For as long as the human race has existed we have tried to understand our place in the universe. It’s a question that goes beyond “where are we?” to the deeper mystery of “who are we?”. And scientists have given us some of the answers.
We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.
― Carl Sagan
I think it is safe to assume that GoGo Penguin took the title of their latest album, A Humdrum Star from that thought-provoking Carl Sagan quote. Did they choose that title to suggest this, their fourth album, has the answer to some deep mystery? Or are they hinting that it is just the next, unremarkable work in a continuing series? They haven’t told us, so we’ll probably never know.
What is clear, though, from listening to the album is that Chris Illingworth (piano), Nick Blacka (double bass) and Rob Turner (drums) have a fiery plasma of music running through their veins. The laws of physics explain why the Earth orbits the sun and why we can’t walk through walls; perhaps one day a Theory Of Everything will explain what compels GoGo Penguin to compose and perform their particular form of sunny, uplifting modern jazz.
— 1 —
A Humdrum Star starts with a spacious, spiritual piece called Prayer. There are no stars here. Space is a dark, empty place that we are slowly drifting through. The vacuum has sucked away all substance; there is nothing to carry a sound. But nature abhors a vacuum and our disembodied minds fill the void with slow piano chords echoing the machinery of creation. If God has a voice we are hearing it now. It seems to say, “Be at peace.”
— 2 —
Ahead a pinprick of light appears. Then another. Soon a billion stars are sparkling in the blackness. They pirouette around each other aggregating into loose luminous balls, cosmic dancers with swirling skirts. It is the beginning of time. The heavens are as black as a blanket of Raven feathers, the stars peeping out like beady eyes. We are now scudding through the heavens as if the Creator has given us angel wings. And we carry His joy towards our destination with an irrepressible lust for life.
— 3 —
But our body is not yet formed. We are in Bardo, alive but not corporeal. For the time being we are free to go where we please, to explore this fresh new universe and to marvel at its beauty. There are shapeless nebulae, there are spiral galaxies, there are stars of many hues and sizes. There are spinning neutron stars spewing out beams of high energy radiation and there are fearsome black holes sucking everything into their gaping maw. It is a truly wondrous creation.
— 4 —
We pause, now, to admire a planet with A Hundred Moons. The celestial choreographer has arranged these balls of rock and ice so that they describe intricate paths, drawing ever-changing patterns in the sky. It is a sublime work of which Slartibartfast himself would be mightily proud.
— 5 —
Moving on we are reminded that the universe can be a dangerous place. Even on this mostly harmless planet swinging round an ordinary star and nestling in the habitable zone where liquid water is abundant its native creatures need to take care. For here is a picturesque section of river known as the Strid that is thought to be the most dangerous stretch of water on this world. Its series of waterfalls and rapids hide a deep underwater channel, quite calm and inviting on the surface but deadly to any unwary animal that ventures into the water.
— 6 —
Our destiny is becoming clear. A living body is forming. It will house our soul. Soon. But for a little while we must remain in this immaterial Transient State. The prospect is exciting. Our heart, if we had one, would be pounding, our life blood would be coursing through newly minted arteries and veins, our fresh new mind would be thrilled with the sights and sounds of a very different world, a world of bone, sinew and mortal flesh.
— 7 —
It is time. The images in the celestial picture book are fading. God has ordered a Return To Text. For a moment all that remains is inadequate words, black characters on white pages, staring back at us where rainbow colours used to be. And yet there is poetry in those lines. Consonants snap, vowels sing, syllables flow with a soothing, satisfying rhythm. Now that the pictures have gone we can, finally, see and hear the music written on the page.
— 8 —
All memory has been erased. Body and soul are fusing in the pure white heat of a sorcerer’s Reactor vessel, a crystal crucible tough enough to withstand even the fires of Hell. The sights, sounds and feelings of our former life have been expunged leaving a blank sheet on which to write the thoughts and deeds of our reincarnated self.
— 9 —
A child gazes through the Window to where our humdrum star bathes the garden in sunlight. The trees and the flowers drink in the rays; they suck in carbon dioxide from the air, building woody trunks, fleshy stems, green leaves and pretty petals. Butterflies and bees gather nectar, pollinating the plants that the animals munch on. The sun drives the water cycle, too; the harder she pedals the more moisture she lifts from the oceans into the air where it forms clouds. And the clouds make the gentle rain that quenches the thirst of every living thing on this beautiful blue planet.
From a distance the Penguin’s star is a smooth, bright ball of sound but, if we get a little closer, we can hear it sizzling with energy. Piano runs spin repeatedly, eddies on the fluid skin of a great ball of fire. Although amidst those roiling surface motifs there are calmer, darker patches and short, but spectacular, eruptions of improvisation. The double bass rings with the slower resonance of whole-body vibrations but it, too, bounds restlessly along, surrounding the piano runs with great circles of its own. And the drums fizz with radiation heating the star’s atmosphere to unimaginable temperatures.
This latest album could be considered humdrum in the sense that it continues the main sequence of development established by GoGo Penguin‘s previous albums but it is far from ordinary. It is the brightest star in their constellation so far. How they can follow this is a mystery that Crotchety Man doesn’t even dare to consider.
“It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”
― Carl Sagan