Ayumi Hamasaki’s 11th album
25th March 2009
It blows my mind how quickly Ayumi Hamasaki seems to come out with new music, especially considering the number of tracks she puts onto each album, the number of remixes on each of her singles, and her slew of remix albums (holy crap, this woman loves remixes). I first became a fan around when her Memorial Address mini-album was releasing and it seems not so long ago that My Story came out in 2004. Since then, I can’t say I’ve been very good about keeping up with her releases, partially because my interest shifted to j-rock and indie for a while, but her contribution to Dragonball Evolution piqued my interest again, even if I didn’t think Ayu had any chance of saving a destined-to-be-terrible movie. “Rule” was a pretty fun single, and I thought it suited the energy of the subject matter pretty well (or, well, it suited the source material). It wasn’t super impressive, but I think it was only a matter of time before I went and checked out this album. The name NEXT LEVEL is also pretty Dragonball-ish, don’t you think?
TRACK 01: Bridge to the sky
Calming intro for all of a moment, then an uprising steady beat that grows into an ensemble of various sounds backed by a nice techno beat. Lots of sustained vocals and a gradual crescendo seem to be leading into something big. The techno gets more pronounced and then– silence. Clearly, this is an intro track for the rest of the album. Honestly, I’ve never been a huge fan of intro tracks because they’re awkward when you don’t play them with the rest of the album in album order (like when you put things on shuffle), but when you are listening to the album straight through, they’re pretty nice.
TRACK 02: NEXT LEVEL (Youtube it)
Starts off with a confident piano soon to be accompanied by keyboards and the stray guitar. Vocals start rather unimpressively and I’m kind of more interested in the background music than the lyrics or melody. Gets better as she leads into the chorus, which has some nice energy. I’m a sucker for when lyrics roll together smoothly, like there are no real breaks in between the words. Some nice keyboard and guitar in the break before the second verse. The beginning of the second verse is again less interesting, but it recovers faster this time. The melody for the chorus is definitely the best part of the song thus far, though I don’t think this is a good example of Ayumi’s vocal prowess; her voice sounds rather plain in this, honestly. Bridge and final round of choruses don’t change much — outro is the same piano, keyboard, and stray guitar, and it slowly leads to the end.
TRACK 03: Disco-munication
Weird buzzing intro followed by what sounds like a traditional Japanese instrument and video game noises, like you’re leveling up or something (lol, get it?). Lots of distortion and techno sounds: pretty fun stuff. I swear that’s the Mario leveling up sound. Oh, hm. Then it ends. This is another super short track (1:32) and is all instrumental. Kind of jarring really; I wasn’t expecting that. Okay.
TRACK 04: EnergizE (YouTube it)
Percussion intro accompanied by more video game and spacey sounds. Vocals start off in English — hey, Ayumi’s English has gotten a lot better since I last heard it! That didn’t sound nearly as accented and awkward as I remember! First chorus is very energetic and catchy and I like the tempo. Leads into the chorus really well. The cymbals in the chorus are a lot of fun; hell, the percussion and background in this is great in general. Hm, her vocals seem less energetic in the second verse, especially compared to the music itself, but it recovers in the second chorus. Bridge is a mishmash of electronic sounds and distortion — kind of a trippy, weird, even foreboding mood. Third chorus makes me think of DDR all of a sudden. This would be a good song to dance to. More English leading out to the end. Good song.
TRACK 05: Sparkle (YouTube it)
“Sparkle” was on the same single as “Rule,” but I don’t think I ever listened to it. Starts off slowly and rather menacing. Vocals are low and quiet before exploding suddenly with noise, power, and energy. Ayumi sounds particularly badass here: kind of awesome. Second verse is quiet again before next chorus, which adds more distortion and chaotic background noise. Actually, this would be a great song for some kind of action movie. Quiet portions remind me of cops or detectives sneaking around in the dark of a alleyway before everything explodes into a gunfight. Bridge is even more foreboding and the “no, no, no”s definitely add an extra punch. Just noticed that the lyrics in this song are pretty fun too. Wow, this is a pretty long bridge — can’t say it’s not awesome though. The extra distortion makes the lead-up to the final chorus even more exciting. Final chorus distorts some of the vocals as well and the “no, no, no”s carry it to the end.
TRACK 06: Rollin’
Quiet intro. Pause. Silence. Cue techno intro. Love the electronic sounds here, and there’s a howling rising in the back as well. Distorted vocals sound very robotic. Less distorted vocals sound oddly spacey. Chorus is buried behind lots more distortion and keyboards, but it sounds really interesting. The odd howling crescendos to the space between the chorus and second verse. Hm. This song is pretty hard to follow along and describe; the distortion is very strong throughout and goes back and forth between overlapping the vocals and diving under them. It’s a very sci-fi song and encourages very spacey imagery, like someone escaping an exploding space station or something while getting shot at by bots. I really like it. :P Weird outro!
TRACK 07: GREEN
Huh. I feel like I’ve heard the melody in this intro before. That’s weird. Classic Ayumi vocals start the first verse accompanied by oddly naturalistic percussion in the background. This song feels a lot more like her older works, I think, though the melody and her voice aren’t nearly as delicate feeling. Chorus feels like its narrating some kind of epic: some old guy climbing over a mountain to come home. Verses feel like they’re detailing the down portions of the story, all the little things before the final stretch. Bridge also gives a rather epic feeling. Third chorus is earnest but forceful, re-emphasizing the protagonist’s feats once more. Outro repeats one of the verses and fades out — nice and effective.
TRACK 08: Load of the SHUGYO
Kind of a menacing or dark intro. Percussion sounds like its punching someone. Brief silence… then some rockin’ guitars and a much more energetic melody, though its still rather “dark” feeling. I feel like we’re sneaking into some kind of ancient temple where warriors are training. More guitars. Then silence. Oh, it’s another short track. Man, these things really throw me off! I’m not really paying attention to track lengths, oi. Still, this track might me my favorite of the shorts thus far; it’s very exciting.
TRACK 09: identity
Creepy sort of intro, but it breaks very quickly into what I feel is video game music — classic arcade fighter. Specifically, it reminds me of Guilty Gear. Vocals are confident and forceful, commanding attention. Chorus feels like a challenge: very strong and well, challenging. More video game-sounding rifts lead into the second verse, which holds a swaggering sort of melody though there’s also a note of anticipation and unease. Bridge is electronic and distorted in a tensioned way. More electronic noises and vocal distortion lead into the third and fourth choruses. This really would make a good fight song, lol. Lots of loud, noisy guitars take us to the end.
TRACK 10: Rule (YouTube it)
Harsh sort of opening, this has. I’m not particular fond of the melody or the quality of the opening vocals, which sound kind of strained and airy. The distortion put on it in the first verse don’t really help either; I get the impression that she’s forcing it too much. Lead up to the second chorus (the song starts in chorus) is kind of flimsy as well though the energy is definitely there. Distortion in the second verse feels a little better. Build-up to the third chorus also feels more genuine… I think I just don’t like the choruses? They’re the weakest part of the song. Bridge is fun: lots of energy, feels like there’s lots on the line — definitely suits Dragonball. I’m fond of the guitars near the end, simple as they are.
TRACK 11: LOVE ‘n’ HATE
Odd intro… starts with a quiet, mysterious kind of mood then changes into a very distorted and kind of dark countdown that skips from seven to zero. Oh… really like the vocal intro though. It’s fast-paced and the lyrics are strung together very nicely. The electronica in the background is a lot of fun and mixes really well with the vocals. Countdown resumes before the second verse — really drives an uncomfortable (in a good way?) and urgent mood into the song. Bridge and ending choruses are really catchy if slightly repetitive. Countdown resumes again near the end and it fades out just before the very clear “zero.”
TRACK 12: Pieces of SEVEN (YouTube it)
Feels like another video game intro — a quieter stage. Reminds me of the hilly or creepy mystical levels of the classic, 2D Sonic games. Haha, actually, the title of this song suits that — seven Chaos Emeralds, amirite? Intro leads into some keyboards that sustain the mystical and mysterious mood. This is followed by some more electronic techno and more high-tech imagery; it starts getting more and more urgent and face-paced. Looks like we’ve leveled up to some of the roboticized and technologically conquered stages, eh? Ah, another fully instrumental track, though this one is the longest of the lot — probably the last of them also. Maybe this one will be my favorite over “Load of the SHUGYO” though the Sonic-related imagery I got might have something to do with that.
TRACK 13: Days
Calming sort of keyboard/piano intro.. leads into a more dramatic melody. Feels like one of those “end of the movie” tracks. Vocals are very sincere and urgent sounding. Lyrics are pretty sweet as well… I feel like I’ve heard this before, though I think it’s just that the feeling I get from the melody is very reminiscent of many other love songs. Not that that’s a bad thing, really — it’s just a very classic feeling. Reminds me again of the older Ayu songs I’m still so fond of. I like the word repetition in the verses: feels good. Bridge is conclusively dramatic; it definitely feels like the end of a romance, though I can’t tell if the it’s a happy or sad ending. It just feels conclusive, kind of bittersweet. The melody and vocals are really powerful, which is pretty different from every other song on this album, which is heavily electronic. Nice song all around.
TRACK 14: Curtain call
Another quiet piano intro accompanied by calming vocals that doesn’t sound all that much like Ayumi actually… might have something to do with the tempo. Even the previous song wasn’t this slow; it’s interesting. Piano is very prominent here and sometimes sounds more interesting than the vocal melody, which wavers a lot. Bridge and third chorus start getting more epic with a steady rise of sustained voices in the back. Piano and tentative vocals bring it to the end. I’m not sure I like the melody much here, but the mood and piano really was a great way to end an otherwise super energetic album.
OVERALL: This was actually a lot better than I thought it would be. “Rule” was the first Ayu song I’d heard in a long time and since it didn’t particularly impress me, I wasn’t expecting all that much from this album. But there are so many great songs here! All of the short instrumental tracks, while unexpected, were great and catchy, especially the latter two. Many of the tracks including “Sparkle,” “Rollin’,” and “GREEN” offered great imagery and were pretty darn exciting songs in themselves. Honestly, any of them would probably have made better movie theme songs than “Rule,” but I guess it’s just as well that a lesser quality song should accompany a lesser quality movie… not that any of Ayumi Hamasaki’s songs deserve to be compared to Dragonball Evolution. >_> NEXT LEVEL also rounded out things nicely with the last two tracks; “Days” and “Curtain call” were both sweet songs that balanced out the scores of techno and electronic in the other songs. It’s a good demonstration of Ayu’s two greatest strengths, and I’m glad that the whimsical love songs of old haven’t been drowned out completely by the distortion. Regardless of whether you’re an old fan or a new fan, I’d definitely recommend checking this album out. Totally worth it.