ptf – The World[s]
Isolated culturally from the rest of the European and North American scenes, Japan has developed a number of very particular approaches to familiar foreign musical genres whether it’s prog, pop, folk, metal and so on.
While not wildly known to most mainstream audiences and even some more underground ones, there are some circles where the names of these Japanese bands and artists carries the same kind of weight as their western counterparts. In progressive rock specifically, the country has had a long reputation for frequently jazz-tinged quirkiness with bands like Ruins, Amygdala, and Kōenjihyakkei representing its most extreme end of the unusual. However, in recent years there have been a few bands of note taking a more accessible route but don’t confuse the relative ease of listening to a lesser degree of artistry. Asturias, Stella Lee Jones, Taika, TEE, and the subject of this review, ptf, all play a highly melodic form of progressive rock influenced by jazz/fusion to varying degrees but of these five bands, the last of them I would describe as likely the most scenic and likely of immediate interest for those unfamiliar with “J-prog”. A violin lead entity formed in 2009, they have two albums under their belt from 2013 and 2015, each one impressive in both finesse ambition. The former, Percept From, focused heavily on lengthy layers of gently unfolding and fusion-esque instrumental prowess while the sophomore, What is Constant, demonstrated a more structured approach to their sound that further emphasized their prog rock aspects. This year however ptf have united the best of both worlds for their strongest effort yet and one of the best prog albums this year.
Like a lot of bands in this particular genre, this Japanese four piece’s skills become notable fast. Takashima is the most obvious as the lead role, creating wide-spanning tapestries of highly evocative melodies that can easily stand tall alongside more traditional guitar histrionics. At times flowing and smooth and others busybodied and clustered, he’s highly versatile in his ability to create these highly scenic and sweeping film score style motions that capture all the grandeur that sympho-prog usually would have to use a lot more keyboard-oriented garish to achieve. Speaking of that, keyboard player Takeya Kito is no slouch either. Playing a dual role of a second lead instrument and background harmony, he helps flesh out the tonal space behind Takashima’s highly evocative technique but there are a number of moment where he matches him with separate melody lines of his own, going for a very flowing and articulate approach focusing on sharply defined keyboard tones with his spider-handed tap dance creating shimmering trails of melody. While he’s clearly very talented he has a more calculated role than what we normally think of for prog keyboardist with even his flashiest moments utilizing careful restraint in the service of carefully articulated themes.
Hiroyuki Ito’s bass sounds thicker and more resolute than ever, by and far the hardest hitting part of their sound. Never content to merely play root notes, his lines may sound simple at first but he has an impeccable ear for carefully responding to the previous two with gently uncoiling harmonies and oddly enough, subtly metal influenced riffing often when the tempo picks up. While not too notable (this isn’t exactly Dream Theater of Symphony X) it does add quite a bit more forcefulness to their sound, something absent on the prior albums but welcome in how it can keep songs smoothly rolling. Rounding out the circle is drummer Yusuke Seki, understated in his approach yet undoubtedly at the same calibre as his compatriots. His work is at times simple but focuses less so on gaudiness and flair as much as carefully accenting and augmenting particular moments of tension. Subtle cymbal accents, fills that flitter away as if hiding from scouring eyes, ritualistic rolls across the cymbals – his arsenal is simple at first yet excellent at enhancing atmosphere, punctuating more dramatic or emotionally expressive moments in an unintrusive and carefully implemented manner.
Songwriting wise, The World[s] is a continuation of What is Constant, building on the more carefully composed approach and solving its predecessor’s shortcomings. While the previous album could at times be somewhat disjointed or prone to dragging some songs out seemingly for their own sake, their third reinjects a healthy dose of energy back into their sound while simplifying some aspects of their composition. The motifs and actual notes they’re playing are somewhat more streamlined than they were previously but rather than weakening their sound, it grants them a much more pronounced sense of direction and greater coherence to boot. It’s still intricate, cleverly composed music but part of that cleverness comes from the clarity in their delivery. Some moments are spearheaded by sheer technical finesse and creativity which tend to operate like extended solos (the most fusion like part of their sound). They’re used to help break up motion and create deepening sense of mood and theme. These frequently lead to more flowing, quickly developing portions that offer reprieve and a sense of resolution or growth which tends to be the more prog part of their approach.
Both of these approaches are used to communicate a wide range of instrumental storytelling; moments of pseudo-ambiguity and densely layered introspection gives way for currents of rushing vivacity and liveliness, both creating a genuinely dream like setting. They are just at home in bright, sunny moments that almost bring to mind the music you’d hear in a movie score or some fancy Japanese RPG’s village or open world area but they are more than capable of more intense and even gloomy moments, working in these minor key melodies that resolve on these ambiguous open notes or even the previously mentioned punchy metal-reminiscent moments. It leads to The World[s] sounding like a concept album (something supported by the promo stream’s use of imagery), taking us through familiar emotions yet in a vivid, theatrical manner. Sometimes they are welcome, others foreboding, yet in spite of the lack of any singing at all, it feels so deeply human in how they capture all the drama, highs, and lows of a particularly good biographical documentary but in an hour’s worth of music.
Topping it off is their third album being their most consistent to date. While the prior two had some songs that either were occasionally buried under instrumental self indulgence or simply felt greatly extended without purpose, here their hybrid of fusion’s raw musicality and prog’s ambitious structures leads to their tightest work yet. The album opens on a strong note with its first half full of the most energetic and straightforward parts of the album. From the wandering grooves of “Wondering What I see” and even its punchier stuttered digressions and abrupt jazzy moments to the high energy romp of “Experience Another World” (the album’s single) and its semi-heroic tempo switch into an aggressive rushing pace, the album hits the ground running and seems ready to sprint to the finish. However once “Reminisce” hits, it’s clear that ptf value the more pensive and understated moments as well, letting gentle basslines unfurl around angular violin notes. This is likely to be harder part of the album to get for most as it comes almost as a change of character to how it began but you really get to hear them exploring a darker side of their sound that wasn’t even hinted at on previous albums. “Time to Realize” then kicks in, returning us to the vibrant optimism of the album’s opening albeit in a slightly more subdued form, toning down the raw exuberance for a more gently mounting sense of tension and thematic weight.
The album’s biggest surprise will likely be “In Agony”, furious and confrontational with its stutter-chug rhythms that give way to thin strands of wistful violin hanging ominously over sustained keyboard chords. It’s incredibly modern for them and almost sounds out of place yet thankfully they don’t venture deep into the vapid slums of djent, using the paused motion of the riffing to build tension from which longer forays into straight melodies emerge. Their tranquillity however is challenged one last time with a wild flailing array of discordant, straight up dense chaos that ends this song on an unusually dark, aggressive note for them. “So Many Senses / Just Another Day (reprise)” in turn offers peace in the wake of storming conflict, letting these gentle harmonies climb and amble in a way that’s almost pastoral sounding in its gentle serenity. However as the “reprise” hinted at, it also returns to the raw energy of the opener for its second half, re-enhanced with a harder-edged delivery. Yet this is but a short reminder of this journey’s origins; the intimidating wall of harmony returns to the arching patterns that preceded it, ending the album on a graceful high note. At that point, you can almost see the credits about to roll and the people standing to leave the theater.
While The World[s] does have some competition this year in the prog department from a some acts mentioned in the first paragraph along with Ring Van Mobius, VAK, Syndone, and Mother Turtle, it will not be an easy album to top, even for them. Boldly striding a path of their own distinct from Japan’s prog community and those outside, it’s a beautiful voyage through the triumphs and turmoil of everyday life, the internal and often hidden self our friends and family don’t always see carried through this vivid theatre of fantastical and ephemeral music. While they are from a specific subset of prog that emphasizes technical finesse to an even greater extent than is normal for this genre, they never feel over-encumbered with garnishing and rampant excess. There’s much to enjoy on a front of raw musicianship but this impressive skill is used in the service of creating these vivid, dreamlike experiences that anyone who doesn’t mind lengthy vocal-free compositions with a varied and dreamlike character can enjoy. I described ptf to my friends years ago as resembling the soundtrack to the best movies you’ve never seen and it doesn’t hold up any better than it does here. Highly recommended to all fans of progressive rock, especially those who prefer the more symphonic side of the style.
Four out of Five Poetically Combusting Toilets