Album Review: Ayumi Hamasaki – “NEXT LEVEL”

 Ayumi Hamasaki’s tenth full-length original studio album, NEXT LEVEL, was released on Wednesday, March 25, 2008. The album reached #1 on the Oricon Weekly Chart and has sold 291,081 copies so far.

 Starting off the album is the short introduction Bridge to the sky. Combining noticeable electronic and rock-type elements, Bridge to the sky is a LOT like Catcher in the Light, the intro to her sixth album My Story. The lyrics are very simple, consisting only of the phrases Fuwari egao, fui ni namida, but even so they are very pretty. This song does a really good job of setting the tone for the rest of the album.

The title track, NEXT LEVEL, follows in the footsteps of past Ayu hits such as Blue Bird and Fairyland in that it’s a calm, upbeat summer-type pop song. Although I genuinely loved the PV for NEXT LEVEL, I find now that it simply is not as exciting without that visual element. Ayu’s voice is nice and calming but lacks any sort of passion, making it hard for the listener to take interest in the song. While not the greatest song on this CD, NEXT LEVEL is still definitely worth a listen.

Here we have Disco-munication, an interlude. It’s got a very funky sound to it, and the 8-bit elements are pretty intriguing. I’m going to go ahead and agree with everyone who’s saying that this would be so epic if it were a full-length song.

EnergizE expands on that theme, with 80s-reminiscent drumbeats and synth to spare. The English section is fun as well, with lyrics like Put your hands up together! Keep your hands up together! Let me sing forever! The chorus introduces the cool rock elements, but I simply cannot stand Ayu’s cutesy vocals during the verse. That style of singing may have suited her back when her voice was actually cute, but now she just cannot pull it off. However, I’m pleased to say that the good pretty much outweighs the bad on this track. Still not the strongest, but not weak by any stretch.

Even after all the listens, sometimes back to back, I just can’t get tired of Sparkle. As a huge fan of trance music, and to that end, electronic music, I was delighted when Ayu decided to give this style another chance. One of the great parts of this song is how strong Ayu’s voice is, especially during the chorus and the “No no no” parts. The lyrics may come off as a little slutty, but she’s a grown woman now – I think we can all stand for a bit of sexiness. This was my favorite of the two A-sides on the Rule/Sparkle single and definitely one of my favorites from the NEXT LEVEL era.

The beginning of rollin’ sounds an awful lot like the interlude marionette – interlude – from her previous album, but that section of the song quickly comes to an end with a flurry of synths. It seems as though Ayu has hopped on the vocoder bandwagon; her voice is extremely distorted during the verse, making it sound plastic and artificial, especially against the many layers of synth and electronic beats. The chorus is fast and exciting, with Ayu’s natural voice and upbeat guitars. Despite the odd opening, this song is definitely one of the stronger tracks on the album.

Ah, GREEN – Ayumi’s oriental masterpiece. It’s really hard to describe just how much this song has grown on me since its release in December. There’s a strong Chinese influence on the arrangement, and the lyrics are poignant and symbolic – some of Ayu’s best in a while. The majestic sound of the chorus never ceases to amaze me. As one of the few non-electronic themed tracks, GREEN certainly manages to stand out as one of the best songs on the album.

Normally the interludes on Ayumi’s albums are pretty interesting, but Load of the SHUGYO disappointed me. The transitions between it, GREEN and identity aren’t particularly smooth, so it really just seems like a waste of time. The heavy guitars toward the end may have been some sort of attempt at moving the album toward a more rock sound, but even if it was, it just fell flat. 

identity is definitely the most straightforward rock song we’ve heard so far. I always love to hear Ayu sing in a lower register, so the verses and pre-chorus were particularly enjoyable. In the chorus, though, her voice is nearly drowned out by the background instruments. The instrumental break and brief section of lyrics are really cool, though, making a momentary move toward the electronic style that’s so prominent on this album. Overall, this is a fun song for rocking out.

 As the theme for the Dragonball Evolution live-action movie, Rule was definitely the most heavily-promoted of the singles. Similar to identity in its heavy use of rock instruments, its a hell of a good time. The slow, almost ballad-like sections still seem a bit out of place, but are quickly blown away by the gigantic chorus. I’ve never been much a fan of the Dragonball series, but this song is simply too good to pass up.

Without a shadow of a doubt, LOVE ‘n’ HATE is the best new song on this album. The arrangement is the perfect combination of synth, rock guitars and turbulent strings. The part that originally caught my interest was Ayu’s counting from one to seven and ending with zero. Ayu’s vocal performance is consistently excellent throughout the song, full of sass and attitude. The song winds down with a countdown from one to four, then back down again to zero. Absolutely the most amazing song so far, and well worth the wait.

Pieces of SEVEN is the longest of the interludes, and in my opinion, the most interesting. Starting out ambient, ethereal and almost eery, at exactly 0:45 it turns very reminiscent of the interlude reBiRTH from Ayu’s last album, Guilty (are we beginning to notice a pattern here?) The last minute or so of the interlude turn into a fast and furious combination of trance and heavy metal, signifying the end of the rock portion of the album.

The first outright ballad on NEXT LEVEL, Days, is a typical Ayumi love song in just about every way. From the piano, to the chimes, right down to the grandiose chorus, there is very little about Days that makes it different from any other ballad Ayu has ever made. The lyrics are touching, as they come from a place true in Ayu’s heart, but are drowned out by the utter mediocrity of every other part of the song.

Curtain call bears a striking contrast to Day. This is not to say that it’s a hard, heavy rock song or upbeat club anthem – it’s a simple and gorgeous ballad. The lyrics are clearly a message to her fans and the support they’ve given her throughout the years. Ayumi’s voice rings out clear and unaccompanied but for a single piano player, until about the 2:06 mark when she’s joined by a gospel chorus. The key changes are especially uplifting and add an air of hope to an otherwise melancholy song. The final track on the album ends with a single poignant note held out by Ayu’s clear, undistorted voice and the graceful playing of a piano.

Summary: After the profound melancholy of her previous album, Guilty, it seems to make sense that Ayu would rebound by compiling a series of fierce, confident and upbeat songs. While NEXT LEVEL is certainly not the most innovative or meaningful albums in Ayumi’s career, it definitely shows that she’s not afraid to delve into this genre or that; she’s been in the industry for over a decade and she has the experience to try new things. As one of the most fun and upbeat releases I’ve heard from Ayu in recent memory, I believe NEXT LEVEL definitely deserves to be respected, if not admired.

Album Grade: A

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