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)

PV Review: Ayumi Hamasaki – “Microphone,” “Sexy little things,” “Lady Dynamite,” “Don’t look back”

All right, so the last of the PVs for Ayumi Hamasaki’s new album, Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus (due out on 4/14) has been released, and so here I will compile them and tell you what I think about them.

I’m reviewing these in the order they were released, by the way. So yeah. Let’s do this.

Microphone

Only the preview. Sorry guys! Once the full PV is posted on Ayu’s YouTube channel, I’ll edit it in here.

My first thought upon watching this PV is that it’s very dramatic. There are a lot of striking, seemingly unrelated images, such as a contortionist, a man wielding a dagger, a woman and a girl with identical haircuts in front of a castle, and of course, Ayu wearing a huge black couture dress. There’s also this really cool effect that makes the video look kind of like an iPod Touch commercial, with Ayu’s superbly manicured finger sweeping across the screen every so often. One thing many people might be turned off by is that Ayu is being her dramatic self, flailing all about and basically over-acting it. I didn’t mind because the weird awesomeness of the rest of the video makes up for it. Either way, I’d try it out because the song is pretty beast.

And then, at the very end, it’s revealed that the one who was manipulating the video on a portable player the whole time…

Sexy little things

… was Sexy Ayu, the star of the next PV!
So Ayu comes out in this super hot red and black ensemble, being fierce and lip-syncing to an 8-bit inspired song. This is the video that started the whole Ayu-is-copying-Gaga shitstorm, which, let me tell you, is bullshit. Yeah, people wear crazy clothes in this video. Yeah, the song is electronic. And yes, it takes place in a white room. That does not mean it’s copying fucking “Bad Romance” or that Ayu is trying to rip Gaga off. Seriously, all you crazed Gaga stans out there, you need to step the fuck down.
The thing I like about this PV is that, even though the song is very similar to “my name’s WOMEN” in terms of lyrical content, it doesn’t take such a literal approach. It’s basically Ayu being fierce and saying, “I may be wearing pretty clothes, but I’m not stupid and I’m most certainly not going to let you think that I am.” So take that. Watch the video, listen to the song, and appreciate.

Lady Dynamite

OH MY GOD IS THAT HARD GAY!?
I keed, I keed. The above video basically consists of two things: Ayu in a room surrounded by gay men, and Ayu singing to the camera with a lollipop in her hands. There’s definitely a feeling of pseudo-provocativeness pervading this PV, and for the most part it seems genuine. As with a lot of Ayu’s videos lately, she seems to try too hard sometimes, but I think this video stops just short of going from sassy to trashy. (Oh man, what a horribly cliché rhyme that was. Sorry about that, guys. Lol.)

Don’t look back

EDIT: Now also only the preview. THESE VIDEOS ARE GETTING REMOVED FAST, DAMMIT.

This is, in my opinion, the most visually interesting of all four new PVs. It starts with Ayu sitting at a table in a white dress, with very stark, Takarazuka-esque makeup, and then laughing and smiling in front of a mural of the A BEST 2 -Black- cover with some large, scary red slashes on it. The latter image immediately calls to mind the cover of Namie Amuro’s PAST < FUTURE. A lot of the video suggests a struggle for Ayu to be rid of her former self as an artist, but some slightly over-acted crying scenes imply that said struggle is not over. It’s a thought-provoking video, and some of the shots of Ayu with short hair are gorgeous.

Well, having watched all of Ayumi’s new promotional videos, I’m thoroughly excited for the album. Hope you guys enjoyed!

Single Review: Ayumi Hamasaki – “You were…/BALLAD”

Tracklist:
1. You were…
2. BALLAD
3. RED LINE ~for TA~
4. You were… (Music Box Mix)
5. Sunset ~LOVE is ALL~ (Orchestra Version)
6. You were… (Instrumental)
7. BALLAD (Instrumental)
8. RED LINE ~for TA~ (Instrumental)

This is Ayumi Hamasaki forty-seventh single. It was released on December 29, 2010, and has sold 108,620 copies.

Um, can I just say ten thousand times better than S/S? I mean, anything’d be better than those covers at this point, but still.

~

It’s that time of year again! Once winter rolls around, Ayu never fails to have a sparkly, wintry ballad up her sleeve. Enter You were…, a twinkling winter power ballad. It’s kind of like an amalgamation of all of Ayu’s best-known winter songs – CAROLS, Together When… and, in particular, 2008’s Days – in that they all have similar qualities, such as piano, rock guitars, and winter bells. That said, this song was a bit of a disappointment initially, but Ayu sounds pretty good and the lyrics are really nice.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is BALLAD, a grandiose Oriental ballad that’s the true gem of this single. This song features a sweeping arrangement and a melody that’s remarkably similar to that of one of Ayu’s older songs, theme of a-nation ’03, and to tell you the truth, it’s absolutely gorgeous. A number of factors, like the Chinese-inspired music to Ayu’s lovely vibrato, make this one of her best ballads since JEWEL. That last note she hits is brilliant too.

RED LINE ~for TA~ is an “uplifting” song inspired by and dedicated to Ayumi’s official fan club, Team Ayu, and it’s a really nice song. It’s got a sunny melody and a catchy hook, which makes it really enjoyable. A couple people have compared this song to teddy bear, off of Ayu’s 2000 album Duty, but I really don’t see it. It really warms my heart that Ayumi would dedicate a song to her fans.

Next we have the music box version of You were…. It’s pretty nice, but it bored me a bit, to be honest. I’m told that Ayu recorded a new vocal track for this version, but it doesn’t sound all that different to me. I dunno. I think this was just a bit unnecessary.

I really liked the original version of Sunset ~LOVE is ALL~, but the orchestra version is just as pretty. Not that much has changed between the two versions, but this one is nice all the same.

Summary: I feel like I’ve said just about all I can say about this single. Overall it was a fairly pleasant experience, since both BALLAD and RED LINE ~for TA~ were as easy on the ears as any song Ayu’s ever made. There’s no question that I could have done without the mediocre You were… and the unnecessary rearranged versions, but neither one is bad or boring enough to cheapen the two best songs the single.

Single Grade: B+

Album Review: Ayumi Hamasaki – “Memorial Address”

Tracklist:
1. Angel’s Song
2. Greatful days
3. Because of You
4. Ourselves
5. Hanabi ~episode II~ (Fireworks ~episode II~)
6. No Way to Say
7. forgiveness
8. Memorial address (take 2 version)

Ayumi Hamasaki’s first and only mini-album was released on December 17, 2003. It reached #1 on Oricon and has sold 1,062,297 copies to date.

Even from the first few seconds of the first track on this album, Angel’s Song, we can tell that we are about to embark on a J-Pop journey in the style of Ayumi Hamasaki. Boastng a  majestic opening that leads into a song that is distinctly pop – the cascading synths are simply heavenly (pun definitely intended) – but whose melody carries a hint of melancholy just strong enough to remind the listener of who they’re listening to. At the risk of rambling further, I’ll simply say that this is pop music at its best.

Greatful days is, at least in my opinion, the weak link on this particular EP (referred to here as a mini-album), and though it’s not horrible or anything, it’s nothing special either. This is the very epitome of the “summer song” – we’re talking break out the beach balls and bikinis, we’re heading to the beach type summer. Mostly, it tries to prolong the high brought on by the previous track, but instead falls short. That said, the music is as one would expect, and Ayu’s cutesy vocals often waver between endearing and irritating. And although the chorus is catchy, the verses are… uncomfortably not so. More often than not, I end up skipping this one.

Whoever decided on placing Because of You at this juncture in the mini-album has made himself an ally. With a startling rock arrangement, Ayumi weaves a dark and obsessive love story, the lyrics reading like a one-sided fairy tale gone wrong. The harmonies in this song are top-notch – layered over crashing guitar riffs and twinkling piano, the result is equal parts haunting and gorgeous. It can’t be anyone but you, Ayumi cries. Oh, but Ayu, don’t you know we feel the same way about you?

Ourselves keeps with the same basic feeling, bringing us into a world where it’s okay if no one else in the world understands – only you and I have to know about “us”. A beating of a hollow drum and distant piano create an atmosphere of isolation, when Ayumi croons over a winding melody. The only thing that has meaning in the end, she insists, has got to be love. The chorus repeats hypnotically for several more times before the song comes to an end. A very satisfying listen.

Of all of Ayumi’s “paired” songs (Friend & Friend II, Powder Snow & P.S. II, HANABI & Hanabi ~episode II~), the Hanabi couple probably wins in overall quality. In HANABI, Ayumi is in a state of constant remembrance – now, in Hanabi ~episode II~, she wants only to forget. A rock song, Ayumi’s vocals are wistful and heartbreaking, soaring above guitars and accompanied by peculiar but brilliant male background vocals. Interestingly enough, this is also the only song of the two whose lyrics make actual mention of fireworks. Better than the original, you ask? Quite possibly.

On every album ever released by Miss Hamasaki, there is at least one wintry ballad. At this point in her career, this is practically a rule. That’s where No Way To Say comes into play. It’s an unassuming ballad by Ayu standards, with the requisite twinkling keyboards and a melody so predictable it borders on boring. Her vocals are pristine and simple, avoiding the gratuitous vibrato that would come to plague her later recordings (I’m looking at you, “Sunset ~LOVE is ALL~”). The good news is that, while No Way may not exactly be the cream of the crop amongst Ayu’s ballads, in no way is it bad. It’s also the closest any song on this mini-album comes to being filler. Score.

Forgiveness keeps with the ballad trend, offering what might be Ayumi’s most poetic foray into English lyrics since everywhere nowhere. Beginning with a diminutive piano line and some strings, Ayu’s voice is virtually a whisper, and a beautiful one at that, something her more recent ballads could only dream of. Beginning in the pre-chorus is a buildup that expands into a grandiose chorus and beautiful bridge that’s only in English. The lyrics, “War and destruction / Crime and desire / But I wanted only keep my love”, are pure poetry, showcasing Ayumi’s talent for lyrical expression no matter what the language. If you skip any songs on this mini-album, do not let it be this one.

The final song and title track, Memorial Address, is one of the most emotionally-driven songs Ayu has ever recorded, even to this day. The first half consists solely of Ayumi’s voice and a piano, putting the lyrics center stage. At approximately the 1:35 mark, a full rock band is introduced, causing Ayu to damn near scream to be heard over it. It is a perfectly flawed performance. The song ends poignantly just as it began, with just Ayu and her piano.

Summary: With some of her recent releases that sometimes border on over-indulgent and gratuitous in their complexity, Memorial Address serves as a reminder of the time when Ayumi was once able to release something short, sweet and above all, concise. The upbeat tracks are uplifting, the rock songs driving, and the ballads moving. For first-time listeners, this is a great example of Ayu’s capabilites as a lyricist and vocalist, offering up virtually every genre she’s ever tried. As the best-selling mini-album ever in J-Pop, one can rightfully doubt if Ayu, let alone anyone will ever be able to replicate the success of Memorial Address. But it will forever go on as one of the last shining moments of the apex of Ayu’s career.

Album Grade: A+

Single Review: Ayumi Hamasaki – “Sunrise / Sunset ~LOVE is ALL~”

CD-only version

Tracklist:
1. Sunrise ~LOVE is ALL~ (Original mix)
2. Sunset ~LOVE is ALL~ (Original mix)
3. “fairyland-glitter-BLUE BIRD-Greatful days-July 1st” Mega-Mash-Up Mix
4. Sunrise ~LOVE is ALL~ (Original mix -Instrumental-)
5. Sunset ~LOVE is ALL~ (Original mix -Instrumental-)

I’m ba~ck!
Ayumi Hamasaki’s forty-sixth single was released on August 12, 2009. It reached #1 on the Oricon Weekly Chart and has sold 75,352 copies so far. The first A-side, Sunrise ~LOVE is ALL~, was used as the opening theme for the TV drama Dandy Daddy?.

Sunrise ~LOVE is ALL~ is everything you’d expect from an Ayu summer song, but with a twist – it’s her most electronic song since Sparkle, and it doesn’t go soft on the strong synths and drumbeats. Despite this, it manages to sound pretty rockish during the chorus. There’s even a section that’s sung by a group of fans, which is cool. The melody sounded like it was settled comfortably into Ayu’s range, and the result is a very nice and strong-sounding vocal performance. Overall, this is a very nice song and should settle nicely into the succession of summer songs by Ayu.

I have a great fondness for Sunset ~LOVE is ALL~. It uses the exact same melody as its counterpart, but transforms it into a beautiful ballad. Aside from the fact that this song is extremely pretty albeit a bit typical-Ayu-ballad sounding, it also brings to light Ayumi’s skills as a lyricist. Writing two songs to fit the same melody while giving them very different overall feelings is no easy feat. I even believe Ayumi said that the theme of Sunrise was “you”, and Sunset is “me”. I found this to be verylove is all 2interesting and it helped enhance the feeling of duality between the two songs.

Here we have “fairyland-glitter-BLUE BIRD-Greatful days-July 1st” Mega-Mash-Up Mix, a mashup of every summer song Ayumi has ever released. I’ve must say, I’m a bit surprised that it took until now for a megamix of this size to come about. Considering how similar the songs are in lyrical content and overall vibes, they sound fantastic when mixed together. For whatever reason, the BLUE BIRD section sounded especially pretty and was probably the part I enjoyed most other than the brilliant instrumental breakdown toward the end. All things considered, this definitely did not disappoint.

Summary: As a really, really big Ayumi Hamasaki fan, I tend to look forward to each single she puts out, no matter what. There was some negative attention surrounding this particular release, based primarily on the covers (which are omgwtfhideous, I admit). However, much to my relief, it ended up not being a bad single by any means. Both A-sides are clearly meant to be summer anthems in their own different ways, and they do a very good job. Adding to the summery theme of the single is the megamix which includes all of Ayu’s summer songs, a very nice touch. Overall, I can’t really bring myself to criticize this single. I can only continue to wish the best for Ayu.

Single Grade: A

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

Ayumi Hamasaki – 3 New PVs

Three new promotional videos – for songs “NEXT LEVEL”, “Sparkle”, and “Curtain Call” – have been released to promote Ayumi Hamasaki’s new album, Next Level, which will be released on 3/25/09.
Let’s take a looksee, shall we?

“NEXT LEVEL”

For starters, this is a really nice PV. The song is fairly calm and breezy sounding, and the pretty imagery of Ayu driving a car through a scenic desert compliments it nicely. Some people have said this video is boring. I don’t really think so. For this particular song, I doubt anything else would have worked. One thing I’d really like to know is WHERE this PV was shot, because it looks an awful lot to me like California or someone else really rich in beautiful scenery.

“Sparkle”

Y u do dis Ayu? You take a perfectly great song and turn it into this psychedelic PV that makes no sense. Alright, so that’s not entirely fair. The beginning is actually really cute – Ayumi is a contestant on a karaoke show, and the song she’s chosen to sing is, you guessed it, Ayumi Hamasaki’s “Sparkle”. So she starts to sing and it’s all perfectly adorable, and then all the sudden it turns into SUPER SEXED-UP AYU TIEM with latex and gas masks and red padded cells and all sorts of weirdness. Ayu is obviously taking some major cues from Lady GaGa on this one, and it’s kind of hilarious ’cause she’s pretty of dead-on. The PV ends by returning to the original karaoke program, where Ayu receives a round of generous applause. Just a day in the life.

“Curtain Call”

Of the trifecta of videos Ayumi has released in the past week, “Curtain Call” is by far my favorite. I’m just a huge sucker for Ayu’s piano ballads. But in addition to the song itself being awesome, the simplicity of the video is a sight to behold. Basically, the PV consists of Ayu walking barefoot through what looks like a movie set, through various types of “weather”, such as rain, snow, and even a shower of sparks. I also cannot overlook how stunningly gorgeous Ayumi looks, with her hair pulled back and wearing a simple but elegant black dress. This is one of the best Ayu PVs I’ve seen in quite a while, simply by virtue of it being simple and gorgeous. Definitely, in my opinion, deserving of a standing ovation.