeys in 2006. The influences that Gogo Penguin bring to the table on their latest LP, Man Man Object, are not always what you’d expect. Like Alt-J, to whom they’re tonally not dissimilar at many points on the record, Gogo Penguin’s music is consistently pulling from DJ music. Besides the occasional four on the floor and “record skips” they insert now and again, on a deeper level, they demonstrate an ability to curate builds; to bring it low; to drop the bass. But the record’s connection to more maximalist '90s drum 'n’ bass (a major pioneer of which includes ‘97 Mercury Prize recipient, Roni Size) is most overt. And to compelling effect. Standout “Smarra” is a flurry of breakbeats supported by Chris Illingworth moved to the synth (or at least a piano treated to sound like one; he’s only credited as playing piano).
Not unlike Aphex Twin, who on Syro made cryptic reference to time in their titles (“fz pseudotimestretch +e+3” or “180db”), Gogo Penguin have a DJ’s hyper awareness of tempo. They become almost characters in the tracks. “Smarra” and “Weird Cat” both feel propelled by the force of their own breakneck speed. “Initiate”, the following track, is intentionally downbeat, its emphasis on the snare’s hypnotic ghost notes. Either way, the music feels at the mercy of a tempo fader. Which, when turned up, interacts well with the band’s maximalist tendencies. Many of the tracks culminate at a boiling point. Twice, once on “Smarra”, and again on closer, “Protest", the band’s flirtation with tendonitis filters logically into lush, distorted outros and all-consuming delay swells.
But don't worry, nerds, it's not always so rock 'n' roll. The core of many of these compositions makes reference to the random-process arpeggio work of Philip Glass (“Unspeakable World”, “Protest”), the players canonically executing overlapping, polyrhythmic lines. Or it goes in similarly classical, lush, Gershwin direction (“GBFISYSIH”, “Surrender to Mountain”), and Turner’s breakbeats give way to clever, layered percussion tones. The production, while adventurous time and again in its use of distortion and sampled sounds (Nick Blacka’s bass tone on “Protest” is a particularly sweet example), is for the most part stately and deserving of the Blue Note stamp.
Man Made Object goes to show, there’s room for all kinds of jazz out there, just so long as there’s room for all kinds of good drummers. Dave King’s style fits his bands: it’s full of out-there wit & well-timed comments on the pocket. On the other extreme, “Whiplash” would have us believe jazz drumming is about pounding out standards with blood pouring from busted forehead veins. And while there’s more than a bit of vein popping on Man Made Object, ultimately, Gogo Penguin’s music is somewhere in the middle. It's athletic, but refreshingly light on the ego. And most importantly in the often-stuffy world of jazz, they seem to be having fun.