14th November | SWX

I must admit, as I was approaching the doors at SWX, the sight of punters over forty years old lining the rail was a bemusing one, at first. However, once I reminded myself of the reason for this shift in the average age of attendees, I felt my eyes had stopped playing tricks on me. The reason was, of course, GoGo Penguin’s first show in Bristol since February.

Upon entering, after adjusting to the lingering smell of the weekend’s debauchery, it was time for Andreya Triana‘s support performance. The extent of my familiarity with her work goes only as far as her collaborations with Bonobo, so I was more-than-happily surprised by the incredible versatility of talent present in her show. She brought more charisma and spirit than you’d often find in arena headliners; and her sheer power of presence had a crowd who’d paid to see an avant-garde jazz trio fixated on her stripped-back set (just one backing guitarist) for the entire duration, and that is no easy feat. 

Soon it was time for the headliners to begin. The benefit for bands like GoGo Penguin playing larger venues like SWX is the space for theatricality it affords them. Smoky white lights casting silhouettes of the trio as they approached their instruments was soon accompanied by ethereal twinkles of piano keys, double bass strings and shimmering cymbal work. 

After the gently dramatic climax of this intro, Chris Illingworth keyed in the attention-snatching chords of ‘Raven’ and the crowd gave an appreciative cheer. When the two other musicians jumped in with the high-intensity rhythm work, what instantly struck was the incredible weight of the sound coming from the PA. It is not often one gets to experience bands that play with the intricacy of GoGo Penguin in a larger venue, and it’s hard to deny that it’s all the more exciting for it.

When Nick Blacka’s fingers slid to the lower registers of his double bass, the warm, silky undertones seemed to fill up every crevice of the room with a supremely rich and satisfying rumble. Rob Turner’s unbelievably dynamic drumming was perfectly crisp from the most delicate strokes to the gut-punching impacts of song climaxes. 

Cruising their way through ‘Bardo’ and ‘One Percent’, two examples of the band’s special knack for marrying labyrinthine musical ideas with cinematic scope and grandeur, the trio brought the intensity down a notch with ‘A Hundred Moons’. From the new album, A Humdrum Star, it’s a melancholy march of a song that would feel just as at home accompanying scenes of gladiators preparing for battle as it would a majestic sunset. The huge sound and potent light show imbued this song in particular with a dramatic weight that hung in the air like a comforting presence, and remained there for the rest of the set. 

Contrastingly, the most visually and sonically intense moment of the evening came later, in the form of ‘Smarra’, from 2016’s Man Made Object. After its driving opening section, with Turner’s mashed-up breakbeat weaving in and out of Blacka’s hypnotic riff repetition, the song reached its gloriously cacophonous closure in a storm of strobe lights and swirling dry ice, leaving the crowd seemingly unsure which of way was up or down. 

Aware that the audience needed a breather after this mind-mashing, the velvety-smooth textures of ‘Hopopono’ began. Sadly, I was not in a position to get a look at Illingworth’s hands playing the achingly beautiful melodies that are the centrepiece of the song, so I let the sounds wash over me with closed eyes and a wide smile. 

That’s possibly the most impressive thing about GoGo Penguin – you can be fixated on the pure musical brilliance of each singular musician just as easily as you can relax and breathe in the palatial scope of the trio as a whole; my advice is to try both; they’re equally rewarding. 

See GoGo Penguin’s recent NPR ‘Tiny Desk’ Performance here: