Hamasaki Ayumi – NEXT LEVEL [10th Studio Album]

April 30, 2009 at 9:21 pm (Hamasaki Ayumi) (, )

nextlevel

Hamasaki Ayumi’s 10th studio album, entitled NEXT LEVEL, was released on 03.25.09. Two singles were released before the album: Days / GREEN and Rule / Sparkle. The title track was used as a Panasonic Lumix FX 40 CM song.

The album opens up with Bridge to the sky, introducing the listener to the atmosphere of the album. Opening up the song is a peaceful and relaxing instrumental, which really does fit the image  of the song’s title. Slowly, the beat comes in and soon Ayu gives some calming and angelic vocalizations. There are even a few electronic sounds here and there that show a good representation for some of the later tracks. The overall atmosphere of this introduction is just so simple and freeing and it proves to be an effective way of opening up the album.

NEXT LEVEL has a summery feel to it that awakens the stirring emotions in the listener wanting to be free. The song begins with a sweet pop instrumental that just evokes a very natural and calming feeling. When Ayu comes in on the first verse, you can really hear the happiness in her voice and it touches the listener’s heart gently. Before the chorus, the instrumentation takes a slightly different tone and Ayu holds a note very well, which lingers so that the listener can get ready for the chorus. The chorus is nice and keeps that natural feeling to it, which makes it memorable. However, it feels like there’s just something magical missing, which is holding it back from being amazing. The pure instrumental section is nice because it gives the listener a chance to hear a different layer of the music before  the chorus comes back in. The lyrical basis of the song  is moving forward into the future with hope in our hearts so it’s really something everyone can relate to. NEXT LEVEL follows Bridge to the sky wonderfully and serves as Ayu’s summery song on the album.

nextlevel1Disco-munication is the first album interlude and from its title, it’s clear that Ayu is ready to bring some danceable and addictive sounds. It opens up with a few strums of the electric guitar before moving into its true sound. What makes this one so interesting are the traditional sounds that make their way into the instrumentation. the only vocal presence from Ayu throughout the entire track comes as distorted but very cool short vocalizations. It may be simple but it’s what makes  it so fun and carefree. It’s such a good track and it really should have been a full song. Nonetheless, disco-munication is a strong interlude as it introduces the next phase of the album: electronic.

Following the roll from the last track, EnergizE shows a happy and upbeat atmosphere that sounds like it would be a perfect ending number for one of her concerts. The song begins with what sounds like some drums before the beat and guitar come in to show off that electric dance sound which makes the song  so addictive. Then comes the hook, sung in all English: “put your hands up together, keep your hands up together, let me sing forever…” This part is absolutely fantastic and it’s really what makes this song one to remember. Ayu then moves into the first verse and there is a certain cuteness to her voice that doesn’t come across too strongly. Before the chorus, the instrumentation serves as  somewhat of a bridge as it becomes more complex. The guitar comes even more full-force and freeing on the chorus, which has a very hopeful feeling that is mirrored in the lyrics. One part of the song that really stands out is the pure instrumental section since it feels like the listener is being taken to another world through a few twists and turns. The lyrical basis of the song is Ayu singing to everyone who might be feeling down or weak as she tells them to just try and be happy in the face of sadness. EnergizE is an amazing song and definitely one of the best album offerings.

Ayu’s more sexual side comes out for the electronic paradise, Sparkle. The song opens with a very rapid and strange sound, followed by a door opening before the actual sound begins. There is a darkness to it that stands out and the element of mystery intrigues the listener. Ayu’s voice sounds sleek and carries that sexuality to it that might surprise the listener but it actually makes for a more interesting song. After the first four lines, the music becomes more aggressive and Ayu’s vocals do too for two lines. It’s an interesting contrast and makes each part stand out even more. On the chorus, Ayu gives us strong vocals and the instrumentation goes back to its aggressive state. But what is it that makes this song so wonderful? It’s the repeating “no, no, no” lines that run after the chorus. There’s just something very hypnotizing about them and they belong in this type of song. The lyrical basis of this song is surrendering yourself to the beat and letting your inhibitions drop so that you can stop protecting yourself. It’s actually a pretty empowering message and Ayu communicates it well. Sparkle is one of the strongest songs on the album and definitely is an addictive electronic track.

 The electronic energy continues with the next song, rollin’. The song starts off with what sounds like a carousel, although there is almost a creepy element to it that has a true Ayu feel to it. Then after a few moments of silence, the true electronic sound comes out to play and catches the listener’s ear. There is such distortion on Ayu’s vocals during the verses and the pitch is so slow, that you can’t really hear what she is singing and it does get to be annoying. Luckily this changes as the verse goes on with the distortion remaining but she is actually audible. The chorus features a more aggressive instrumental and Ayu’s vocals lose that distortion so that she grabs the attention of the listener by force. Each moment of pure instrumentation is interesting and is ear-catching but the one near the end has a sort of technological feel to it that makes it stand out. That last rolling string of instrumentation is the perfect way to close the song and it’s so weird that you can’t ignore it. The lyrical basis of this song is moving forward even though the world is moving at a speed approaching uncertainty and troubles. rollin’ is an amazing song; it’s enjoyable and shows Ayu embracing those electronic sounds to good use.

 GREEN draws on traditional elements to make one memorable song. The song starts off with those instruments creating a very beautiful opening and taking the listener back in time for the story of the song. Then comes the first verse and Ayu’s vocals here are excellent as she holds certain notes with grace and there is true emotion in her voice. She gives even stronger vocals on the chorus and the instrumentation becomes stronger as well so the two combine to entice the listener. Right before the second chorus, there is a strumming of the guitar and although only momentarily, it definitely catches the listener’s ear. The pure instrumental section sounds so beautiful and dazzling that the listener falls right back into the cradle of the chorus, now with a more hushed instrumental to let Ayu’s vocals take the spotlight. She holds that last note of the chorus perfectly and with true emotion that the listener cannot miss. This song’s lyrical basis is realizing the presence of love and the desire to let her loved one know about that wonderful feeling. GREEN is a very strong song and it’s definitely ear-catching.

 The second interlude comes as the 8th track, Load of the SHUGYO, making the transition into rock territory. This nextlevel2interlude starts off in a very mysterious and cool way with a very simple sound and soon the beat comes in and catches the listener’s ear. If you listen closely, it sounds like there are short breaths. As the song moves on, the guitars come in heavier and really bring that Ayu-flavored rock that is unmistakable. It’s not as good as the previous interlude but it does its job well of keeping the album flow and preparing the listener for the rock sounds to come.

 One of the album’s best tracks, identity, is the next track. The song opens a mysterious sound, which sets up the listener for a calm mood, before the song’s true sound comes crashing in through the guitars. Ayu does some vocalizing, which catch the listener’s ear and then she comes into the first verse. There’s something very cheeky about her vocals, which end up making this song all the more memorable. Right before the chorus, there is this little instrumental build-up and although it doesn’t last long, it stands out and these moments make the song pop. The chorus serves as a sort of contrast as there is a darker atmosphere from the instrumentation and Ayu’s vocals carry slightly more emotion in them. The repeating “I.D.” is a nice touch and the English definitely stands out from the Japanese surrounding it. Those last words she sings are sung more quietly and it leaves the listener wanting more. The pure instrumental section has a cool feeling to it those electronic influences creep their way in before the rock takes over again. The lyrical basis of the song is self-image and how the important thing is what we think of ourselves rather than what others want us to be like. It’s quite the powerful message and Ayu nails it perfectly. identity is fantastic and without a doubt a memorable track.

 The rock filled Rule is up next. Opening the song is a very cool and mysterious rock instrumentation that introduces the overall atmosphere of the song perfectly. Then Ayu comes crashing in with the chorus and providing strong vocals to catch the listener’s attention. She sounds very commanding and in control here so the power behind the song comes through strongly. Without a doubt, the verses are the best parts of the song. There is a slight distortion on her vocals so that they sound even more sleek and cool, adding to the overall effect of the song. Somehow she just pulls the listener in with these vocals and they make the song so addictive. On the last moments of the verses, the instrumentation becomes more aggressive and these moments are golden, really standing apart from the rest of the song. Interestingly enough, the hooks are sung with lighter vocals and the instrumentation is very soft and pretty. The contrast between the two sections are magical and make the song even more interesting. The pure instrumental section sounds great and puts those rock sounds on display for the listener to thoroughly enjoy before Ayu comes back for a few lines. She closes the song with the choruses and a few great vocalizations that show her true power. The lyrical basis of this song is never allowing anyone to decide the rules of your life. Rule is the strongest song of the batch of NEXT LEVEL singles and it hasn’t lost any of its magic here.

 nextlevel3LOVE ‘n’ HATE is the last track to bring the rock sounds and Ayu definitely kept up the strong quality of Rule here. Those opening five seconds have such an aggressive dance beat that it’s too bad that the song doesn’t continue in that vain. But then the song’s true sound starts and it sounds like a dark circus kind of song as Ayu counts from one to seven and then says zero. She then sings “ha ha ha ha, no no no no” before moving into the first verse. There’s just something very entrancing about her vocals that draws the listener in perfectly. It’s kind of surprising that the chorus comes so quickly but it’s a really strong section of the song as Ayu brings even stronger vocals, particularly on those last words. Following the second chorus, the instrumentation gets kind of creepy for a moment and then calm for the third verse. After two choruses, Ayu goes back to the hook. She then closes the song by counting “one, two, three, four, three, two one, zero” and that “zero” is said so menacingly, that it startles the listener. And just when you think the song’s over, the music comes back to really finish it off and the aggressiveness of it and just its surprising entrance into the song is kind of scary. The lyrical basis of the song is pretty much established in the title as Ayu is in the position of liking someone but it would be so much easier if she hated him. LOVE ‘n’ HATE is an amazing track and one of the album’s best offerings.

 Following a lyrical cue from the previous track comes Pieces of SEVEN. It begins with a very mysterious and cold instrumental, which definitely arouses curiosity in the listener for what is about to come. As the song continues, it’s noticeable that it bears a resemblance to previous interludes LABYRINTH and reBiRTH. However Ayu makes sure this one stands apart as some of the elements of previous songs come in near the end. There are some electronic influences and some rock influences to spice up that instrumental and really draw the listener in. It’s longer than the other interludes and I suppose it was a wise decision since it allows the song time to have its transitions and keep the listener interested.

 Days, the sorrowful love ballad, is the album’s semifinale. Starting off the song is a wintery instrumental that immediately stirs emotions in the listeners and establishes the sorrowful atmosphere right from the get go. Ayu’s vocals on the first verse are great, really capturing the emotions of the song. There is a fragility in her voice that shows her longing. However it’s the chorus that really makes this song memorable and wonderful as she gives stronger vocals and the instrumentation becomes more involved. The pure instrumental section sounds great and it’s a real climatic moment that introduces the following chorus perfectly. The music steps back so Ayu’s vocals can at the front and she really hits you with those emotions. The lyical basis of the song is Ayu longing to be at the man’s side and wanting to see his face smiling at her. Days is a great song and although there aren’t many ballads, she shows that she can deliver them with ease.

 Curtain call, the album’s sole new ballad, is the closing number. Beginning the song is the piano and there is a true fragility in it that makes the listener really pay attention. The song doesn’t have a traditional structure of verses and choruses as it takes on a simpler approach. The first part features Ayu singing “your…” as the subject and “me” as the direct object (i.e. “I hear your voice calling me”). Her vocals here are great and sound really delicate, perfectly representing the song’s emotional context. The second part switches the pronouns as it is “my…” as the subject and “you” as the direct object. This simple reversal is actually quite powerful and shows the beautiful reciprocal relationship between the two. When she repeats these two parts later in the song, her voice sounds particularly natural and can bring the tears from the listener’s eyes. This is a great way to finish off the album and shows Ayu’s vulnerable side, which always makes for a good song.

 Album Ranking: A

 NEXT LEVEL is interesting because it’s a lot more upbeat than Ayu’s previous efforts so in that respect, she is moving onto a new level. It’s kind of annoying to have four short tracks (introduction and interludes), leaving only ten tracks (four of them being single songs) but she does bring some great new material. energizE, identity, LOVE ‘n’ HATE and Curtain call are all wonderful songs that show off Ayu’s intense skill. All the single tracks are great as well and give the album more flavor. Disco-munication should have been made a full track to offer a little more “new-ness” but overall it’s a very strong album. Is it as strong as previous albums? I believe that they are all quite different so they hard to compare but what it comes down to is NEXT LEVEL doesn’t have many “iffy” tracks but the new songs offered on previous album did seem to have a stronger first impression. So Ayu should be proud of herself since NEXT LEVEL is a cohesive effort that shows her growth as an artist.

 BEST 6 Memorable Tracks (In Order Of Tracklist): EnergizE / Sparkle / rollin’ / identity / Rule / LOVE ‘n’ HATE

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Perfume – ワンルーム・ディスコ [15th Single]

April 30, 2009 at 4:26 pm (Perfume) (, )

oneroomdisco

Perfume’s 15th single, entitled ワンルーム・ディスコ, was released on 03.25.09.

ワンルーム・ディスコ features an upbeat sound with a cute sound to it. The song begins with a really cool aggressive electropop instrumental that draws the listener in. It’s really mysterious and interesting  but then the vocals come in and it loses that special edge that was so appealing in favor of a slightly  more cute sound. They repeat “disco” various times  in a sort of broken way that sounds nice and fits with the beat of the song before moving into the first verse. As always, the distortion is there and  the vocals sound pretty good with the music although there is just  something missing and it doesn’t catch the listener’s attention as well as the girls usually do. The chorus stands out mostly because  the girls reach a little higher and it’s something fresh for them. Other than that element, it’s pretty basic  and follows the usual formula. Eventually the repeating “disco” gets to be a little annoying since it pops up so much and ends up making the song sound repetitive. One Room Disco does fall flat in comparison to the previous singles (love the world and Dream Fighter) but it does have that distinct Perfume sound, which may or may not be a good thing.

23:00 is the soft and relaxing track. The song starts off with a very mellow and sweet sound and the electropop elements actually don’t come full force right off the bat, which is a nice change of pace. Then the girls come in and there doesn’t seem to be much distortion on the vocals, which is new, but unfortunately the girls come off as sounding  bored and like they’re dragging out those notes. The entire song just sounds very monotone and because it’s over five minutes long, it really feels like it’s going on way too long. This is definitely not one of the group’s better songs and it kind of feels like a watered down of their last B-side.

In order to promote the single, a PV for ワンルーム・ディスコ was made.  The video is quite simple, just featuring the girls dancing in what looks like a large dollhouse. They each dance in separate rooms but there are also scenes of them dancing together. One thing that can be said is that the dancing doesn’t look very original for them and it would have been nice to see a little more creativity in the choreography since it doesn’t look like anything special.

Single Ranking: B

It’s sad to see the group deliver this quality when it’s obvious that they can really stand out. ワンルーム・ディスコ is easily the least interesting A-side post GAME but it does have its moments. The main problem is that it sounds so repetitive that it doesn’t sit well with the listener. 23:00 is probably the worst song released after their last album and it just sounds unemotional and long, which is not a good thing. Hopefully the girls will redeem themselves with a much needed album release, full of songs that showcase their true talent.

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Gackt – Journey through the Decade [28th Single]

April 30, 2009 at 4:07 pm (Gackt) (, )

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Gackt’s 28th single, entitled Journey through the Decade, was released on 03.25.09. The song was used as the Kamen Rider Decade theme song.

Journey through the Decade is a calm rock song with emotion. The song starts off with a rock-filled instrumental that gives the image of a desolate world. Gackt then comes in for the first verse and his usual vocals support the music perfectly. The use of the piano is nice in that it provides a change from the usual rock instrumentation however there seems to be some magic element missing since it doesn’t strike the listener as being too strong. Sadly, it doesn’t come forward on the chorus either. Although his vocals are strong and portray emotion, the instrumentation just sounds kind of typical and boring. The pure instrumental section is nice since the guitars are spotlighted but it’s nothing that stands out that much. Journey through the Decade is just okay but nothing great. Perhaps a more aggressive instrumental would have done it.

In order to promote the single, a PV for Journey through the Decade was made. The video just features Gackt transforming into a robot to fight another person who does the same thing. It wasn’t very interesting nor entertaining but it does have a certain fit with the song’s image.

Single Ranking: B –

After the great single, Ghost, this is pretty disappointing. Gackt’s vocals are actually pretty good but the music  doesn’t portray what the lyrics seem to and maybe a more aggressive isntrumentation could have better spotlighted the song’s emotions.

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BONNIE PINK – Joy / Happy Ending [30th Single]

April 30, 2009 at 3:53 pm (BONNIE PINK) (, )

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BONNIE PINK’s 30th single, entitled Joy / Happy Ending, was released on 04.08.09.

Joy is a sweet love song. The song starts off with a very pretty piano instrumental that introduces the mellow and sweet atmosphere of the song perfectly. When she comes in to sing, her vocals sound great and the combination of the vocals and music create a sort of lullaby effect, which really stands out. There’s just something very natural and loveable about the chorus when she sings “joy, yes you give me joy.” It’s a feeling everyone can relate to at one point or another.

Happy Ending is a nice and slow song with some rock influences to spice things up. The biggest problem with the song is that the tempo doesn’t sound consistent and other parts seem faster than others, which is very weird. Also the volume of the instrumentation is quick to change from high to low without any transitions, which stops the listener from having  one continuous path of listening. Unfortunately, the chorus doesn’t do its job of grabbing the listener and it just sounds kind of messy. Happy Ending isn’t really a strong song and doesn’t show BONNIE PINK’s true talents.

The single’s B-side is You and I, an upbeat song with a guitar-focused instrumental. It has a nice spirit but it just comes off as awkward. Sometimes, it’s hard to understand what she is saying and the instrumentation becomes a little tiring very quickly. It was a nice attempt but the execution didn’t come as smoothly as intended.

In order to promote the single, a PV for Joy was made. The video centers around a couple and how they bring each other joy. BONNIE PINK appears to play the guitar and she serves as a sort of inspiration for the couple. It may be simple but it really does communicate the emotions of the song perfectly.

Single Ranking: B

Joy is the song that saved the single because it’s the only one really worth listening to. It’s a very natural and sweet song about having someone who brings you joy. The other two songs just sound kind of messy and aren’t very engaging. Hopefully her upcoming album, ONE, will showcase her talents like Joy.

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alan – 久遠の河 [9th Single]

April 30, 2009 at 3:39 pm (alan) (, )

kuonnokawa

alan’s 9th single, entitled 久遠の河, was released on 04.08.09. The title track was used as the theme song to the movie RED CLIFF (Part II). Much like her previous single, RED CLIFF ~心・戦,~ this single includes the Chinese version of the song and instrumental. Also included in this package are the Japanese and Chinese versions of RED CLIFF ~心・戦.~

久遠の河 is very reminiscent of RED CLIFF ~心・戦~ and has a similar arrangement that captures the listener. The song begins with an absolutely beautiful instrumental that has those traditional elements that give the track an element of grandeur. There’s just something so magical and dazzling about this part that it stands out very strongly and the whole song should have followed this sort of sound. Then the instrumentation slows down a bit and becomes softer, drawing on the flutes and other instruments to givve a calm feeling. On the verses, alan provides the emotions through her vocals and the music generally stays in the back so the focus is on her. The chorus sounds more grand as the instrumentation steps up to meet alan’s vocals and the combination of the two sounds great. She shows off her traditional Tibetan wail at the end of the song and it really fits with the atmosphere of the song.

In order to promote the single, a PV for 久遠の河 was made. The video is basically a collection of clips from the movie with scenes of alan interspersed here and there. The two scenes featuring alan show her as what appears to be a princess and another wandering the beach, wrapping a blanket around herself. In both scenes she looks absolutely gorgeous, particularly when she is wearing the elegant green dress that makes her look like a princess. It would have been nice to have more alan but it’s still a great video.

Single Ranking: A –

This is the theme song to RED CLIFF (Part II) and it does bear some similarities to RED CLIFF ~心・戦.~ They both have a similar grand arrangement and use traditional elements to spur a wonderful instrumental. One thing notably different about this song  though is that it is quite shorter, roughly half the time of its preceding song. It gets the job done within a reasonable time and intrigues the listener very nicely. As usual, her vocals are strong and the song comes out as a success.

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