Up to the Surface

Aengus Hackett AKA Penji

Up to the Surface

Jazz musician Aengus Hackett has just released his debut EP of electronic music under the alias Penji. Don O'Mahony reviews.

Galway guitarist Aengus Hackett seems to have covered quite a musical expanse in the past decade. With his roots in jazz, Hackett followed his attendance at the Skidmore Jazz Institute in New York with the Amsterdam Conservatory of Music, where he formed the guitar, drums and cello trio Dinosaur. Not to be confused with the similarly named and contemporaneously formed UK quartet, Dinosaur combined the acoustic sound of the cello and Hackett’s clean electric guitar lines while allowing space for each instrument to breathe. 

Returning to Galway, Hackett took something of a change of direction when he combined forces in 2014 with Andrew Madec, bass player with moody electro duo Voids, and musician and producer Simon Kenny to form Zinc, an instrumental post-rock group whose fluid combination of instruments was more concerned with melody and the riff. 

Adopting the name of Penji for his solo project, Hackett appears to have taken his most interesting musical digression. Perhaps inspired by the banks of effects pedals Madec introduces his bass guitar to across his projects, Hackett has done likewise and in the process has created a groove-laden sound that is augmented by weighty beats, shimmering processed guitar and warm synths. These are songs to reward repeated listens as various elements seep up to the surface and reveal themselves.

Kicking off with a tiny bit of backspin, ‘Time to Go’ is the sound of fuzzy synths liquefying into gold. From the swaggering bass, 4/4 beat and snares, Hackett charms snaking flute-like wisps from his keyboard as he subtly ups the tempo on the bass inducing a state that is more head-nodding than chin-stroking.  

It certainly establishes that Penji is largely sui generis in the context of Hackett’s musical oeuvre. Although the way at one point a trebly riff rolls in against a set of synth chords as the bassline prowls with intent suggests the intricate dovetails common to much post-rock riffage.

Opening with plangent guitar, ‘Pink Clouds’ hinges on the drum programming as alongside a slowly evolving series of sustained notes Penji switches through a variety of grooves, from slow, heavy kicks to nimble staccatos. As exercises in dynamics go it’s quite epic; every creeping moment a promise of expectation fulfilled. 

It leads nicely into the military/marching band-style drum rolls and chiming psychedelic guitar of ‘The Real Deal,’ a track that feels like a tingling coda to The Chemical Brothers’ epic track ‘The Private Psychedelic Reel’.  

It might be fanciful to think it but it’s the closing track, ‘One Fine Night’, where one can assume Hackett’s background in jazz feels most pronounced. Built around smoky, almost soulful keys, the type one associates with bruised souls and small hour jams in shady clubs, Penji adds staggered drum rolls as he increases the tempo of his playing on the instrument with repeated chords creating an ascending circular rhythm while iridescent synth lines fizz around. With this EP, Penji has revealed a knack of merging the ecstatic with the downbeat. 

Purchase Penji here: https://penji.bandcamp.com/album/penji-ep

Published on 8 July 2020

Don O'Mahony is a freelance arts journalist based in Cork.

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