slow motion existential catastrophe (set to music)
Zed Penguin mastermind Matthew Winter in full lyrical flow
The Zed Penguin is a rare breed. Part phonetic alphabet bookend, part flightless aquatic bird and part Edinburgh’s erratic answer to Sixties West Coast madcap troubadour Skip Spence, Zed Penguin is the sonic vehicle for talented Aussie-emigre frontman and songwriter Matthew Winter. Erratic, because as with all beautiful things, the Penguins can exhibit a certain fragility live. Indeed, following their career over the past few years has at times been frustrating, yet on tonight’s viewing, ultimately rewarding. Their occasionally meandering, complex arrangements topped by Winter’s inimitable but undeniably heartfelt vocal style can sometimes seem willfully inaccessible only to confound with moments of true melodic beauty; as if the sun suddenly bursts through a roiling iron gray cauldron of angst-laden sonic cloud. Judging by the early turn out for tonight’s gig – yer Penguins are actually supporting an album launch for fellow Edinburgh beat-niks Trapped Mice – Winter’s post-indie message is finally getting through to Edinburgh’s professionally diffident audiences. The attentive and loudly appreciative crowd is solid to stage front, a pleasant contrast to the usual smattering of bar-leaning know-it-alls that usually populate half-empty venues during opening acts.
Winter’s well-drilled outfit get off to a rollicking start with the bouncy Who’ll Come Dancing which nods to Zed Penguin touchstones such as the aforementioned Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Junior in their respective Daydream Nation and Freakscene heydays. The opener’s boisterous reception sets the tone for the whole gig and the Ambassador and I breathe deep of the invigorating ozone of a band at the very top of their game.
Oustider supergroup manque (from left): cellist Atzi Matsumuru, (obscured) drummer Casey Miller, vocals/guitar Matthew Winter, bass James Metcalfe
Yep, music mavens, word is definitely out. Self-released debut album Red Tulip Yellow Tulip set out their stall in characteristically confident mode in 2012. Early support from Matthew Young’s Song, by Toad label via an inclusion on a must have 2013 sampler EP with tracks from Plastic Animals among other local talent plus high profile bookings from super deluxe, Rolls Royce Edinburgh promoters Limbo (they have posh toilets! There are comfy seats! The sound is pretty good! They charge eight quid to get in!) provided a further fillip for Winter and handsomely hirsute sticksman Casey Miller after parting company with hotly tipped future popsters Pet. Whatever the reasons for the line-up changes, Winter especially looked out-of-sorts amid Pet’s ruthlessly modernist pop agenda. While a slimmed down Pet continue as a three-piece, Winter and Miller have found their true metier as Zed Penguin. Recruiting such take-it-to-the-bank talent as Pineapple Chunks frontman James Metcalfe on bass and classically trained virtuoso and Lipsync for a Lullaby mainman Atzi Matsumuru on cello, they come across like a 21st century Band with Winter as Dylan playing off a No Wave songbook rather than a Woody Guthrie or Alan Lomax’s Folkways field recording. The parallel is not as far-fetched as you might at first assume. Just substitute the woodsy authenticity of Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson and Lead Belly with the skewed avant-garde skronk of James Chance, Lydia Lunch, DNA, Bush Tetras et al and the comparison makes perfect sense, The Penguin’s are an outsider supergroup manque. Certainly, the heart and soul which this talented four-piece bring to their live performances matches Dylan’s Woodstock Basement Tapes for stubborn self-belief. Perhaps an even more apposite equivalence is the abyss-staring commitment of Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s beach bum death trips: Winter’s lyrical landscape is at times bleak. But we digress: the split worked out well for both kamps and tonight’s performance is a solid gold, soft-topped, lowriding ripper of a gig.
As noted, Winter’s vocal-style is powerfully unique – at least in this hemisphere – and his confident stage presence holds the crowds rapt in a mixture of something like awe, concentration and more than a little feminine adulation. Meanwhile, Matsumuru’s measured cello drone manages to both anchor the musical maelstrom around him while also dropping in the odd solo break that has you searching the stage for a hidden lead guitarist riffing heroically from the wings. Besides the opening number, the aforementioned Who’ll Come Dancing, this is largely new material and very fine it is too. Sure, the music’s sheer ambition demands and repays a close listening. Here are moments of true transcendence that are capable of transporting you to pirate territories out with the reach of less risky rockers. Just as you think the key has changed into one you’ve never heard before, the time signature is beyond your powers of mental arithmetic and the lost chord has been found hiding behind the sofa quivering in shock from the cheerful mayhem of a typical Penguin’s rehearsal; the band’s musical telepathy works its magic and you’re right – three, two, one – back in the room. Almost like they’d never been away… Zed Penguin have arrived.
[check their debut album here: http://zedpenguin.bandcamp.com/track/wholl-come-dancing]