Album: Ayumi Hamasaki – “Next Level” (2009)

Wow, it has taken me a LONG time to get this far into Ayumi’s back catalogue. I think it’s just hard to write a lot about J-Pop albums, I don’t understand anything they are singing, so I’m just relying on my limited musical vocabulary. Don’t expect much change there then, whoops!

But here we are, I think this is the first Ayumi’s album I really knew nothing about, and seems to be a return to more of her style that I like. I suppose fairly generic EDM might not be everyone’s cup of green tea but you can’t have everything. I think my loonship had sailed by this point, but as such a formerly huge commercial force (and still racking up #1s) it’s certainly worth keeping up to date.

08 Bridge to the sky – A lovely little intro to get us excited, I love intros like these on J-Pop albums, and certainly puts me in mind of her great moments in the early 00s, a wonderful place to start!

08 Next level – A bit of a step back on that intro but it has this buzzing energy about it that I really like, it’s like a sped-up version of “Fairyland”. When the beat finally drops it’s a pretty understated affair, I was expecting something a bit more manic. That’s no bad thing though, it’s rather nice, even if it lacks that killer hook that I feel that I’m expecting.

07 Disco-munication – That intro isn’t particularly disco, none of it is really, but it’s a little interlude that reminds me of Ayumi’s mid-00s days as a slightly jaded popstar, sick of the manufacturing process to an extent. A bit overdone but not bad.

07 Energize – A big bombastic beat chugs throughout this one, I quite like it, it’s got a nice electro undercurrent in there. It resists the urge to throw a load of guitars into the mix, and keeps the noise to a minimum. It’s a bit trashy but listenable for sure.

07 Sparkle – Clubbier start now, I like that. The thundering chorus kicks in quite early doesn’t it? It’s a bit of a racket, but it’s soon back into those scowling little verses. The choruses have grown on me a little, they have a strong tune and a bit of a pissy attitude that I find quite refreshing from Ayu.

07 Rollin’ – A quiet little fairy tale intro does nothing to set up the hard synths of the first minute with some heavily processed vocals. She doesn’t seem to be going for the old commercial hits this time around does she? It’s not doing a lot for me, but at least this album sounds quite interesting. Lots of great little moments in this one, but it doesn’t seem to add up to a coherent song.

09 Green – Forget what I was saying about the hits, this is straight out of her golden era. Those twanging traditional instruments playing a scale at the start really set this whole thing off. It’s got that great Japanese historical epic feel to it, love it. It sounds like it should have come from “Duty” or something. The tune is a bit sluggish but I think it works well with the production.

06 Load of the Shugyo – She likes her interludes, doesn’t she? Better than having a full 14-track album anyway, those seem to drag. A pacey electro intro interrupted by all those guitars she’s been restrained on including so far. Not sure I like this particularly but it’s only an intro, what’s the harm?

06 Identity – Oh so that’s what the interlude was for, introducing me to the guitary section of the album, sigh. Yeah yeah yeahhhhhh… This sounds like it’s off one of her older albums, but in a bad way, a retread of the type of songs I was never very interested in.

06 Rule – Not sure I can take half an album of frantic rock tunes, they are bad enough in isolation. I mean fair enough if this is the sort of music she likes making but it never really washed with me, and this is certainly no different. I concede it might be better to have some rocky tracks and dancey tracks, instead of the “Guilty” album that seemed to be filled with hybrids of the two styles.

08 Love ‘n’ Hate – I’m not sure “Counting with Ayumi” is going to catch on, especially if she thinks zero comes after seven. But there’s an interesting synth-string riff going on here, and I love those rapid-fire bridges, even if the chorus seems to just be the counting bit. I know what I just said about the dance/rock hybrid tracks but this isn’t all bad. I think the to-and-fro delivery on those bridges is really helping.

08 Pieces of Seven – Is this another interlude?! Even that is 2:30, a bit long isn’t it? I mean it’s nice enough, a moody bit of synthy electronica. Is this the Tasuku contribution to this album? Apparently not! This is all Ayu’s doing, under her HAL moniker. I sounds familiar, I do like those glassy instrumental bits. Not why it has to morph into a 200BPM thrashout at the end though.

07 Days – Don’t worry, nearly there, and what’s this? A ballad! She still does them apparently, and from what I read in the Wiki description of the video treatment it seems to be a bit of a heartbreaker. It’s nothing particular revolutionary in the J-Ballad department but it’s very nice, all the same. That does make it stand out as a bit of an afterthought, especially after the noisy end to the previous interlude. Quite old fashioned but I like it.

08 Curtain Call – At least this didn’t come after Pieces of Seven. A really old-school ballad, from the vocal & piano simplicity of the introduction to … actually it doesn’t really get much further than that. I suppose that makes it harder for me not knowing the lyrics, with the focus then being on the fairly standard arrangement. The harmonies in the choir in the middle are really lovely, as is the key change, what a nice song to end on!

So there we are. The title “Next Level” suggests maybe more of a progression in her sound, but if anything, it seems to have flashes of the earlier Ayumi sounds. These go down well of course, but it only seems to underline how her experiments to make something original and modern sound a bit noisy and directionless. I sympathise you can’t always fall back on old glories, but it’s hard to reinvent the wheel too.

Then again, this album came out in the same year as Perfume’s “Triangle” came out, so fresh things were being done at this point that still sound great now. I just wonder if Ayumi will be able to keep up!

Keepers for the iPod – Next Level, Green, Love ‘n’ Hate, Curtain Call

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