Penguin Cafe – Handfuls of Night (2019)

Handfuls of Night, released October 4th is the highly-anticipated follow-up to Penguin Cafe’s much-applauded 2017 album, The Imperfect Sea. The new album was conceived in honor of Greenpeace’s commissioning Jeffes to compose four pieces of music corresponding to four breeds of penguins in an effort to raise environmental awareness for the endangered Antarctic seas. In 2005 Jeffes joined an expedition re-creating Scott’s last Antarctic trip in 1911 for the BBC. notes:

Handfuls of Night’s tones, textures and melodies evoke otherworldly expanses, which at different junctures are either foreboding, awe inspiring or peaceful. There’s subtly morphing rhythmic repetition throughout, somewhere between minimalism, krautrock and the piano-cascades of label peer Lubomyr Melnyk. Jeffes creates a kinetic, circling motion, which drives the album forward in the form of a musical trip that mirrors the physical journey it was inspired by.

Steven Johnson wrote the following about Handfuls of Night for MusicOMH:

At The Top Of The Hill, They Stood may initially just seem to be a simple, slight run of piano arpeggios with some melodica laid on top but over time becomes infused with emotion and depth. In short, it’s one of their most impeccable moments to date.

The closing stages see them further settle comfortably into the surroundings of their Erased Tapes label. With strings and piano outdoing any quirks or idiosyncrasies of previous albums they’ve never sounded closer to the likes of Ólafur Arnalds, and Nils Frahm. Yet, there’s still a distinct Penguin Cafe magic to Handfuls Of Night. The music here won’t come as a surprise to people familiar with their increasingly tightly managed aesthetic but it still provides a wonderfully calming sanctuary to temporarily get lost in.

But it was Michael Sumsion’s captivating description of the album’s music at which truly captures the elegance of this record. Sumsion beautifully writes:

Penguin Café represent a disparate collective of musicians operating within the cracks between pop, classical, ambient and folk.

The group’s idiosyncratic raggle-taggle music has always evaded easy categorisation, roaming from exuberant folk and pop styles to electro-acoustic minimalism and African textures.

Bookended by the serene, plaintive ambience of Winter Sun and Midnight Sun, Handfuls of Night consistently demonstrates the band’s affinity for subverting conventional definitions of post-classical soundscape music and disarms the listener with its puckish wit, crystal-clear sensitivity and warmth of tone. They deftly condense folksy and filmic themes whilst conjuring shards of throbbing krautrock, sweeping, Philip Glass-inflected neo-minimalism and Michael Nyman-style piano arpeggios, most notably on the wistful At the Top of the Hill, They Stood…

The influence of somnolent folktronica is audible on Chinstrap and Pythagorus on the Line Again, but the dominant mode is that of a euphoric, homely chamber music which induces the welling of tear ducts, a plangent wash of strings, bending motifs and waves of succulent sadness.

Handfuls of Night succeeds as an enveloping haze of robust intensity and sombre tones, as keening melodies soar with orchestral precision and heart-rending execution. Even if it conjures nothing nocturnal for you, it represents some of the band’s most satisfying carvings of catharsis, exquisitely pitched between accessibility and depth, melody and dissonance.

Pensive and wistful, their latest effort is markedly more cinematic than their previous recordings, and its minimal stylings are befitting of what listeners have come to expect from the Erased Tapes label. Penguin Cafe consistently offers a charming and seamless blend of minimalism, folk, and classical musics, masterfully combining string arrangements, harmonium, melodica, and Glassian piano. Handfuls is a mature and engaging soundscape for active or passive listening, and a wonderful score to usher in the autumn.

Pastoral Melodies for Tranquil Times

It’s been quite a period of transition for this audiophile. Developing a sense of love of self sufficient to purge toxic influences from my life, I quickly found that I no longer needed the endless pursuit of shiny black discs in a vain effort to fill a void that could not be sated with material objects, nor to strive hopelessly to outrun myself.

Instead, with this new lens of perspective, I find myself investing my energy in self-discovery and in building mutually rewarding relationships. And in this new light, I’m able to enjoy discovering new music, and selectively choosing exceptional works to invest in, to actually play and experience rather than to sit upon a shelf. My collection no longer owns me, and that makes discoveries like these all the more satisfying.

In months past, I’d only briefly acquainted myself with The Penguin Cafe Orchestra, primarily with their “Penguin Cafe Single” – their theme if you will. But the time felt right and I found myself in a space where I could really engage their music, and so I settled in one quiet evening and listened to their first two albums.

Penguin Cafe Orchestra - Music From the Penguin Cafe

It was an exquisite experience. The music of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra is tranquil, eclectic, and magically pastoral. The albums are classified as works of minimalism but are impressively dynamic recordings. Rich with subtly and understatedly intricate instrumentation, their music is a seamless and masterful blending of an impressive roster of genres, weaving together classical and contemporary elements. The result is magical and elegantly surreal.

Released as a double album set in Japan in 85, PCO’s first two albums are a wonderful pairing. The melodies are refined and artful but instantly accessible. There is no snobbery or exclusivity to this music – it is simply an enjoyable listening experience for anyone with a patient and open mind.

Penguin Cafe Orchestra - Penguin Cafe Orchestra

These records are stubbornly difficult to label or classify. Spanning a broad range of influences from classical to jazz, featuring middle eastern or perhaps Indian inspired drones, as well as Cajan, traditional folk melodies, African rhythms, and more, these elements blend seamlessly into marvelous soundscapes and musical vignettes reminiscent of Moondog’s symphoniques.

There is a timeless serenity to these recordings, and I’m grateful that I was at last ready to let them into my life at a time when they serve as a sensational complement to my headspace of late.

For the purpose of this feature, I’ll focus on their debut – Music From the Penguin Cafe. The opening track is one of the project’s best-loved classics – the aforementioned “Penguin Cafe Single.” The track features the eclectic and surreal energies the group would refine and perfect on later albums with songs like, “Air À Danser” from their self-titled follow-up album and “Perpetuum Mobile” from Signs of Life.

The second selection is far more explorative – the fifteen-minute “Zopf.” The track features multiple movements, showcasing an array of vintage instruments, a ballad with gentle vocals, and a strings segment, followed by a bizarre avant-garde section with strained utterances of the word “milk”, seemingly random dissonant plinking, and vocal percussion. This curious section quickly transitions into a slow and sorrowful string and vocal ballad beginning marked by the words, “the queen is dead”. The next segment is a lovely harpsichord melody which quickly builds to a playful conversation of traditional instrumentation. Upon its conclusion, for the final phase of “Zopf” a sparse atmospheric micro movement begins with an out of tune smattering of notes reminiscent of technostalgic telephone pulses or sounds from some similar 1960s electromechanical apparatus.

Next up is the beautiful and plaintive, “The Sound of Someone You Love Who’s Going Away and it Doesn’t Matter.” As the piece progresses it moves into fragmented and frustrated outbursts of notes before returning to its melodic refrain, brilliantly showcasing the dimensional complexity of the title’s emotional state.

“Hugebaby” continues the album’s theme of gentle chamber music with a timelessness that simply cannot be touched. A magical theme by which to while away an afternoon lost in thought or dreams.

The album closer, “Chartered Flight” unveils itself ever so slowly, unfolding over six and a half minutes to incorporate a variety of strings and blissful chamber melodies. The track is patient, ambling on reflectively with no particular hurry or destination – precisely the headspace it evokes for the listener.

From start to finish, Music From The Penguin Cafe is a treasure of heady and engaging arrangements, and some of the most peaceful sounds you’ll ever hear. I really enjoyed an observation from a fellow listener named bpnicast who remarked, “The dispassionate, cerebral atmosphere here creates its own unique space that seems to slow time and demand hushed attention – an emotional connection achieved through stillness and abstraction.”

That is precisely what I enjoy about these albums. It will be a pleasure to play them again and again and to share them with those who bring joy into my life.

penguin-cafe-orchestra_1298362736_crop_537x544Photograph by Steve Gullick

Published in: on August 19, 2017 at 8:26 pm  Comments (1)  
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