For their fourth studio release, the Radiohead of British jazz have taken a headlong leap into interstellar soundscapes, with cosmic melodies and seemingly limitless arrangements. It’s a record laden with intellectual stillness amid its itchy rhythms and fugal pianos.
Standout moments include “Bardo” - a seven minute mission into the unknown. It’s a highly intuitive piece of extemporisation that arrives with an airy, quizzical piano motif played by Chris Illingworth. We are then joined by epilepsy drums and floating double bass, which - while sometimes overplayed - demonstrate the band’s anxious virtuosity.
Another marvellous moment comes on “A Hundred Moons” which marries Middle Eastern percussion with a slurred, descending double bass melody. It’s a calm jazz composition in the midst of waves of unrestrained technicality, and it forms a central shrine in the middle of an album that wears its Western intellectualism hard.
Last Autumn, GoGo Penguin rescored the experimental film “Koyaanisqatsi” for several UK shows and while “A Humdrum Star” clearly takes a creative cue from this experience of live soundtracking, it also has a cosmic quality that might be traced to filmmakers like Tarkovsky and Nolan. This is art informed by science and wonder, which uses space as a metaphor for a particularly atheist loneliness.
The finest virtuosity comes on “Transient State”, which is probably the most satisfying music on the album. We open with a gloriously straight-laced metallic semi-quaver run, which spills and tumbles into 4Hero style breakbeats and mad, frenetic piano. From here, rhythms come and go with a degree of angry lunacy that is absolutely captivating. It’s about as good as British jazz gets.
If there are criticisms, they are the aforementioned overplaying combined with a slight tonal conservatism. While “Transient State” and “A Hundred Moons” stand out for their varied arrangement, there is a focus on the sustain pedal in Chris Illingworth’s piano playing that sometimes undermines the dynamism of his melody writing. Similarly, Rob Turner’s drums are too concerned with the hi-hats. The best jazz drumming feels spacious - Steve Gadd or Manu Katché... even Buddy Rich feels like he has more time.
But these are minor points. A Humdrum Star is a stunning piece of music making, and almost certainly GoGo Penguin’s best work.