Many observers of electronic music have come to categorize their albums by record company, but the small Progressive Form label doesn’t lend itself to categorization. The company, based in Tokyo, Japan, has overtly artful and hyper-attentive sound constructions to its credit, as well as stylish urban nightlife soundtracks with steady tempos and commercial potential, and it has produced a growing collection of DVDs that de-emphasize narrative in favor of exploring the intersection of sight and sound.
Like some stark, minimalist play on a Pink Floyd alarm clock, Yoshihiro Hanno’s 9 Modules opens with a wake-up call, the sort of stuck ring that cancels out even the most blissful dreams. The highly recommended album’s ten tracks are indeed modular, each one implementing minor adjustments on a singular sound. On “[s.e.q.]” it’s a glitchy beat loop that is augmented as the track’s six minutes unfold — a snippet repeated here, a tone added momentarily there. “” applies a similar technique to a long tone, which is stretched to varying lengths, sometimes truncated, and repeatedly inflicted with segments of jerky percussion. Beyond the beauty of the album’s scratchy rhythmic textures and its more rounded tonal elements is how the bare pieces achieve a song-like structure. The mind hears “verse chorus verse,” even if the ear hears static and hum.
Aoki Takamasa’s Silicom was the first full-length album from Tokyo’s Progressive Form label: 11 tracks of beeps stumbling their way home after a long night of … well, whatever it is that beeps do after hours. The next day’s headaches are already evident in hushed background noise and, on the album’s first track (“std”), a chugging groove. Takamasa here sounds like Oval (whose work he has remixed) being performed on more populist instrumentation. The tell-tale glitch elements are evident — the bifurcated percussion, the schismatic melodic tangents, the bristling energy — but they’re heard as if played by hand, rather than the result of computer algorithms. The bass on “jung 25″ has the plodding bulge of a Hollywood score’s attempt at ersatz instrumental pop music, and the soft opening chords of “nuron” and “exp. 2″ have the lilt of actual keyboards hit by actual fingers. One track, “ham,” recorded with Terazono Kohei, surprises with an unaffected minimal-house beat.
When a computer voice attributed to the Earth speaks at the start of the second track on Takamasa’s Silicom 2, the listener’s expectations could not be more greatly lowered. The subsequent song’s fuzz and muted melody illustrate the voice’s dire message — that the planet is dying — but it’s a funeral one would not be criticized for bypassing. More moody and cinematic than Takamasa’s first Silicom set, this album should be credited for seeking a more individual voice, one somewhat less concerned with glitch’s manner of structuring sound, but the result is a peculiar hodge-podge: on “mry,” a squelching array of fractured snips atop some rote minimalism; on “pimo,” tentative note sequences against a grating industrial drone. There’s much to recommend individual elements of Silicom 2, but it’s unfortunate that Takamasa here didn’t have some of his labelmate Yoshihiro Hanno’s interest in exploring one thing in depth before moving on to, or layering, the next. (The Progressive Form label’s first two DVD releases were collaborations, under the name Silicom, between Takamasa and video artist Masakazu Takagi.)
Voices and other real-world sounds haunt Takamasa’s Indigo Rose, a rangy collection of static-laced hazes and futzed-with beats that shows much improvement since his Silicom 2. Skirting the avant-garde with its pop sensibility, the album manages to keep the pop world at arm’s length with its serrated sonics and arrhythmic tendencies. Human words, spoken and sung, rise occasionally, though they don’t always offer comfort from the digital proceedings. On “Dear People,” English is computerized into something baritone and emotionally neutral (think Laurie Anderson as a telemarketer). The track “Hope” is a masterful attempt at phonography; it’s bell tones initially complement a field recording of footsteps, which become a steady, mechanized beat, and as the piece comes into focus, children’s voices echo like those of ghosts. On “Pipe Tale – Indigo Rose,” Noriko Tujiko (on lone from the Mego label) arrives, a nasal angel in the ether.
The label’s sole various-artists compilation, Forma 1.02, released in August 2002, is due for a follow-up, one that represents some of its more recent signees, such as Nao Tokui and Ryoichi Kurokawa. [Note: Since this label profile was written, Progressive Form has released Form 2.03, whose ten tracks include work by Katsutoshi Yoshihara, Serguei Iwanikov and others.] However, the 1.02 set still has much to offer, both as an introduction to the Progressive Form roster, and to new acts yet to be heard widely. Label regulars present on the collection include Yoshihiro Hanno (“[s.e.q.]” from 9 Modules) and Aoki Takamasa (“Dear People” from Indigo Rose). Some of the songs are more club-friendly than adventurous, though 30506′s “VVV” strikes an interesting balance: it moves from an extended trance-like opening to lounge dance music, but as the piece comes to a close it disintegrates audibly in a manner that complements Hanno’s experimentation.
Progressive Form’s third and most recent DVD release is Ryoichi Kurokawa’s Copynature, which complements his CD release of that name. The visuals are expert displays of digital editing: cobblestone streets are riddled with earthquake-like fissures, abstract geometric shapes morph as if through some incredibly hi-resolution visualization plug-in. The label’s dozen-plus (as of this writing) 12″s are mostly drawn from its full-length CDs.
This article appeared, in slightly different form, in the autumn 2003 issue of e|i magazine.