NEXT LEVEL was Ayumi Hamasaki’s 10th studio album. It was released on March 25, 2009 and reached no. 1 on the Oricon Charts with 240,810 copies sold. This is her lowest first week sales of any studio album but with physical sales declining and digital sales increasing it’s to be expected. This album was released in 4 versions, a CD edition, CD+DVD edition, 2CD+DVD edition, and a 2GB USB flash drive.
1. Bridge to the sky
2. NEXT LEVEL
8. Load of the SHUGYO
11. LOVE ‘n’ HATE
12. Pieces of SEVEN
14. Curtain call
It’s no surprise that opening the album is the heavenly introduction entitled Bridge to the sky.It’s a short intro that’s heavenly and ethereal, very calming altogether. The elegant synth riffs and electronic distortions really go well together, creating an up-tempo musical sensation. A magical opening that sets the beginning tone.
Following a magical intro is the title track NEXT LEVEL. The music surprisingly follows the intro in terms of genre and style. It’s up-tempo and up-beat not to mention just plain fun. The music is a mixture of up-tempo synth and electronic beats, and the occasional light percussion and guitar. This time around Ayu’s vocals aren’t as beautiful but they certainly sound refreshing compared to her muffled and distorted vocals, they’re reminiscent of BLUE BIRD actually. The music moved pretty quickly overall and the transitions were excellent. The chorus was pure bliss. It’s catchy, innocent, and flawless. This is one of her best title tracks in years.
Things take somewhat of an odd turn with the interlude Disco-munication. There’s nothing really exciting about this either. It’s just synth and heavy electronic distortions. I wasn’t all that crazy about the ad-libbing either. The only remotely good thing about this song is that sets the tone for the next section of the album.
The thumping beats and electronic beats really turned me off to EnergizE. It didn’t sound all that great and then Ayu’s English finished it seemingly. But I gave the song another listen and eventually the beats and heavy techno music began to grow on me. But despite the more than mediocre verses, the chorus turned out to be an explosive ride. It’s energetic, go figure, infectious and the rhythm is catchy. The slight rock elements were really great too, they probably made the song, the English lines didn’t.
The aggressive synth-techno Sparkle makes it’s mark on the album. This was perhaps Ayu’s first techno /electronic song. It’s by far one of the greatest tracks on the album. The aggressive techno beats, heavy synth music, and loud vocals really make this one of her most memorable songs in ages. Not only that but Ayu decided to tackle a different topic lyric wise. And like most of her songs it’s extremely infectious and catchy! Great rhythm and melody overall. And the PV which was released with the album was pure sex, well it was just that good.
I’m not exactly sure what Ayu was thinking when she wrote rollin’. The opening is a bit reminiscent of the carnival with the ominous music. Then the dead silence for a few seconds followed by the electronic beats? But what was the worst out of all of that was the distorted vocals. Can you say vocoder? Afterwards it did get better for the a while it sounded to boring. Things really didn’t get excited until the chorus. Things began to pickup and get a little more aggressive, music and speed wise. There were still some rock elements but most of the music was techno, not all that memorable sadly.
Luckily GREEN shows up in time to save the album from the horrendous display of techno. This is probably the oldest song on the album since it was part of the Panasonic CM back in August. It’s nostalgic in a sense with the epic oriental strings and the modern guitar riffs. The climax is the epitome of epic and regal music. It really blows most of the songs on the album away with it’s simple yet stylistic melody. And besides being a little nostalgic and oriental it does hold its own memorability wise.
Yet another interlude appears on this album. Load of the SHUGYO really made a lot of people question Ayu’s sanity on some level. I mean the name is so odd and weird that you can’t help but ask WTF??? In all seriousness though it does work as an interlude. The panting and the use of the electronic beats and techno music does prove to work. And the guitar riffs during the middle were genius, I still prefer the opening intro though.
The new identity appears after this interlude, and the interlude has done its job. You go from traditional oriental rock to aggressive punk rock. This song is more rock than anything, including techno thank god. I can’t really say much about Ayu’s vocals. I mean there was some variety but there was hardly any emotion at all. The only memorable part of this song was the chorus, which featured those same guitar riffs and some roaring instrumentals, and the wind, channeling decision to some extent are we? The whole “ID ID ID” part wasn’t all that impressive either. Such a flop.
Edginess, FIERCE, and aggressive!!! After mediocrity the album gets a well needed face lift with Rule. This will probably becomes Ayu’s biggest song outside of Japan thanks to the Dragonball movie, set to be released in April. The signature of this song is by far the muffled vocals and raging guitar riffs, and maybe even the percussion. It’s more aggressive yet by far more catchier than some of her previous songs.
Besides thinking that my computer started to lag LOVE ‘n’ HATE is really quite different. It’s a typical Ayu song but this time it’s a bit better. Besides just having average mundane guitar riffs this song utilizes the strings and various techno beats, giving it a unique sound. Although the melody is repetitive and the music isn’t all that great the song does remain catchy to some degree. The only bad part was that after the “1, 2, 3, 4…0” I was waiting for the song to pickup and become catchy, little did I know that that was the end of the chorus sadly. But I have to admit that during the bridge things got really good, it’s the only thing that saved this song.
The final interlude on this album is Pieces of SEVEN. I have to say that despite only have 6 new songs perhaps it’s best that this is an interlude. You’re going from rock to essentially ballads, and that always needs some sort of transition. That’s basically what this interlude is. It might be over two minutes long but it does a great job. The music is a little mysterious with the electronic and synth beats but with the panpipes I believe. And then suddenly after 40 seconds the song takes on a more majestic and angelic feel with the keyboard chords. But then the last minute of this interlude is just aggressive house and techno music with some guitars in the background.
Another of of Ayu’s glorious, heartfelt ballads follows. Days is still a favorite of mine today. The epic use of the strings and the guitar riffs really work well together to create a symphonic euphoria. The vocals are incredible and pure emotion. The lyrics are heartfelt and rather sad yet impressive and beautiful altogether. So touching and yet filled with so much sorrow.
The final song on this album happens to be Curtain call. First off it’s not hard to see that it’s a ballad. But unlike most ballads this one differs completely from the style. The arrangement is completely different. It’s slower paced and only features one instrumental, the piano, until the chorus. Again Ayu shows how gifted she is vocally with her lovely vocals that are strong. Honestly it was a bit boring during the first half, but afterwards it developed more emotion with a few more instrumentals as well as the the added background vocals, which made is sound a little choir gathering. I can say that it’s a wonderful song, but I just don’t think it’s all that memorable.
Overall Review: NEXT LEVEL was a new take on techno & electronica! I can honestly say that to some extent Ayu has taken her music to the NEXT LEVEL. She’s finally tackled the techno and electronic genre after many years of simple pop. I can say that after her rock inspired GUILTY it’s a nice change, although I still loved how she included a few rock songs. Honestly this album isn’t what I expected. I really wanted to hear some strong album tracks, and honestly the only one that was remotely strong was perhaps the title track NEXT LEVEL which actually had a PV, pity that it’s so soft though. Thank god for the interludes which were essential for the flow and transition. I was really expecting something amazing and explosive but all I got was a work of mediocrity. I guess after the excitement of the singles I got my hopes up too much. Sadly both GREEN and Days felt so out of place, I mean they were nothing like the the album’s new genre and style. Perhaps if there had been more stronger songs it would have been better. What a step down from GUILTY.