Album Review: Ayumi Hamasaki – “Rock’n’Roll Circus”

Tracklist:
1. THE introduction
2. Microphone
3. count down
4. Sunset ~LOVE is ALL~
5. BALLAD
6. Last Links
7. montage
8. Don’t look back
9. Jump!
10. Lady Dynamite
11. Sexy little things
12. Sunrise ~LOVE is ALL~
13. meaning of Love
14. You were…
15. RED LINE ~for TA~ [album version]

Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus is Ayumi Hamasaki’s eleventh studio album, which was released on April 14, 2010. It peaked at #1 on the Oricon Weekly Chart and has sold a total of 285,508 copies so far.

These covers are pretty meh to me. They’re not bad or anything, I just think there were some scenic shots from the album booklet that would have perhaps been better. Ah, well.

~

With a bombastic title like THE introduction, I was expecting this to be one hell of a starting track, but that’s not really what I heard. This is a heavily, almost entirely synthesized song that’s just under one and a half minutes long. The combination of tinny synths and snare drums make a decent attempt at building atmosphere, but the short song culminates too quickly and leaves me feeling unsatisfied.

Beneath layers of gothic organs and heavy metal guitars, Microphone is Ayu’s love letter to music. In a voice that ranges from whispery to just short of booming, she speaks to her music openly, much like one would a lover. The most powerful message of the song is in the chorus: “Pushed by gravity, attracted by a force of nature/ It was inevitable that I should meet you/ I can’t defy any of it/ I can only admire you/ Because I know I’m not myself/ Without you.” I believe this is a standout track on the album because of a tempestuous rock instrumental and Ayu’s signature confessional-style lyrics. Plus, we get a clear message from Ayu that she’s not leaving any time soon.

If you remember the title track from Ayu’s ninth studio album GUILTY, then you’ll be familiar with the kind of ominous, punishing rock that comprises count down. The song begins with a foreboding piano line, after which Ayu sings cryptically about the depression she felt around the time she went deaf in her left ear. I like this song mostly because I’m fond of the dark, heavy rock style that it’s done in, and having said that, I’d say this is certainly worth at least one listen.

I find Sunset ~LOVE is ALL~ to be pretty, and I like it to an extent. It’s a bit on the melancholy side, but it still maintains its breezy summer feel. This is probably because I’ve seen the PV for it a few times, but whenever I hear this song, I think of the glow of a sunset. I guess it’s hard for me to get into Sunset because, although pretty, it ultimately fails to stand out among Ayu’s massive repertoire of ballads. Long story short, this song is a little bland, but worth a shot anyway.

BALLAD is one of my favorite tracks from this era, and certainly my favorite A-side, because it has a distinct style without ever getting showy or overwrought for the sake of being so. I always enjoy Ayu’s forays into “Oriental”-type songs because she handles them very well, and this is no exception. Ayu matches her voice to the sad but beautiful instrumental by singing with smoldering emotion, reaching a beautiful climax at the end. The music itself is excellent; I adore the dramatic Asian arrangement, especially the part in the instrumental break where the drums come in. To prevent myself from rambling further, let me just say that I really love this song and consider it a surefire standout track.

I’ve heard a lot of people complain about Last Links being boring, which is something I don’t entirely agree with. If you remember It was, an album-only track from Ayu’s 2007 album Secret, then you’ll have a reference point for this song. Both are fairly mellow rock songs, although Last Links is more dramatic by comparison. I wouldn’t say this is an outstanding track on this album, much less in Ayu’s discography, but it has a nice melody and a pleasant rock band sound. This may be one of those songs you have to listen to in order to form an opinion.

montage, an interlude, lives up to its title, forming a collage of different classical styles, ranging from  grand gothic Phantom of the Opera style organs to a more fanciful Baroque section. It’s an interesting idea to toy with, but it seems a bit shallow to shove all of these genres into an interlude less than 2 minutes long. I’d describe this interlude as outwardly grandiose, but hollow on the inside.

I think the placement of Don’t look back smack dab in the middle of this album is symbolically fitting on a few levels. The song is clearly a testament to Ayumi’s career and how she’s passed the point of no return, but I think it’s also a message to the listener that they’ve committed themselves to giving the album a full listen. I enjoy the way Don’t look back explores a sound that’s new for Ayumi, with some middle Eastern elements layered over an electronic drumbeat. Another upside to this song is that it’s very catchy, so that the listener doesn’t have to delve too deeply into the meaning of the lyrics if he or she doesn’t want to. I definitely would say that this is a standout track on the album because it does handle that balancing act quite well.

I was about to remark on how Ayumi clearly loves interludes a bit too much, but then Jump! ended up being my favorite of the three. It begins with a plunking 8-bit beat and synths with Ayu ad-libbing over it, and then some disembodied male voices shouting Jump! Jump! Jump! over and over again. It’s a bit strange so I know that not everyone will feel the same way about this interlude, but since I do like it I think it’s worth a try.

Lady Dynamite is definitely the first full-fledged party song of Rock’n’Roll Circus. I think it’s refreshing, in a largely dark and dramatic rock album, that one glam-rock track would be included to lighten it up. Ayu puts a lot of flair and attitude into her performance, which makes this song easy get into.

Want to hear Ayumi’s tenth album, NEXT LEVEL, in under four minutes? Say no more. Sexy little things has you covered. This tongue-in-cheek 8-bit number manages to sum up all the sounds and themes of Ayumi’s previous studio album in just 3 minutes and 58 seconds. Maybe one of her best girl-power anthems, Ayu manages to sneer at you while still appearing lovely under a veneer of cuteness. I really like the unique electro-swing sound this song has, and that it never sacrifices substance for style.

I’m pretty sure Sunrise ~LOVE is ALL~ has grown on me a lot since I first heard it last August. Everything about this song – the bright synths, the catchy beat, the chorus and the fan cheers in the background – are just perfect for a nice, sunny mood. Great beach song!

Of all the songs that could have been put in this part of the album, meaning of Love kind of comes out of left field. It’s a sweet, cute, optimistic love ballad, of which Ayu already has plenty in her discography. I’m going to go ahead and say that this is probably the least interesting song on the album. It really only needs one listen (perhaps even less) for you to get the gist.

Back when I reviewed You were… in January, I pretty much said it was a nice, but formulaic Ayu winter ballad. This hasn’t changed. Please don’t take this as me not liking the song, because I do. It’s quite pretty and the lyrics are heartbreaking. My only complaint is that it’s not exactly groundbreaking in the context of Ayu’s discography. Oh well, though.

It took me until I heard RED LINE ~for TA~ (album version) as the ending track for this album for me to really grow to love it, and now I have. RED LINE is a touching, uplifting song dedicated to her fans, and it really has a nice feel to it. The album version isn’t very different from the original, until the very end, which has some extended la la la‘s and Ayu singing a cappella. It’s a really nice touch and it does a good job of bringing closure to the album.

Summary: It seems like Ayu wasn’t joking when she said she had come “full circle,” because with this album, it shows. As opposed to her 2009 album NEXT LEVEL, which dealt mainly with electronica and a smattering of ballads, Rock’n’Roll Circus is a much more mixed bag stylistically. Its songs run the gamut from unexciting to brilliant, and as such I think it’s a more stimulating listen albeit not her best work. Lyrically, Rock’n’Roll Circus makes more sense in the context of her career than any of her other albums except perhaps Duty, which is what makes it really stand out for me. Long story short, I think this is a good, accessible album with some nice songs on it, but don’t be expecting an I am…~part 2~.

Album Grade: A-
Recommended Tracks:
BALLAD
| Sexy little things | Don’t look back | RED LINE ~for TA~ (album version)

2 thoughts on “Album Review: Ayumi Hamasaki – “Rock’n’Roll Circus”

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