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Friday, 5 June 2009

[Review] Professional review of NEXT LEVEL album from Yesasia

Another year means another album from Japanese pop diva Ayumi Hamasaki. This being her 10th album in ten years, Avex is pulling out all the stops for Next Level, offering four different types of packaging for the album. One of them is even a 2GB flash drive that includes the album in MP3 format. Talk about overblown marketing.

But overblown is perfectly okay when the scale of the music easily matches Avex's marketing effort. Once again produced by Max Matsuura, Next Level is mostly comprised of a long chain of electronic instruments-driven upbeat songs to keep up with the themes of elevation and progression. While a landmark such as a musician's 10th album always seem to signal some kind of change in that musician's music, Hamasaki's team doesn't seem to care to change, producing essentially the same brand of energetic, mass audience-friendly pop that has kept her popular and relevant. However, by carrying on a unified tone and consistent energy from the beginning, Matsuura and Hamasaki have perfected their formula and produced what is easily one of the most entertaining J-pop albums of 2009.

Unlike the usual J-pop albums, which simply group up a mix of singles and side tracks with little concern for any kind of a consistent tone, the team behind Next Level actually builds a very consistent energy throughout the album through the use of interludes. The album immediately acknowledges its electronic influence with opening interlude Bridge to the Sky (Track 1) and titular track NEXT LEVEL (Track 2). The two songs slowly build up the energy that will carry through much of the album. Even though there isn't much of a composition for either of the opening tracks, their success in building its atmosphere makes up for the lazy songwriting.

That can apply to a number of songs in Next Level, as the upbeat dance tracks divide nicely into two emphases - composition-based, which puts songwriting first as its priority, and atmosphere-based, which puts production first. However, neither category should suggest anything in the way of criticism, since dance songs are more about provoking a certain feeling through the general atmosphere than through the musical notes. In this case, the dance songs on Next Level certainly achieve that. One of those songs is Sparkle (Track 5), a roller coaster of a dance song that completely relies on the bombastic arrangement by CMJK to slowly build up its energy and release it in an effective, head-spinning dose. Another song light on actual songwriting is Rule (Track 10), the theme song for the live-action Dragonball film. Even though it features a repetitive chorus that borders on irritating and a lazily-written verse, it has more energy and attitude in its 4 minutes than all 86 minutes of the film.

The composition-based dance songs are also fairly strong and naturally more memorable, though their compositions are sometimes overwhelmed by their bombastic arrangements. However, the strangely-titled EnergizE (Track 4) does manage to find that balance. The most interesting thing about EnergizE is that Yuta Nakano's composition is in the style of a bubble gum pop song that could've easily been sung by Ai Otsuka or any of the Morning Musume girls. Instead, CMJK's arrangement mixes rock and electronic elements together, giving the song a broader and obviously more ambitious sound than it may have intended to fit Hamasaki's more mature image. Because the sound fits just right with the arrangement of the other dance songs, EnergizE surprisingly feels right at home in Next Level.

Matuura's wisest decision on Next Level is to place the album's two obligatory ballads at the end, keeping the energy of the dance song consistent. Though the two ballads don't quite belong on the album, they're still solid songs on their own terms. Days (Track 13) is a typical commercial ballad with an affecting composition by Kunio Tago (who also wrote Together When on Hamasaki's last album Guilty) and a grandiose arrangement that's perfectly fitting for a pop diva like Hamasaki. In comparison to Together When, the relatively simpler and smoother composition makes for a more attractive commercial ballad, and it allows more room for Hamasaki to give a more emotional vocal performance that avoids the heavy vibrato that plagued her vocal performance on her last album. Next Level also closes on a poignant note with Curtain Call (Track 14), by far the quietest song on the album, and also the song that relies the heaviest on Hamasaki's vocal. Even though Curtain Call feels more like an interlude than an independent song, it's a surprisingly appropriate ending for a dance album like Next Level.

For such an important milestone, Next Level is a considerably lighter album than Guilty and also surprisingly lacking in ambition. One can even argue that Hamasaki's team is using this only as a celebration album, giving it the energy of a remix album and plenty of potential for more grand stage performances at her future concert tours. With a nice balance between arrangement, composition, and vocals, even Hamasaki's detractors will find something to appreciate about Next Level. Perhaps that's the best compliment one can give for any pop album, and certainly one that Next Level deserves. 

Recommended Tracks: NEXT LEVEL (Track 2), EnergizE (Track 4), Sparkle (Track 5), Rule (Track 10), Days (Track 13), Curtain Call (Track 14) 

by Kevin Ma
Original source: Yesasia.com

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