Review Summary: TK hasn't run out of magic yet.
The risk inherent in developing as sound as unique as that of Toru Kitajima - best known as the front man of hyperkinetic prog-pop outfit Ling Tosite Sigure - is that of overstaying your welcome. Ling Tosite Sigure quickly carved out their place in a Japanese indie scene dominated by pusillanimous post-punk, thanks to a unique sound that sounded quite different from anything else at the time. But Sigure's sound is so unique, and so well-defined right from the band's beginning, that evolution is difficult. Fans will certainly notice a change from one album to the next, but Sigure's core sound hasn't changed. Though each Sigure album (and TK solo release) has been of very high quality, the inevitable question is: when is TK going to run out of ideas?
While Fantastic Magic has its problems, TK still has plenty of interesting things to say. Like 2011's Flowering, Fantastic Magic shows a broader range of sounds compared to Sigure's albums. While Sigure is an unambiguous power trio, TK's solo music features much larger arrangements, with strings, keys, and additional instrumentation. Considering how overwhelming Sigure manages to sound with only three members, you might think that the additional performers would reduce the songs to an incoherent mess, but TK manages to skillfully balances his compositions on the edge of collapsing into a singularity.
TK's high-pitched vocals and intricate, angular guitar playing are still the stars of the album, but special mention should go to the drums. While Sigure's Pierre Nakano kit often overplays on a kit that sounds like a muddy, indistinguishable blur, BOBO's playing is much clearer and often serves the songs better, particularly on tracks like Spiral Parade that revel in trace-rock atmospherics. The strings and keyboards make positive contributions as well, and what's particularly interesting is how TK often uses short bursts of these instruments that sound almost like samples, despite being live playing.
Flowering was an album that had a few upbeat, aggressive songs amidst other tracks that explored an atmospheric side of TK's songcraft rarely seen on Sigure's music. Fantastic Magic has more fast-paced moments than its predecessor, placing it closer to Sigure's sound on tracks like Kalei De Scope and Spiral Parade. These are also among the best tracks on the album, and draw on the almost-electronic stylings that TK sometimes explores. But TK's favored method is to blend a palette of moods into each composition - as tracks like Fantastic Magic, Unravel, and Shinkiro explore. It culminates perfectly with Contrast, which merges all of TK's disparate influences and aspirations into a prime cut of neo-romantic art pop.
Unfortunately, TK can end up being his own worst enemy at times. He's seldom sounded whinier than on the unbearable tokio, or the beginning of Unravel (which takes time to develop into a worthwhile song.) Shinkiro is one his most innovative songs in quite some time, with a lush, bossa nova vibe that resists the urge to explode into overblown theatrics. Unfortunately, the track is dragged down by the awful female vocalist, who sounds like a deranged, developmentally challenged child deliberately attempting to be whinier than TK. One of the easiest ways for TK to change up his game would be to sing in a more conventional style; on the other hand, TK's vocals (and, as usual, the impressive intricacy of his music) certainly suggest that he's not at any risk of selling out.
Fantastic Magic has a few weak tracks and doesn't have anything quite as impressive as Flowering's Phase to Phrase or Film A Moment, but it's still a welcome release from one of the best musicians in the contemporary Japanese indie scene. It's hard not to wish that TK would go a little further left-field and starting producing full-blown progressive rock albums, but you can't deny that there are few artists capable of releasing album after album that will appeal in equal measure to grass-eating Japanese hipsters and post-hardcore fans.