Shortlisted for the Mercury Prize in 2014, “Man Made Object” sees yet another step towards international recognition for the Manchester based trio as they move from UK label Gondwana for their debut with Blue Note Records. Pianist Chris Illingworth, drummer Rob Turner and bassist Nick Blacka continue on a similar path to their previous output, with their trademark mix of minimalist piano themes, propulsive bass lines and electronica inspired drumming. “The title is inspired by my fascination with my ideas of robotics, transhumanism and human augmentation” says pianist Illingworth. “We’re recreating electronic music on acoustic instruments. It’s like a man-made object that has become humanised.” Indeed, this is a good description of what we hear with GoGo Penguin. Many of these tunes might have started their life on sequencers before evolving into an acoustic improv setting with the trio developing the themes in a jazz inflected, trance-like way. Perhaps more appreciated by clubbers than jazzers, the trio’s recordings sit somewhere between a stripped-down Cinematic Orchestra and a piano-led jazz trio akin to the likes of EST.
The music on “Man Made Object” straddles a line between group improvisations and thematic, repetitive, compositions. A common theme throughout the album is one of classically influenced piano, with deep bass grooves and rhythmic, dance-influenced drums, all combining to create an uplifting, thematically rewarding set of tunes. There is no doubt that Illingworth, Turner and Blacka obviously have a very clearly defined vision for their music, one which they attack with confidence and gusto, seemingly relishing the task of making music together. This is to be applauded as too many bands clearly lack this vision. Yet whilst “Man Made Object” is filled with deft craftsmanship and incredibly strong musicianship, it does, sadly, ultimately flatter to deceive. Far too often what we actually get is an intelligent, promising beginning to a tune, with either a stunning melody or a spiky, intriguing opening, only to be let down as the tune develops into a mash-up of overly repetitious piano lines. The opening track “All Res” is the perfect example of this. Delicate piano and bowed bass draw the listener in before cascading drums lift the piece up into the stratosphere. But then it all becomes too obvious. Yes it builds, drops back and there’s some nice contrast here, but it all just sounds too familiar by the time we get halfway through the track. “Unspeakable World” employs a catchy and exhilarating intro with Blacka just oozing class on double bass. “Branches Break” has a depth to it that resonates outward, the tune developing into a potential dance-floor classic. “Weird Cat” is a great piece of music, apparently inspired by a recording made by Turner, of a stray cat wailing one night. It’s on tunes like this where the trio work so well together, thoughtful, intricate patterns of music gleefully performed by the three excellent musicians. “Quiet Mind” and “Smarra” are both hypnotic numbers, and depending on your outlook, could be either intimately rewarding, or just a bit dull. “Initiate” benefits from its Zero7 inflected tones, with a lavishly warm and lyrical sensibility. The slower, touching sensitivity of “GBFISYSIH” truly sparkles. One of the simplest and least complex tunes on the album, it’s also one of the most rewarding. “Surrender To Mountain” is another track that will inevitably be popular with club-goers, its anthemic nature lending itself to such an environment. The album closes with the fiendish “Protest”, a track that perhaps best encompasses everything that is GoGo Penguin.
Undoubtedly “Man Made Object” will have its plaudits. And rightly so in some ways. Yet in other ways one has to make the point that on some levels it just fails to deliver. Extremely promising, with superb ideas and musicianship, one can’t help feel a little frustrated and ultimately disappointed with the album overall.