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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.

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Single: Perfume – “1mm” (2013)

The wait is nearly over as Japanese electro trio ready their fourth full-length studio album “Level 3”, due out next month. I’m quite new to the Perfume party, picking up last year as they had just released what would be the first single from “Level 3”, namely “Spring of life”.

perfume 1mmI loved them instantly, and they were an exciting addition to my rather narrow and inexperienced view of J-Pop at that time. For the remainder of the year, another friend of mine introduced me to more of their work, and they appeared on the 2012 ABU TV Song Festival in Seoul.

In 2013 I began digging through their albums and reviewing them (“Game“, “Triangle” and “JPN” as well as rarities in the “Fan Service Prima Box” and “Complete Best“), so I’m officially up to speed I think. Then of course they performed their first ever gig in the UK which just blew me away. Continue reading

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Album: Perfume – “Triangle” (2009)

One of my new year’s resolutions was to listen to some more Japanese music, and until now this had only consisted of Hikaru Utada and Ayumi Hamasaki, two megastars of the J-Pop world. My problem is that I don’t know where to start with anything else. Fortunately, an amazing girlband just keeps popping up, Perfume.

Perfume TriangleI first encountered them on a flight back from Tokyo; there was a half-hour show of pop videos I could watch. Most of it didn’t do anything for me, but Perfume’s “Spring of Life” came on and I was totally blown away. Some time afterwards, a friend suggested I listen to them, and showed me a few other tracks, mostly earlier ones. Even later, Perfume were selected as Japan’s representatives at the ABU TV Song Festival, singing “Spring of Life”. I decided these needed to be the next act I look at.

They made their name with ultra-modern electropop songs, twinned with complex dance routines, working up through the ranks of the J-Pop world. They started on an independent label, before getting picked up by a major, and eventually breaking through after exposure on a TV advert. It’s been an upward spiral since there, and they’ve now established themselves as one of Japan’s premier electro-pop band, with a string of hit singles and albums over the past 5 years. A little randomly I’ve ended up with their 2nd studio album, “Triangle”, but I’m sure to investigate the others in due course.

09 Take off – A gorgeous floaty intro to the album, at a slim 49 seconds. I love a good countdown to kick things off!

09 Love the world – A seamless flow from the intro, and a cute plinky-plonky intro with some 80s-tinged synths in the background. I really love the sound of this, their production just hits my buttons. The vocals on the verses are a bit monotone, but the choruses are really cute.

09 Dream Fighter – The vocodered vocals are a regular feature, but there’s more of a melody in this one. It’s really cute pop music, with a relentless beat, and a surprisingly fitting bit of deep buzzing bass in the mix too. The bridges are so sweet too, and they just highlight how catchy the choruses are. Lovely!

10 Edge (⊿-mix) – My god, I am so into this. This harsh buzz of synths through it give this amazing dark sound to the track, and as the different layers of production flow into each other, it’s just incredible. Please watch the video at the bottom of this review, I think it just sums Perfume up as an act – killer dance moves, ultra-modern music, seamlessly interactive visuals, it’s just the future. It’s like the dirtiest electropop hits I’ve ever loved, but BIGGER. That little respite in the middle breaks things up nicely. I mean for God’s sake, this track is 8 minutes long, it’s nothing short of amazing to keep this level up for so long. OMG I forgot about the freaky ghost-electro moment at the halfway point, what’s that? LOVE IT!

09 Night Flight – Oh time to calm down after that excitement, right? Well, not really. If anything the tempo accelerates! This is a lot more 80s-influenced, but it’s just a rush. GOD I LOVE THIS ALBUM. OK the melody is all over the place, and a little monotone in the same way “Love the world” was, but I love the little synthy interludes. Then there’s a real change for the last third, it just goes all crazy lo-fi for a second. Lovely.

07 Kiss and music – Finally slowing things down, for something I can only describe as electro RnB – is that a thing? The robotic vocals are still in force, but the production is a lot more minimal. It’s got that nice futuristic feel to the bits between choruses and verses, but it’s perhaps a bit of a shock after the high energy tracks before it. Fortunately it’s a lot shorter than any other tracks, so it’s over quickly.

08 Zero Gravity – The tempo picks up a little, but it’s relatively laid-back still. Or at least for the cruise-ship intro, the BPM amps up shortly after. It’s still quite a gentle track, the production’s not nearly as spiky at the first half of the album. In that sense it loses a bit of the impact, but it’s still nice to listen to. The bridges have a really infectious little sample loop, and the bits after the choruses are pretty cute.

09 I still love U – Ah, there’s that sound! The edge creeps in again, and there’s a foundation of quite harsh and heavy electro beats in there. But then there’s a veneer of 90s J-Pop over the top of it. As an Ayumi fan, this feels like a familiar sound. Actually despite the modern beats underpinning it all, this is a bit of a cute throwback to an earlier time of J-Pop, and I love it! The bits after the choruses particularly are amazing (there must be a name for those bits!).

08 The best thing – Wow, that intro just grabs you from the first second – a rapid-fire shuddering beat with a strong pop melody. That might be the best bit of it, as the verses and chorus are a smooth mix, but a little more relaxed than some of the tracks I’ve heard so far. It’s a great coherent track, but it’s missing something to take it to the next level.

08 Speed of sound – What’s that, some bongo drums? Interesting change there, and the percussion is definitely a new addition to an album that relied heavily on synthetic beats (not that the drums aren’t synthetic too!). Actually they make way for an unusual track, it’s got that Latin vibe to it, but it’s almost like an extended interlude. Hardly any vocals, just some regular chanting – it’s not a countdown but sounds similar. An odd track on this album, but it’s got a great energy to it.

08 One room disco – One of the bigger singles now, and doesn’t that intro just remind you of some old 8-bit game like Streets of Rage? Love it. The body of the song is a little sweeter though, as the fun video demonstrates. It’s perhaps a bit basic in structure, and possibly a track too many with so many cute tracks like this already on the album. But that chorus is pretty great too.

07 Negai (album mix) – A piano? It’s almost a surprise to hear anything like a normal instrument on here! But no, even Perfume can’t resist the apparent J-Pop tradition of finishing practically any album with a ballad. Not that it’s not a nice ballad, it certainly has its nice bits, but I think it shows that Perfume have a comfort zone that doesn’t include slow tracks. The vocals are still heavily filtered, and while that feels totally acceptable in a high BPM dance track, it just sounds a bit strange here. The production builds up nicely to the end, but I think maybe it’s not the best fit for the group.

Well what can I say? I probably look like I’ve totally overmarked this album, and perhaps in places I have, but that first half really is amazing – or at least it’s exactly what I want from this type of pop music. It makes me very excited to hear what the other albums are like, and particularly their upcoming album that includes my favourite “Spring of Life” track.

Keepers for the iPod: Take off, Love the world, Dream fighter, Edge, Night Flight, Zero Gravity, I still love U, The best thing, Speed of sound, One room disco

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Album: Ayumi Hamasaki – “My Story” (2004)

Right, a little delayed but I’m back on the J-Pop finally. So I continue with oriental heavyweight Ayumi Hamasaki’s sixth full-length album “My Story”. I think this was the first album she released after my descent into Ayumi fandom, so it holds a special place in my heart. Fortunately it’s also pretty great, possibly my favourite of her albums.

It was the start of a second era in her career, not hitting the towering heights of record sales she had previously, but maintaining her popularity with a million-selling album and more No.1 singles to add to her enormous consecutive tally (25 in a row at the moment, 38 in total). In a slight deviation from her usual habit of releasing dance remix and acoustic remix albums, she released “My Story ~ Classical”, a collection of 11 “My Story” orchestral covers. I have this album but need to give it another spin I think.

07 Catcher in the light – A semi-intro piece now, less than 3 minutes but more fully-formed than her usual intros. An electric guitar strums the opening beats, feeling like the revving of an engine before a green light (unusually poetic of me, isn’t it?). After the initial crash of instruments, the verses are quite subdued. A pleasant listen anyway, and a nice smooth opener for the album.

08 About you – Straight into the rockier pop music Ayumi had been experimenting with in recent albums, this hits a nice mix of melodic pop without getting too rackety. I love that rapid-fire chorus though, I can’t imagine being able to sing that fast. Perhaps it doesn’t quite hit the heights required of a single (this wasn’t one), but that chorus is worth the effort.

08 Game – While not formally a single, it was the B-side for “Inspire” and got a video, so where do you draw the line? Either way this weight much more heavily into the rockier sound, with distorted vocal effects over most of the verses. The chorus has a great melody and desperation about it, makes me a little sad that I haven’t got a clue what it’s all about. The song does boil down to that chorus and the brief and insubstantial verses, but it’s got a good sound to it. I’ve never been a massive fan of her rockier tracks, but this is a good one at least. That outro chorus is pretty good too.

07 My name’s Women – Hmm… clunky title aside, the video left no space for misunderstanding that this was about female empowerment. Not sure quite how female clubs with male pole dancers is quite addressing gender imbalances rather than just swapping them around, but let’s just go with it. A bit more of a boombastic pop track now, even if the beats are pretty heavy-handed. I like it for what it is, but I doubt I’d ever call it a favourite off this album. Functional and listenable.

07 Wonderland – First little interlude now, and everyone loves clowns and circuses right? Right?? Well it starts innocuous enough, gentle fairground melodies that reminds me of the amazing “Castle of Illusion” on the Sega Megadrive (love that). But no, rumbles of thunder and creepy cackles intrude on this fun, and we are back in typically terrifying circus territory. Great.

07 Liar – A bell tolls in the background, but a song titled quite seriously has quite a light bouncy melody despite the crashing guitars kicking in again. Indeed, when she starts singing, a calm descends. She sounds a little hurt (my perception totally skewed by the song title of course), and the guitars pop in for a few thrashes, but all-in-all this is a pretty gentle midtempo track. Familiar and pleasant but not particularly memorable.

06 Hope or pain – Doesn’t seem like much of a choice does it? I’m not sure what I end up feeling as a result of this rather protracted mid-tempo song. The production on the ponderous choruses is a bit of a drag really, and while the verses are quite nice, the chorus just doesn’t really have much impact on me. There’s nothing I can particularly criticise, but it just doesn’t do a lot for me.

06 Happy ending – While I snigger at the title (immature I know), I sit back for another slightly syruppy midtempo. You might be forgiven for wondering why I think this is such a good album, and I admit at this point I’m a little unsure, but the positives certainly outweight the … neutrals. As with her albums, there is always filler, though I don’t know why she has to have such a long album every time. This is a bit of filler, and while there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just not making an impact on me.

08 Moments – The somewhat surprising choice of a lead single here, it’s another midtempo but has a bit more substance to it than the preceding few tracks. It has more of a beat behind it for starters, and a gentle but quite cute chorus to it. That “la la la” refrain is quite catchy in the end, and the track builds impressively by the end, in a way the other slow tracks never managed. Not a bad choice really!

06 Walking proud – Now this really IS a bloated sentimental track, with a artistically-made but saccharine video to go with the impressive selection on the accompanying DVD. It starts off nicely, I like those understanded piano-led intros. The chorus is just a bit of a non-event though, very sweet but just not doing a lot. More pleasant filler really, but that’s better than awful filler I guess.

08 Carols – A more decisive step into ballad territory now, though a bit strangely titled, I only really think of carols as a Christmas thing, but this came out in September. The occasional sleigh bell confuses me further. After that subdued intro, the chorus has a stronger melody than some on this album, and it’s a pretty strong track. I’ve heard stronger ballads from Ayumi, but this isn’t bad. Yet another confusing single choice though, particularly after Moments had already been released.

07 Kaleidoscope – Another interlude, a nice icy-sounding throwback to some moments from “Rainbow”, but doesn’t really do much. Builds to quite a nice little climax though.

10 Inspire – Now we are talking. The big pop single from this campaign, and what a single! Some sort of middle-Eastern influence in there somewhere, but some really weapons-grade pop production at work. The beat carries most of the verses, but the chorus is really where this song shines. Punchy and memorable, this was one of the first ‘new’ Ayumi singles that really got me stoked up, and it’s still pretty awesome 8 years on. If you only listen to one track from this album, make it this one.

10 Honey – And straight onto another great pop song, one of my late bloomers, though I always had love for this one. Her voice is as cute as she can make it without throwing up, but it totally works for this light fluffy bit of pop music. Production is rapid but really warm and fuzzy, and melts easily into a really gorgeous chorus. It’s just a bit of a dizzy love song I think, and has all the positivity of an anime theme tune. Love it!

08 Replace – Home strait now, but there’s still 15 minutes to go… why are Japanese songs (and albums) so long!? Anyway, a nice follow-on from Honey, that same sort of upbeat light-hearted tone to it, even if it doesn’t quite have the same giddy tempo. A strange galloping beat to it, I like that. The song doesn’t quite measure up after Honey, but there’s plenty right with it.

06 Winding road – Uh oh, back to inspirational mid-tempos now. As I’ve said several times in this review, there’s little to be negative about, it all fits nicely into the general sound of this album, partly why this album is such a nice listen. This one does build well, but the chorus isn’t much of a payoff for a 5-minute song.

07 Humming 7/4 – I guess the 7/4 is a reference to the weirdly uneven beat to this in places? A pretty standard rock-pop song to round things off. That chorus probably works better on tour, has lots of energy to it, though just sitting here listening to it, there’s not much to it! There are plenty of good bits here, but it gets a little lost among the sea of guitars that has happily been kept at bay for most of the album. Not my tastes particularly but a nice send-off for the album.

So that’s another one down, and approaching the limits of my experiences of Ayumi’s albums, with only really the next album (miss)understood that I know a lot about. “My Story” stands up well as a fun and undemanding listen, thought it has only really struck me now that while the album is consistently decent, there aren’t really the killer moments that other albums had.

Maybe it’s telling that there were an unusually small crop of three singles from this (four if you include Game’s appearance on Inspire). While a lot of songs are good, few really grabbed me in the way a single should. Still, Honey and About You were highlights for me, so maybe she just wanted to cut her losses with this album. At the time it was a much less successful album than its predecessors, and they weren’t to know that this was the start of a continuing decline in her album sales, so maybe they thought they could just put this album to bed and come back fighting with the next album.

Anyway, I still hold this album in high regard. It might not be amazing, or hit the heights of some other albums, but it’s consistently good, and that’s a tall order with most albums.

Keepers for the iPod: About you, Game, Moments, Carols, Kaleidoscope, Inspire, Honey, Replace

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Single: Hikaru Utada – “Traveling” (2001)

While I recuperate after my Japanese voyage, I will do a quick single review. Jet lag is weighing down on me like a lead weight, and I don’t think I can stay awake for much longer. So on a related note I look at this appropriately-titled single from J-pop megastar Hikaru Utada (or Utada Hikaru in Japan).

“Traveling” was the second single from third album “Deep River” that was another tremendous success to Hikaru’s astonishing level of success in Japan, ultimately becoming the 8th biggest selling album of all time there. It joined previous albums “First love” and “Distance” in the all-time top 10, which are first and fifth on the list respectively as it stands.

I’ve never quite broken through with Hikaru, though there is certainly cause for some investigation, with fourth album Ultra Blue and debut English-language album Exodus being particularly interesting for me. I found the older material from her first Singles Collection to be a bit too R’n’B for my tastes, but “Traveling” sees her in a much poppier state of mind, in a rather sophisticated dance crossover track.

I find this song impossible to detach from the incredible video, a real fiesta of colours and styles, driven by what I’m sure was an eye-popping budget earned by the massive success of her previous albums.

The production is gorgeous, I love that bustling futuristic intro, leading into a quite subtle verse before the addictive chorus kicks in. The middle-eight with those beautiful autumnal video segments are really wonderful, I love it.

The video is almost enough for a blog entry of its own. Full of colour, bright designs, glittering neon lights, and even a stop-motion segment with Hikaru looking beautiful in a more back-to-basics look. A start contrast to the cosplay-esque outfits, all weird creatures and bright wigs.

In short, an uplifting fun J-pop song, that never outstays its welcome after the 5-minute run-time, and even translated wonderfully to the Utada United 2006 tour as a brilliant intro. It’s certainly good enough to deserve a good look at its parent album before too long.

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