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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