Progressive rock has a widespread (and, it must be said, often well-earned) reputation for being ponderous, pompous, overblown, and more about showy technical and instrumental brilliance than emotional content. Not to paint with too broad a brush, but that reputation might explain why the overwhelming majority of prog rock audiences are male (just attend most any prog concert, and there’s your proof).
The exceptions that prove the rule are, it’s true, refreshing when they’re discovered. The latest exception comes not only from the other side of the world (at least from an American perspective), but from a female-led group. The 3rd Planetary Chronicles is (I think) the third album from Yuka & Chronoship, a Japanese quartet led by keyboardist/composer (and occasional vocalist) Yuka Funakoshi. “Accesibility” is a loaded word, especially where progressive rock is concerned, but The 3rd Planetary Chronicles is very much that.
With an expansive sound and (mostly) wordless vocals, this twelve-track disc presents a unified set of tunes that move through enough different styles and textures to delight the most demanding of prog fans. But those who insist upon fetching melody and memorable hooks – in other words, fans of classic pop music – will find plenty to savor within The 3rd Planetary Chronicles.
Many of the songs feature a kind of worldbeat-flavored percussion, courtesy of drummer Ikko Tanaka, but the drumming is rooted in a rock sensibility that keeps it safely away from sounding like, say, Kitaro. The muscular bass playing of Shun Taguchi recalls the late Chris Squire, but to be fair, that’s pretty much what most prog bassists aim for. Thing is, most fall short; Taguchi doesn’t. Guitarist Takashi Miyazawa is facile and assured in his instrument, but he’s more of an ensemble player than an out-front showman; keen listeners may find that Miyazara’s style owes a debt to Steve Howe. Miyazawa is deep in the mix, not appearing prominently until “Age of Steam,” nearly halfway through the album. And then, initially, he’s on acoustic guitar. (He does rock out in a big way on the track’s second subsection, “Machine City,” and it’s worth the wait.)
Yet Yuka & Chronoship don’t sound a bit like Yes; their songs are rooted in a pop sensibility that’s irresistibly catchy. And the center of the musical mix is leader Yuka Funakoshi. She employs a delectably wide array of sonics, from portamento analog synth sounds to flute samples to decidedly traditional grand piano, and much more. There’s a melodrama to some of The 3rd Planetary Chronicles‘ tunes, most notably on “Galileo I – And Yet It Moves (E Pur Si Muove).” But please be assured that the tune is not nearly so ponderous and foreboding as its somewhat inscrutable title might suggest. Notwithstanding the wordless and lovely “ahhh” vocalizations on “Stone Age” and elsewhere, The 3rd Planetary Chronicles is completely instrumental save two tracks – “Age of Steam” and “I Am Thee (Awakening of Cloneroid),” and the vocals on those two tunes total about thirty words, all in English. Listeners will be able to recognize that Funakoshi is Japanese when she sings, but those brief (and quite lovely) vocals are the only quality of The 3rd Planetary Chronicles that has anything approaching an Eastern flavor. Overall, it’s pretty universally appealing stuff.
Apparently there’s a science-fiction theme to the album – the album and song titles suggest as much – but thanks to its instrumental nature, The 3rd Planetary Chronicles needn’t be approached as a concept album. It’s far more interesting musically than, say Tales of Topographic Oceans. The songs never meander, though they are arranged in a manner that allows their pleasures to unfold gradually. The songs are too assertive to work as subtle background music; The 3rd Planetary Chronicles is an album that demands, deserves, and ultimately rewards the listener’s attention.
Music aficionados looking for something compelling in 2016 would do well to seek out this album. I for one will be keeping an eye on Yuka & Chronoship. At press time, their English-language website lists live dates only in Japan and Italy; if they ever come to North America, count on me to (at least) report about it. Recommended.