The Smu Reviews

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Music / Art / Pop Culture

Penguins on penguins.


I had the pleasure of getting to hear this album played in full at a recent live show and it was completely magnificent. At the time I felt it was likely to turn out to be my favourite of their albums and now that I have the vinyl on my turntable I can happily confirm that as a fact. Over the previous two albums I have enjoyed Penguin Cafe most when they lean towards the more dramatic, filmic or minimalist sides of their music preferring The Red Book to The Imperfect Sea which was a little too folksy at times for my tastes.

Handfuls of Night, which began life as an accompaniment to a Greenpeace project based in the antarctic, certainly has a cinematic tone to it owing no doubt in part to its origins. Two of my favourite tracks Chinstrap and Chapter both have a perfect combination of musical storytelling and ethereal beauty, with a dash of drama. The latter is in fact described in the liner notes as the tale of ‘a penguin detective tasked with solving a crime that led to something bigger than anyone could have imagined..’  (And it has to be said at this point that the liner notes for this album are a joy of their own, stuffed with interesting little facts and wonderful scene setting for each track. Having a Penguin Cafe album that is actually predominantly about penguins is also irresistibly fun.)

The only track that feels somewhat out of place for me is Pythagoras on the Line Again, and indeed it is a re-visiting of one of Simon Jeffes’ pieces. It’s a fascinating thing in it’s own right playing on harmonic relationships constructed from an old BT telephone engaged tone. I find it alternatingly pleasing and aggravating depending on my mood but it’s probably both the most unusual and most interesting track on the album. It does however feel somewhat like a cuckoo in the nest (to use a non-penguin bird analogy) and I wonder if it might have been better included elsewhere. It was an extraordinary thing to hear live though and it’s not something I would want to have seen buried. On the whole though the album is extremely cohesive, and takes the listener on a fascinating and curious journey.

A gorgeous, enveloping and engaging collection of music that should please any existing fan and would be a great entry point for anyone new to their music too.

ARTIST: Penguin Cafe
TITLE: Handfuls of Night
MOOD: Floating in the bath pretending to be a penguin
TOP TRACKS: Chinstrap, Chapter, Gentoo Origin


Discordant beauty.

Words like ambient, instrumental or soundscape are often used to mean the  kind of blandly soothing music you stick on in the background whilst doing the crossword, but although this is an often beautiful and delicate album, it’s also frequently a deeply unsettling one too. 

From the background chatter of children in decrescent to the intense sense of creeping dread in tracks like 4;28 and, the standout track for me, Uchujin there is not much about this album I would describe as soothing. In fact, a lot of it straight up gives me The Fear. I mean this in a good way of course, it’s perfectly done and I assume deliberate. There are shades of late era Scott Walker and the kind of skin crawling unease I get from David Lynch soundtracks but crucially it’s also underscored with a fragile, melodic elegance and it never tips into something unlistenable or aggressive. 

An elegantly put together and thoughtful collection that I feel like I’m still only scraping the surface of despite having played it frequently over the last month since I received my (charmingly hand packaged) copy through the post.  If you are a fan of either the eerie or ambient music in general I can’t recommend this enough. 

TITLE: Antiseptic
MOOD: Soundtrack for your anxiety
TOP TRACKS: Uchujin, 4;28, (bonus track) Jónas