This Week in J-Pop: Maron Hamada, Chihiro Onitsuka, Yuu Takahashi, MUCC, Arashi

I’m 4 days late on a weekly series, there’s no excuse for that, so let’s just pretend it never happened! Since I’m not at home over the weekend next week’s post will also be at least one day late – sorry! But let’s get to this week’s singles!

Maron Hamada’s マヤカシのブルース(Mayakashi no buruusu/Betrayal Blues), Chihiro Onitsuka’s 祈りが言葉に変わる頃(Inori ga kotoba ni kawaru koro/Prayers are words shaped by time), Yuu Takahashi’s 太陽と花(Taiyou to hana/Sun and flower), MUCC’s ENDER ENDER and Arashi’s 誰も知らない(Daremo shiranai/Nobody knows)!

Maron Hamada – マヤカシのブルース

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A shining light between Japanese newcomers, Maron Hamada just recently released her first full-length effort of gloriously smoky, sensual jazz tracks. With this 4 track single, she is back for more!

The title track opens on a full Big Band sound before retracting into a downstated Jazz club atmosphere emphasized by the interplay of prominent bass, piano and brass. Continuously evolving through multiple speed and tone changes, from somber to sensual, playful scat to confident raspiness, Hamada paints herself as a capable, diverse performer – rightfully so, the song is delightful and almost entirely carried by her strong presence.

Track number two on this glorious little single, パラシュートに願いを込めて (Parashyuuto ni Negai o Gomete / Filled with wishes of parachutes) is less progressive in its instrumentation or structure, but almost equally powerful. An undercurrent, a driving force, keeps the song alive and the production is delightful, to say the least, always delivering on the beat, using sparing emphasis where appropriate.

I took some time to warm up to 始発前のダンスホール (Shihatsu mae no Dansuhaaru/The Dancehall before the first train), it feels almost alienating to hear a song that plays a “groovy” nature(a word that is fully appropriate, she even drops it in the chorus) so straight nowadays, however, it just works! Transforming an artefact style from the past into a timeless piece of unadulterated Pop magic, a talent Maron Hamada has proven to possess.

A reimagining of the title track, the 哀嬢編 (Aijyuuhen/Grieving girl volume) version of the song extends the duration to a full 7 minutes and strips it off all unnecessary decorations, leaving a melancholic skeleton that emphasises the innate duality of the song. It’s heartwrenching, especially when you contrast it with the bombast of the normal version of the song.

Maron Hamada has delivered a single that is excellent all around, about 20 minutes of flawless, timeless music, performed with all the grace, energy and emotion it deserves. The cover and the music video(an obviously DSLR-shot and heavily colourgraded homage to Film Noir) further emphasize the classic nature of the music, yet I feel neither really adds anything except for maybe some ever so slight absurdism in the otherwise forgettable music video.

Chihiro Onitsuka – 祈りが言葉に変わる頃

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Oh, Chihiro. Some people think she lost it, others see the birth of a true, raw artist. I just see some form of artistic and personal mess that results in things both good and bad. Her last single featured an impressive A-side and an embarrassing B-Side. This one only has one song, so which extreme has she fallen into this time?

祈りが言葉に変わる頃, used as the opening theme for the new and seventh Ju-on movie, is, surprisingly, neither extreme! It’s not exciting, it doesn’t develop any great ideas, but it’s a pleasant song, if accompanied by questionable vocal work. It’s a decent composition with a nice, atmospheric arrangement, but it’s just a bit…boring. Yes, that’s the word: boring. Plain and simple.

Yuu Takahashi – 太陽と花

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Common sense urges me to stay far, far away from “boy/girl with a guitar singer-songwriter” types. The resulting music is usually bland to the point of being insufferable. I made an exception for Yuu Takahashi and…I didn’t regret it!

A mix of poprock with elements of folk and blues, 太陽と花 is all it wants to be and more than it needs to be. Formulaic, even employing the ever-loathed Truck Driver’s Gear Change(a shift upwards in the final chorus as a cheap way of upping the tension, unless my ears are playing a trick on me), it still holds on to a thread of implied sincerity and is plain captivating. Little more than competent in its technical execution, but made so in a loving fashion, I don’t mind seeing this man achieve success.

The music video and the cover art aren’t dull, but never exceed expectation. Simple with minor symbolism, the video for the biggest part just shows some flowers and audio equipment burning backwards as Takahashi performs the song.

MUCC – ENDER ENDER

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An established, influential Rock/Metal band from the Visual Kei scene, I went through my life largely unaffected by MUCC until a friend recommended their latest album to me. It blew me away, to put it simply. I haven’t found the time to go through their impressive discography since, however, their new single was something I grabbed the moment it leaked.

The title track, ENDER ENDER, marries heavy electronic elements and metal aesthetics, featuring growled, rapped and sung vocals. It feels almost like a typical “Trancecore” track, but is elevated above the genre standards by the sheer talent of the band, never happy just mashing two genres together unless they also work in perfect symbiosis. The instrumental work is pristine, the vocals are on point, the melody is fun – it’s all the song is out to do.

モノポリー (Monoporii/Monopoly) discards the Electronica and presents straight-up Post-Hardcore instead. I felt the melody was a bit weaker here and presented in a muddy fashion, but the instrumental background – particularly the guitar lines – make up for it. It remains a weaker track, but a weak MUCC track is still a strong track.

I’m not sure what to make of 前へ -In its true light-(Mae e/forward). It’s not all that weird a song, the melody is even rather poppy and infecting,  but I just can’t seem to make up my mind on loving it or just…tolerating it. I seem to jump from going crazy for the song to just not caring either way or the other. It’s weird. Maybe repeat listens over time will clear my mind.

I like the psychedelic, abstract nature of the covers, however, the music video – a basic performance video set against the backdrop of a vaguely industrial scene – is lacking, to say the least. and I’m sick of Rock and Metal bands releasing what is essentially the same music video over and over. Where is the creativity?

Still, ENDER ENDER is a strong single. Not an unique one and not a particularly complex one, but a collection of great Rock tracks performed by a capable band.

Arashi – 誰も知らない

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I don’t typically listen to boygroups or girlgroups of any kind – I’ve made too many bad experiences. This weekly series is changing that, essentially making me listen to new idol songs at least once a week. It isn’t always bad though!

I’ve never liked Arashi – I’ve seen them perform in TV shows a billion times, but nothing ever stuck with me. They felt like caricatures of pop performers. 誰も知らない, however? It’s not a bad song. Essentially providing the middle ground between Anison and Idol Pop, it’s catchy, mindless fun with a full arrangement and decent production, mainly taken aback by weak vocal performances throughout. I could see Nana Mizuki perform this song and make it work – Arashi never quite make it work, but they are far from failing.

The limited version, which I am reviewing here, contains only one B-Side, おかえり(Okaeri/Homecoming). A midtempo RnB-tinted ballad of the type the J-Pop business is overflowing with, it’s entirely forgettable fluff. None of the members can carry the weight of a ballad solo, however short their lines may be, providing their vocals void of emotion and power.

A single cover showing a generic photo of the members against a white backdrop doesn’t add anything to the single, but at least the music video can be considered fun in the widest sense of the word. It’s not particularly well-shot and just shows the members perform a weak dance routine (and sing in uninspired settings) but it’s ok for the song.

Arashi positively surprised me with the A-side, but then crashed and burned once the B-Side rolled around. Now, I have heard worse singles, definitely, but there is absolutely no desire in me to check out more of their material based on this single.

Ranking

All in all, this was a good week!

1. Maron Hamada – マヤカシのブルース

2. MUCC – ENDER ENDER

3. Yuu Takahashi – 太陽と花

4. Chihiro Onitsuka – 祈りが言葉に変わる頃

5. Arashi – 誰も知らない

Sayuri Ishikawa – X-Cross 2 Review

x-cross-2-359185.1Release: 2014.04.23

Genre: Enka

Contributors: Shiina Ringo, Marty Friedman, Tamio Okuda and more

Tracklist:

  1. 暗夜の心中立て (Anya no Shinjuudate/The dark night’s double suicide attempt)
  2. 永久にFOREVER (Towa ni FOREVER/Eternal forever)
  3. 雨のブルース (Ame no buruusu/Rain blues)
  4. Ra.n.se
  5. 空を見上げる時 (Sora o miageru toki/Time to look up at the sky)
  6. 千年逃亡 (Sennen Toubou/Thousand year escape)
  7. こころの色 (Kokoro no Iro/The heart’s colour)
  8. 名うての泥棒猫 (Naute no Dorobou Neko/The famous stealing cat)
  9. 最果てが見たい (Sai hate ga Mitai/I want to see a faraway place)

Sayuri Ishikawa is one of the undisputed queens of Enka. Her career, now well over 40 years long, is impressive, filled with incredible amounts of album and single releases – but she’s not done yet, as X-Cross 2 shows off a confident, genrefluid performer. Sayuri has come to kick ass – and kicking ass she does.

Continue reading Sayuri Ishikawa – X-Cross 2 Review

This Week in J-Pop: The Mirraz, Perfume, Seiko Matsuda, Ayumi Hamasaki, Kana Nishino

Continuing right where I left off yesterday with the 5 singles that are left!

The Mirraz
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Yes…this does seem to be a city.

Another relatively young band, The Mirraz exploded onto the Japanese Rock scene circa 2011 when their consistent quality and direct, rough nature left strong impressions at music festivals around Japan. Their new single continues that trend, featuring 3 rather different songs.

この惑星のすべて itself features a distinct Punk influence as the singer places precise, rapid vocals over an equally swift, complex instrumental. Everything comes together perfectly, with every band member pulling his weight and delivering excellent work. The melody had to grow on me for a bit, but I quite love it now.

The highlight of the single is placed right in the middle. らぶりー (Raburii / Lovely) is frantic, dynamic and playful, gently easing its way into your permanent memory with a chorus that just seems all kinds of genius in the way it plays off the guitars. Simple, but incredibly effective.

The only song that I just can’t seem to get into, ステーキを食べに行こう (Suteeki o tabe ni ikou / Let’s go eat Steak) seems rooted in rather classic Rockabilly – which is probably the reason it’s not doing much for me as I never found my way into the genre. There is a unique twist to it, mainly in the rough vocal work, but that’s not enough to convince me.

The common visual theme of this single seems to be an outside look at city life, as the cover features a high contrast black and white photograph of a bustling metropolis and the music video…well…it quite literally features the band members as aliens walking through a city intercut with images of the sky – and, of course, an alien love story. It isn’t what I expected from listening to the song, but I can see the connection. I do not, however, like the way the music video was shot. Shaky, unfocused camera movement is my mortal enemy and I’m not one for the recent “pale” trend in the indie/hipster movement.

この惑星のすべて is a strong rock single with at least two memorable, top tier tracks and a striking, universal visual identity. Is it the strongest single of the week though? We will see.

Perfume
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Cover art is expensive!

Look. I don’t hate Perfume. I really don’t. They’re backed by one of the most consistent producers in Electropop and their voices are interchangeable enough for me to not mind that they lack any resemblance of personality. But this single? This single is too much for me. Too sugar-coated, too cute, too annoying. I have no more words. But judge for yourself.

Seiko Matsuda
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Not sure if 12 or 60.

Seiko Matsuda is the type of artist that refuses to ever leave – and Japan will obviously still have her, shown by her continuing success. Her new single continues the trend of looking younger than most people look at age 20 while being in your 50s. Oh, it also includes two songs.

I Love You !! ~あなたの微笑みに~ is a brass-heavy, classic J-Pop idol song. Bright, happy, living in a fantasy Disney world. Seiko does have a more powerful voice than most other Pop idols, capable of controlling herself quite well, and adds a layer of quality to her music that way. It’s a trivial, but fun song. Enjoyable for what it is and less obtrusive than most other Idol Pop – but just a bit embarrassing coming from someone with a 30 year career.

The B-side Free is the ballad equivalent of a fast food Hamburger. It’s not the real thing, doesn’t carry the momentum of the real experience, but recreates enough of it to be appealing for a small bite in between. Well-performed and competently composed, it’s just caught in the endless white space between good and bad.

The covers just leave me surprised – as do most of her covers. It’s always awkward to see an obviously older woman try hard to act young rather than embrace a change of life. Essentially, the same is true of the music video, in which Seiko seems to be getting married, resulting in a choreographed dance performance with her bridesmaids. Now, I do think it’s well-shot from a photography/cinematography standpoint, it’s all well-lighted, the sets are absolutely stunning and the image composition is what you’d expect it to be. It’s al la bit dull and awkward, but that’s just what this single – and Seiko’s career nowadays – is like.

As much as I expected to dislike it, I Love You !! ~あなたの微笑みに~ isn’t a bad single. Every element, from the covers over the songs to the video, is just consistently average – but an average Pop song is a good Idol song, so I’d take Seiko over most others any day.

Ayumi Hamasaki
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How many times has this photoshoot been re-used now?

I really wasn’t ready for another Ayumi single. Not so soon, not without any kind of prior announcement. But there it was: NOW & 4EVA from her upcoming, as of yet untitled, album.

Once you get past the cringe-inducing title, it’s actually a remarkable little song! The structure of the song and the instrumental mix reminds of classic Ayumi, yet at the same time the song features such an uplifting, optimistic melody – it feels completely new in her discography. I believe this is the first time an Ayumi song felt genuinely bright to me, the first time I came out of an Ayumi song with a huge smile on my face. I realize that the lyrics don’t deal with a particularly happy subject, but the song, musically feels extremely powerful in its happiness to me. I adore it – nothing could get me more excited for her upcoming album.

Kana Nishino
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You know she’s fierce when her facial expression screams “are you starting to take photos yet?”.

I’ve been ignoring Kana Nishino for the biggest part, she never seemed to add anything of value to the Pop business. But she seems here to stay (for a while) and has a new 3-track single out, so why not give it a chance?

The lead track, We Don’t Stop, is a summery Electropop anthem with some modern EDM elements. I like the composition, it’s a cute, intuitive melody, however, there’s two issues I have with the song. Firstly, the production is horribly compressed, robbing the song of any impact it could have had by keeping it on a rather mushy level throughout. Secondly, Kana Nishino is a capable pop vocalist, but she doesn’t seem to carry her weight in We Don’t Stop, sounding thin and emotionless, never connected to the mood of the song. The issues this track faces remind me of Namie Amuro’s latest album, where the songs themselves were good, but the vocal performance and production issues kept them from becoming bangers.

Happy Birthday is completely unbearable.

The most organic, acoustic song of the single, 25 is a mellow Pop midtempo of the type that is plastered all over the J-Pop business. It’s not particularly good, but I also don’t have any major complaints about it. I couldn’t care about the song’s existence either way.

Both the covers and the music video express similar sentiments to the lead track, yet I can’t help but feel like Kana is trying to play catch-up with K-Pop groups, particularly in the video. She tries to become part of the fierce Dancepop trend, but never seems quite on top of it – she looks lost, like neither the song nor the video are in her comfort zone. Constant expressionless glances both at the camera and away from it make her look utterly confused – Kana is going through the motions.

Essentially, that is how this single is best summed up: It’s a pop singer just going through the motions, making whatever sells right now with no regard to personality or expression. It doesn’t fail entirely – the lead track is catchy – but if you’re going to blatantly follow trends, you should at least put more effort into it.

Conclusion

This has been one hell of a week! 10 singles just barely were enough to deal with all the notable releases, but somehow, I did it! Most of the new material I heard this week was actually pretty good, with only Perfume and Kana Nishino really disappointing.

Have I forgotten any singles? Do you agree or disagree with my views? Leave a comment and take part in the poll at the end of the post! However, please only vote if you’ve heard at least the majority of the singles – I linked at least one song from each in this post – for fairness’ sake.

Ranking

1. KANA-BOON – Full Drive

2. Aimer – StarRingChild

3. Ayumi Hamasaki – NOW & 4EVA

4. The Mirraz – この惑星のすべて

5. flumpool – Believer’s High

6. FLOWER FLOWER – 神様

7. Seiko Matsuda – I Love You !! ~あなたの微笑みに~

8. AKB48 – Labrador Retriever (Version 4)

9. Kana Nishino – We Don’t Stop

10. Perfume – Hold Your Hand

This Week in J-Pop: Aimer, AKB48, FLOWER FLOWER, flumpool, KANA-BOON

I try to limit myself to 5 singles a week, but damn, there were many singles by big-name artists released this week! So I hope you’re ready for a ride through these 10 singles:

StarRingChild by Aimer, Labrador Retriever by AKB48, 神様 (Kami-sama / God) by FLOWER FLOWER, Believer’s High by flumpool, Full Drive by KANA-BOON, この惑星のすべて (Kono hoshi no subete / Everybody on this planet) by The Mirraz, I Love You !! ~あなたの微笑みに~ (Anata no hohoemi ni / In your smile) by Seiko Matsuda, NOW & 4EVA by Ayumi Hamasaki, We Don’t Stop by Kana Nishino and Hold Your Hand by Perfume.

To stop this post from being ridiculously long, I will cut it into two parts and only deal with the first five singles today. The rest and the ranking will follow tomorrow.

Aimer
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Anyone else think she looks kinda…lonely?

Aimer is one of those illusive songstresses that let plenty of emotion and personality flow into their music without making it about themselves. Her new single, StarRingChild, contains 3 original songs and an alternate version of the title track.

StarRingChild opens on haunting vocals and individual guitar chords before developing into a more filled out Rock narrative. Aimer creates a solitary atmosphere that reflects the single cover well – both the cover and the song are gorgeous, evoking images of being alone under the night sky, content with life. Amazingly, she still manages to fit the song into a typical Rock structure and make it appealing for casual listening with a high-energy chorus.

A scaled down song between Alternative Rock, Shoegaze, Trip-Hop and Dreampop, Even Heaven creates tension throughout its 8 minute run, accentuated by powerful little details and a controlled vocal performance, that is expertly resolved towards the end, resulting in a fragile, yet fearless piece of Pop magic. This is a song that shouldn’t be missed under any circumstances.

Mine didn’t impress me like the other songs did. It’s a competent ballad, using all the tricks in the book, but doesn’t really do anything for me on a personal level. I don’t feel a connection to the song.

Closing the single is a shorter version of the title track used for the Gundam movie(TV show?). Not much has changed, but I feel like cutting the more atmospheric parts made it a weaker, less interesting song. The movie version is essentially a basic poprock track. I would have liked to link the music video here, but unfortunately couldn’t find an online stream for it. It’s very much what you’d expect, for the biggest part visualizing the mood as children are shown exploring an abandoned building.

While the single does have a drop in quality, it remains a gorgeous, intuitive listen that captivates with strong emotional cues. A glowing recommendation.

AKB48
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AKB48 – for foot fetishists anywhere!

I’m not big on idols and especially not on AKB48, but I feel such a cultural phenomenon can’t be ignored. I have an interesting post about their marketing strategies and success coming, but for now let’s look at Version 4 of their new single(the single was released in multiple versions, featuring different B-Sides – I picked one randomly), Labrador Retriever.

A drum-roll and synthy brass are reminiscent of classic idol tracks as the A-Side starts playing. While I find the arrangement rather plastic and the heavily layered vocals – due to the group having so many vocalists – lifeless, I have to give credit where credit is due and admit that this song, while going nowhere melodically, is rather catchy. Have I taken anything away from it? No. But I don’t regret listening to it. I would have liked a shorter version a bit more as there’s no real build-up – the song could have done with one less verse and chorus without losing anything – however, it’s a competent idol single. In a genre characterized by horrible music, that is already enough to make the song appealing.

The B-side that all versions of the single have in common, 今日までのメロディー (Kyou made no merodii / A melody continuing until today) is more soothing, featuring a soft melody performed by fewer vocalists at once. I found it more forgettable, with a rather bland chorus. But once again, it wasn’t annoying or painful to listen to – just boring.

The best song and the one exclusive to Version 4, ハートの脱出ゲーム (Haato no dasshutsu geemu / The Heart’s Escape Game) is the most energetic and fun out of the bunch, with a memorable, catchy melody. It’s the only song on this single I can see myself coming back to – in doses. Essentially, it’s what idol pop should sound like, even if no masterpiece.

In typical AKB48 fashion, there’s multiple covers and every song has an accompanying music video. The covers are just shots of different girls and groups of girls smiling on the beach and as such rather interchangeable. The Labrador Retriever music video features the girls dancing and singing on the beach, intercut with scenes of a dog just…living his life and trying to find one of the girls. It’s fanservice – nothing more, nothing less. With loving shots of underage swimwear boobs thoughout. The video for 今日までのメロディー opens on a long interview with a member of the group – I assume one about to graduate, I really don’t care enough to pay close attention – before turning into a montage with occasional shots of the girl singing. This seems to be a video made specifically with the fans in mind, so I don’t feel comfortable passing judgement without knowing more background. The final video, ハートの脱出ゲーム shows some of the girls caught in a studio lot after a video shoot. Of course, they decide to sing and perform a choreography. All three videos are competently shot, but of solely promotional manner rather than having any form of artistic merit.

Considering the nature of AKB48, I can’t complain about the single. There’s nothing groundbreaking included and some of the material is rather tiresome, but in the end it’s a fun single clearly made for AKB48 fans – and sold based on the concept of the group rather than the quality of the music. There is no ambitious to be artistic here, but there doesn’t have to be.

FLOWER FLOWER
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Beware! A cave painting!

Singer-songwriter YUI’s hiatus was cut short when she announced the formation of her new band FLOWER FLOWER just months after putting her solo career on hold. Who would have thought it would take almost a year for the band to release its second song after that?

神様 is heavier, rougher around the edges than most of YUI’s solo work and as such I quite like the direction she is taking. It feels authentic, unprocessed. The presence of an actual band is working wonders in terms of arrangement, making 神様 a very pleasant experience and even the vocal performance is more authentic and expressive than usual. Kudos for trying something different!

There’s not much to be said about cover art and music video. The covert art is just a bit boring and doesn’t seem to really apply to the song’s mood, but it isn’t intruding. And the music video, well, I couldn’t find it!

While not all that memorable as a song, I’m excited to see this band release an album. Hopefully soon. 神様 is exciting enough to build up some hype – let’s wait for them to live up to it!

flumpool
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Spacey!

My first exposure to flumpool was their 2008 song Over the Rain, a mellow, optimistic Pop ballad that I occasionally come back to even today. Since then, they’ve failed to really capture me with any of their material. Since their new best-of is out this week, let’s see if the buzz single Believer’s High can change that!

Believer’s High walks the line between soft Rock ballad and catchy Poprock – successfully. The arrangement is simple, but effective, the production tight and the vocal performance adequate. It’s a plain good Rock track, making up for its lack of substance by just being a fun, inviting listen. Fans of the typical Japanese Poprock sound should enjoy this song – and their best of.

The single cover reveals ties to the new Captain Earth anime and feels more like a purely promotional effort than a genuine representation of the music.  The music video, on the other hand, just features plenty scenes of the vocalist staring into the camera like a madman.

It’s a strong enough single – with weak promotional material.

KANA-BOON
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BOOOOOOOOOOM!!!

The last single for today comes from KANA-BOON, a popular Rock band that just got signed to a major label last year and managed to place their debut album at #3 upon release.

Full Drive is a clean, classic Rock track. Aggressive, high-energy and full of catchy riffs. The song is full of spirit and raw power, blasting all over the place and just incredibly refreshing in the Japanese Pop business that is usually built around very controlled sounds. By far one of the catchiest, most fun songs I have heard this year so far, if you need some unadulterated, young Rock – this is your song.

The first B-Side, Rapid Siren, is a bit more frantic and feels less realized, but is almost equally entertaining and lively. The mix of fast, complex guitar work and catchy chorus lines is sure to stick around in your head long after the song is done playing.

夜のマーチ (Yoru no maachi / Night’s March) feels almost slow in comparison to the other tracks, even though it would count as upbeat. A heavier emphasis on the drums serves the song well in some sections, but also leads to an overly simplistic and easily irritating chorus melody. A well-crafted song, I can’t find much personal appeal in it.

KANA-BOON understand the value of visuals in selling music and setting mood, using covers that are – quite literally – as “explosive” as the music. And the music video for Full Drive? It’s every bit as over the top, messy and hasty as you’d hope it to be – featuring ridiculous chase and fight scenes in a city and constant movement. It’s hard to imagine a better visual representation of the music.

Even with the third song lacking, Full Drive is a fantastic single and a great package. The cover, the songs, the video – it all ties together incredibly well and works equally well as individual pieces. KANA-BOON are one of the most promising new bands in the market right now – look out for them!

More Tomorrow

Did you like any of the singles I reviewed today? Don’t forget to check back tomorrow for 5 more single reviews and the weekly ranking! I linked to at least one track from every single in this post, so feel free to play along – listen to the songs and leave your ranking in the comments!

Respect and “Holograms” : What Michael Jackson’s Team can learn from X Japan

It’s only a matter of time until new multimedia technology finds its way into the Pop business – there’s always need for more spectacle. But sometimes, that new technology also leads to new ethical questions we would prefer to collectively ignore.

In the case of the recent trend of “bringing Pop stars back from the dead” using “holograms”(there’s no actual holograms involved, just 2D projections on see-through screens employing an effect called “Pepper’s Ghost” that has been used for at least 150 years and has even been part of Disneyland attractions for decades, but other people have written extensively on that), we have to ask one important question: Where is the line between loving homage and shamelessly abusing a great legacy?

I will be looking at two notable instances here(Michael Jackson “performing” at the Billboard Music Awards a few days ago and X Japan using a likeness of Hide on their reunion tour in 2008), contrast them and argue for my position: namely that one of them was a beautiful moment while I found the other distasteful.

Michael Jackson

There’s absolutely no question: Michael Jackson is one of the biggest Pop stars to have ever lived. It was only a matter of time until something like this would happen. The performance produced for the award show featured a digital recreation of the performer dancing to and singing a song from the new, posthumous album.

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Here’s my problem with that: Michael may have sang a demo of the song a long time ago, but he neither produced the final result or had any part in the album, nor did he ever approve of the release. Essentially, the record company is trying to turn any old recording of him into money while there’s still hype around the dead performer. This is not a posthumous release of a finished product that was meant to be released – they picked up random demos that Michael may or may not have ever intended to release, produced them in a way that Michael would have probably not produced them and then released them only to make money. There is no respect for the artist in this process, the respectful thing would have been to either release nothing or to just release the demos in the form in which Michael left them – instead, they made something new using bits and pieces of his creation and are now selling it as his vision, under his name. This both affects and cheapens Michael’s legacy, much like the first posthumous album they released shortly after his death. Yes, this is the second one already.

I think I made my issue with this whole situation clear: it’s exploiting an artist’s legacy and adding new elements to it that the artist may have never intended to release. It tarnished the legacy, especially for a perfectionist like Michael Jackson. To add insult to injury, rather than using old video footage of his performances, they digitally recreated Jackson to make him “dance” and “sing” to the new song, essentially turning the situation into a freakshow. And why? For money. To promote this album. The award show performance wasn’t to celebrate Michael, it was to sell (new) music.

X Japan

X Japan also have a deceased, legendary band member that has a lot of legacy riding on his shoulders – guitarist Hide. When they reunited 10 years after Hide’s death, they decided to include scenes of him playing into their concerts using the same technology.

Here’s how X Japan did it: they played one of their classic songs, Art of Life, a song in which suicide(Hide’s cause of death) is contemplated. And as they are playing, the projection just appears as Hide’s guitar parts come along. There’s no fuss around it, no big announcement prior to it, no new song: it’s a moment of remembrance. Made from video footage taken during X Japan’s 1994 concert at the same venue rather than created digitally, it’s a humbling experience, it evokes a sense of finality, it shows us that the band hasn’t forgotten their lost member. Nothing new is created in his likeness, nobody is trying to sell you anything – it’s a collective act of remembering.

It’s not glitzy, it’s not glamorous – but it’s authentic. This is where the difference lays. You can either remember a deceased artist – or you can try to profit from him. You can remember an artist and end up profiting from it, but money can’t be your sole goal.

Conclusion

The digital Michael Jackson that appeared on stage during the Billboard Awards show was technologically impressive. Recreating a person so realistically, making the movement flow and the face emote to the song, is something the best CGI artists still struggle with. Even if I found the performance design tacky and unfit for such a legend, I have deep respect for the people that made the technological side of the performance possible, I do.

But when it comes to using such technology merely to make money with no regard to an artist, no respect for his legacy, I find it disgusting. How did we get to the point where somebody is a mere commodity after their death? How did we get to Audrey Hepburn “starring” in a cheap chocolate commercial years after her death and Michael Jackson “promoting” his new album?

X Japan did the right thing, they chose to use restored video footage of a real performance to a real song and used it when the band was performing that song again. Their performance wasn’t as advanced technologically, the projection didn’t look as lifelike – how could it, it was made from a 1994 video recording in bad lighting conditions! But it was just so much more beautiful.

Try to imagine a homage to Michael being shown using the same technology. Imagine seeing a medley of his biggest hits using restored video footage of real Michael performances being projected onto stage, reliving his biggest moments in new glory. It could have been beautiful. Instead, they opted to turn this potentially gorgeous moment into blatant advertisement for their new album and nothing more. Low…very, very low. And quite creepy.

What do you think on this issue? Leave a comment!

Ayumi Hamasaki – Countdown Live 2013-2014 Concert Review

There’s a shocking lack of Concert DVD/Bluray reviews in the realms of J-Pop. I can’t be the only one generally more interested in a good concert than a good album, can I?

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I felt the need to watch this concert again after my disappointment with Ayumi’s new digital single – and hey, it’s not her best concert, but actually pretty decent!

Setlist and Music

Like most of Ayumi’s concerts, Countdown Live 2013-2014 can be roughly organized into short, self-contained sections, usually separated by costume changes and musical interludes.

The concert opens on an Electropop section including Feel the love, with an extended intro taken from the Blasterjaxx Remix of the song, and her 2002 song WE WISH, performed with a heavier emphasis on guitars than the original recording had. Both arrangements benefit the songs, with Feel the love turning into an explosive opening that covers up the tremble-heavy, “light” feeling of the original mix and turns it into a more danceable song.

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She whips her hair back and forth.

After a short DJ Break, courtesy of DJ Hello Kitty, Ayumi returns for a dark, hopeless segment of Free & Easy and Because of You. Free & Easy has been shortened, effectively reducing it to a much less interesting piece as the tense build-up and frantic release were the song’s defining factors. Because of You, also shortened by a verse and chorus, doesn’t suffer from the missing sections as much, remaining a powerful, emotionally charged rock track.

An extended outro to Because of You and a stunning original song performed by Ayumi’s background vocalists give Ayumi the necessary time to get into her enormous dress for the ballad section – CAROLS and Momentum. A bland christmas ballad and an attempt to recapture the magic of her hit M, respectively, it’s the weakest segment of the tracklist. Neither of the songs is notably rearranged.

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One does not simply do rock without whipping around some fake hurr.

A band showcase of sorts leads into is this LOVE?, one of Ayumi’s heaviest, most aggressive rock tracks. Also close to the original arrangement, a live band does add plenty of energy and dynamics. Love Song has been more heavily restructured, sporting an acapella opening that slowly evolves into the traditional version of the song, with small extended bits and pieces thrown in here and there. It’s a beautiful, tangible arrangement that has been performed in her 2012 tour before. It lacks some of the folksy feeling, instead developing into more of an adult contemporary sound.

After conveniently using the countdown to the new year as an excuse to change outfits once again, the final section of the main concert already awaits. Merry-go-round is performed in a slightly extended version including a simple dance break and stopping entirely for a moment when m-flo join the stage to collaborate with Ayumi. I would have preferred to see the song continue as one, but do enjoy the new elements greatly. It’s a song that was made to be performed in front of an audience. The jump into You & Me is almost instantaneous, discarding the scaled back opening that she rarely performs live. The performance is much the same as all her other You & Me performance, the song has quickly become a staple – understandably considering the sing-along and jump-along potential. Closing the main concert is, predictably, SURREAL-evolution-SURREAL. While I honestly do enjoy the medley, especially since the new opening to SURREAL is stunning, I can see why fans would be annoyed by it or sick of it. I’d prefer to occasionally see another finale for a concert as well.

The encore begins with a small acoustic segment. Ayumi performs a rather laid-back version of part of Me followed by a version of curtain call backed by a gospel choir. The former performance, while pretty, never quite seems to develop into more than a novelty, curtain call, however, received its first good performance in this concert, employing the same, simplistic arrangement, but containing more of a dynamic spirit.

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taaaaaDAAAAAAAAAA!!!

Ayumi performs her usual assortment of upbeat classics in the form of Boys & Girls and Humming 7/4. While I don’t detest either song, I find them rather boring, being essentially the exact same thing I’ve seen from her at least 20 times.

Celebrating the end of the concert on a high note, a new, somewhat swing-y version of Bold & Delicious lifts the spirits, being deliciously close to the original expression of the song while not sounding much like it. I really enjoyed this rearrangement, even if I’m not a fan of introducing band and dancers in the middle of a song.

Countdown Live 2013-2014 features a short, but impressive setlist. It’s diverse, yet everything flows perfectly – using musical interludes to connect the styles. Even the songs I do not enjoy have clear purpose in the setlist, as CAROLS and Momentum provide a moment to calm down between more dramatic and upbeat tracks. Musically, this concert would work as a good studio album while being absolutely aware of its purpose and staying on a consistent level of quality and mood. The choice of opening and closing tracks specifically shows an excellent understanding of developing tension and filling expectation in a concert setting.

The band and back-up singer are also in top form, adding some punch to the songs that the studio versions occasionally lack.

Visual & Performance Design

Let’s get the biggest thing out of the way first: that stage is incredible! While for the biggest part rather familiar – a set-up with the stage at one side of the arena, a big screen at the back,  an even bigger screen above the stage and a walkway connecting to an elevating circle stage within the audience, the new additions are absolutely spectacular. There’s a hydraulic gate/crane in the middle of the stage that opens on an angle and can support multiple performers on top of it while its 3 sections are moving individually. I honestly can’t think of a similar device in any other concert I have seen. I’ve seen ramps that opened in the middle of the stage – always a successful opening – but never ones that move with such freedom and can have dancers on top of it while moving. Connected to that “moving ramp” is a stair of steps that can unfold itself from the floor, think of it like one of those “3-D” picture books. It’s all rather exciting.

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Ayumi’s guide to a powerful entrance: fog, back lighting, hydraulics and dancers in Robocop outfits.

Ayumi uses the new additions well, emerging amidst lights from below the ramp for Feel the Love and singing on it as it moves for WE WISH and You & Me. She does seem to realize the dangers of turning it into a gimmick, only using it when it adds to the performance and even then being rather subtle about it in songs like Because of You, where it just serves as an extension to the higher layer of the stage. The danger of overusing an element in a short period of time can’t be overstated, but is often ignored by Pop singers. The lighting and screens are, for the biggest part, also used effectively, though the screen video for is this LOVE? looks a tad cheap. The choreography and performance design is also well-thought out and planned, though some of the choreographies can seem goofy.

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As long as I have this performance, I don’t need anything else.

The strongest moments of the concert had some of the most intriguing design ideas. For Merry-go-round, when Ayumi was joined on stage by m-flo, some cloth that was hung over the circular stage and seemed to be purely decorative for the remainder of the concert fell down beautifully as Ayumi and VERBAL were performing on the elevated stage, swirling around them for a moment before ultimately falling to the ground. But the strongest, most memorable moment has got to be Love Song. In it, Ayumi watches images from the past year pass on the screen behind her as the stairs rise with her standing at the top. It’s a wonderful, reflective moment that underlines the excellence of the performance design – of which the entire Love Song performance is the pinnacle. Unfortunately, not all that sparkles is gold. There were some off elements in the concert, the worst offender being the entirety of the CAROLS performance.

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Where’s Fashion Police when you need it?

In CAROLS, Ayumi wears an oversized dress, including a horrible hairpiece that make her look like a 7 year old dressing up as a Disney princess. It’s tacky, it looks like it was picked up at a flea market, not even seeming to fit her body well. After a while, fake snow (or maybe petals, I can’t tell) starts falling around her and dancers join. The result is a melodramatic, tacky and lifeless performance that could have been a lot more. I do think the concept had a lot of potential – but why use the main stage for your gigantic, circular dress when you could have used it much, much more effectively on the center stage? Imagine a simpler, less stuffy version of the outfit – covering the entire of the circular stage as it slowly rises and the snow starts falling around her. Now that could have been fantastic. Some of the other outfits looked a bit thrown together as well, but CAROLS (and Momentum to a lesser extent) and the over the top melodrama coming with it was the performance I would be embarrassed to watch with people around.

Performance and Vocals

Throughout the concert, Ayumi presented herself as a forceful, diverse performer that can adjust to a variety of genres, moods and types of pop performance. She was engaging and had a tight grasp of the audience for the entire 2 hour performance. She has come a long way from the little girl that went on her first nationwide tour in 2000 and spent her time standing around timidly on stage and waving her hands, taking full control of the situation – absorbing the audience’s attention now.

Ayumi’s vocals, while never very strong on a technical level, are appealing. Always supported with the necessary power or grace and projecting emotion that most Pop singers can only dream. There is one very, very ugly mark on the vocal performance during this concert though: some of it seems very, very fake.

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Is this the happy expression of anticipating a big paycheck?

Now, I haven’t attended this concert, I have no way of making any statements about what was going on during that night. But I do know that what we hear on the DVD sound in some songs is not what came out of Ayumi’s mouth during the actual concert. Of course, every professional concert release will have some form of vocal editing employed – it makes sense to even out some off notes and compress some shouty lines – but Countdown Live 2013-2014 goes above and beyond. And while some of the songs just appear to be heavily edited, others most certainly were either performed playback or had their vocals replaced entirely for the DVD. A variety of elements can add to this impression, from bad editing and lip matching, over heavy processing, strong backing tracks and vocal replacement to outright playback – but something shady is going on in parts of this concert/DVD, specifically in the first half, where Feel the Love, Free & Easy, Because of You(correct me if I’m wrong, but this seems to be the vocal track from her 2010 tour), CAROLS and Momentum appear to be entirely playback.

Ayumi makes up for it by showing even more charisma in the songs that were definitely performed live and being entertaining enough to watch for me to, mostly, not care about the possibility of playback – but I felt a fair review needed to point it out. Ayumi has a long history of using playback in her concerts, but this one seemed like the worst offender in a long time.

Conclusion

Countdown Live 2013-2014 is a good concert both for Ayumi’s fans and as a first exposure to her music, marrying a great setlist, smart, expressive design and one hell of a performer for 2 hours of high energy Pop music, but there are some things that could be serious problems for some fans. The concert is one of the shortest in her career, at under 2 hours, some of the performances are over-dramatic and tacky and the whole playback issue could harm somebody’s enjoyment of the experience.

For me personally, the absolutely amazing performances included, specifically Feel the love, Love Song and Merry-go-round, more than make up for it. But Countdown Live 2013-2014 remains in a rather indifferent position. I adore some sections and believe it’s a fun experience overall, but there’s also some flaws that simply cannot be overlooked. Unlike some of Ayumi’s other concerts that are great from start to finish, Countdown Live 2013-2014 needs to be enjoyed for the ride, nothing more, nothing less.

As a closing note, I will just leave you guys with my favourite performance from the concert(that youtube has unfortunately thrown a tiny bit out of sync).

Have any of you watched the concert? If not, has this review sparked your interest? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

This Week in J-Pop: BUCK-TICK, THE NOVEMBERS, Superfly, Eri Kitamura, Ayumi Hamasaki

The Japanese music business is vast and almost impossible to keep track of. Not only are there a plethora of popular genres that coexist on the charts – even if idol groups dominate lately – but most singers and bands also release new material at a pace that would be considered ridiculous outside of Asia, often releasing a new album every year rather than every 3-4 years. I try my best to keep up with the constant influx of new music, hence, this series was born.

Every weekend, I will write about 5 singles that have been released in Japan the prior week. With no constrictions on genre or type of release (digital singles and charity singles, for the sake of simplicity, count – album pre-release tracks, however, do not), I will share some impressions on the songs, cover art, music video – everything associated with it. I am trying to experience the full package, not just one song. Ultimately, the singles will be ranked from my favourite to my least favourite and I invite you to do the same in the comments.

I believe we can help each other discover new music and refine our tastes, so you are welcome to request upcoming singles to be included in the next weeks. If I missed a single you enjoyed this week, feel free to mention that in the comments as well.

This weeks singles are: BUCK-TICK’s 形而上 流星 (Keijikyou Ryuusei/Metaphysical Meteor), THE NOVEMBERS’ 今日も生きたね (Kyou mo Ikitane/Still alive today), Superfly’s Live, Eri Kitamura’s 掌 -show- (Shou – show-) and Ayumi Hamasaki’s Hello new me.

BUCK-TICK – 形而上 流星

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BUCK-TICK have been a constant force in the Visual Kei scene and more generally the Rock scene for over 25 years. A diverse 3-track single, 形而上 流星 shows that they still got it after all these years.

I quite like the cover, implying a moody, decadent experience with controlled bursts of emotion. It sums up the single nicely. It evokes images of the 18th and 19th century, of the Industrial Revolution and multiple political revolutions shaking up…well…everything in Europe, really.

The lead track is a melancholic piece that places special emphasis on clean guitar lines and drum work. Once the chorus rolls around I find it a bit lacking, the vocals seem to lose the emotional sincerity that defined the verses and the production gets a bit mushy, adding distortion that seems out of place. It’s not strong enough a contrast to make any form of statement, but feels like an attempt to create a marketable chorus for TV commercials. Still an enjoyable song, I feel like the anticipated pay-off never happened. The music video, showing the band perform the song under expressive, high-contrast lighting, is rather standard Rock fare and has been done to death, but is competent enough.

In the past couple years, mashing together various styles of Rock and Electronica has been a rather popular way of mixing things up, but unlike many other examples of the genre mix, メランコリア -ELECTRIA- (Merankoria -ELECTRIA- / Melancholia – ELECTRIA-) delivers a perfect symbiosis of the styles rather than using Electronica as a loud, obnoxious gimmick. The combination feels natural, a smooth melody caught between Visual Kei and Eurythmics serving as counter to a rough, yet danceable clash of guitars and House and Dubstep beats. Some of the background breakdowns would work equally well in a club banger, it’s amazing like that.

Another complete departure from the sound of the other songs, VICTIMS OF LOVE, a cover of one of their older songs, features Classical Crossover/Chamber Pop twins Kokusyoku Sumire and uses them effectively to create an otherworldly atmosphere. The song exists in the white space between Rock, Gothic Pop, Folk, Blues and…Polka? I’m not even sure. All I know is that I genuinely love VICTIMS OF LOVE. It’s a song that essentially hypnotizes you into submission and keeps a tight hold on you throughout – all while never even once being reductive or melodramatic.

I guess I hit the jackpot, encountering a fantastic single so early! While the lead track has a rather generic sound, the other two songs absolutely make up for it by being delightfully experimental and of highest quality. The single even manages to work as one conceptually, with the cover art and music video being stylistic mirrors of the songs.

THE NOVEMBERS – 今日も生きたね

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I first encountered THE NOVEMBERS last year, after the release of their zeitgeist album. A shoegaze/”Indie” band capable of standing out between all the other “soft” Japanese rock bands of recent years, they deliver consistent quality – this single is no exception.

The first thing you will notice, after the beautiful cover, is the length of over 7 minutes, odd enough for a single, but fear not – the time is used well. 今日も生きたね is out to make you dream and fully embrace you. The song takes its time to develop, giving you time to breath and to marvel at the gorgeous composition. I particularly enjoy the way the song develops towards the end, shifting from melancholy to hope. There’s no big, revolutionary ideas here, but it’s gorgeously realized and feels effortless and light – every element playing off each other perfectly. The music video, in all its minimalism and slow-motion beauty, effectively portrays the same feeling, adding to the song.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper Japanese single without a B-Side. ブルックリン最終出口 is a bit less understated, developing a more fleshed out, Alternative Rock sound. There’s a very nice, subtle use of vocoding and guitar pedal effects that adds both to the perceived, cold emotional distance of the song and gives it nice, tangible texture. It’s not as much of an instant favourite, but easy enough to get lost in. It made me long for more, feeling short in comparison to the A-Side.

今日も生きたね is another great release from a very consistent band. THE NOVEMBERS seem to value excellence over experimentation, which some may find off-putting, but as long as their material remains this good, this fragile, I won’t mind.

Superfly – Live

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Superfly, the prime 60s and 70s throwback Hippie act of Japan, has been absent for a while, making Live something of an unofficial comeback. I adore some of their more dynamic, energetic songs – so let’s see if this single can give me what I hope for.

Live is a bit more laid back than I expected, something I should have probably anticipated from the single cover. While well-performed and unoffensive, I fail to see anything of particular value in the song. It’s pretty, something nice to leave running in the background, but rather tasteless and forgotten the moment it’s over. The music video and single cover both have a similar problem: they are pretty, but just lacking substance, anything that sets them apart. And they are simply not good enough to make their plain nature work for them.

万華鏡と蝶(Mangekyou to chou/Butterfly and Kaleidoscope) is giving me some Hardrock vibes, at times resembling The Scorpions(Rock Me Like A Hurricane, anyone?) or AC/DC, but hinges on to a shred of Pop aesthetics. It delivers much of what I hoped for on this single, but features a slightly underwhelming chorus that, I feel, could have used some more harmonies to create a fuller, less epileptic sound. In the current form, the chorus can be a bit grating, especially on tremble-heavy headphones. That won’t stop the song from getting caught in your head though.

I honestly got nothing on The Long Way Home, the final track on the single. It takes the problems Live already faced and amplifies them for a cookie-cutter, boring example of how not to record an “emotionally charged ballad”. I’ve heard worse, but I sure as hell have heard much, much better.

At her best, Superfly is tons of fun and helps us relive times long past through her music – but there’s a tendency to release melodramatic, bland Rock ballads in her work that Live is especially guilty of. 万華鏡と蝶, while not without flaws, is catchy and engaging – the rest of the single? Fairly forgettable.

Eri Kitamura – 掌 -show-

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I haven’t paid much attention to Eri Kitamura, a rising star in the Anison genre, yet. but the compulsion to grab her new single was there – even with that horrible “just wear random clothes in a random spot and we’ll take a bad picture” single cover that is fetish-fuel for otaku or an outfit idea for a cosplayer at best.

The music itself isn’t all bad, 掌 -show- is a catchy Anison Rock track, presenting to us the same mix of Metal riffs, synths and strings we get from many singers in the genre. It’s messy and trying too hard to be dynamic and to create urgency, but within the realms of a generic song does its job well. A bit gimmicky, but not bad. The music video, on the other hand, is suffering from a plethora of problems, including but not limited to an unskilled director and/or editor with little to no experience shooting the style of the video, a (visibly) low budget and lipsynching that is rather off.

Suffering from aimless production and trying to do too many things at the same time, Greedy;(cry) comes off as ambitious but misguided. The song seems to be stepping around in one, mushy, confused place for the entire 6 minute run, never developing into anything more appealing or interesting. It feels a bit like it was meant to “prove” artistic integrity by being quite weird and mashing many genres together – but ultimately doesn’t prove anything.

掌 -show- is a decent enough single for genre fans, there’s plenty of worse material out there, however, to me it feels entirely replaceable and overly gimmicky. The entire thing, from the messy production and composition over the tacky single covers to the laughable music video, is just surrounded by an aura of amateurs. Ambitious, well-meaning amateurs, but amateurs. Much like Lady Gaga.

Ayumi Hamasaki – Hello new me

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Nothing gets me excited like a new Ayumi single. And nothing pulls me down as hard as a bad Ayumi single. Unfortunately, Hello new me is bad all the way.

Contrary to the gorgeous, fashion shoot cover, the song itself is a basic, by the books Japanese pop midtempo. A gentle ballad about just how great life is. While it does feel honest(because Ayumi just has the power to make anything feel honest. If she sang about the dangers of taking her dogs to a pool party and the ways it made her depressed, it would seem honest), I can’t help but assume the main reason behind the creation of this song is needing a tacky, generic theme song for the TV drama it’s being used for. There’s no substance, absolutely no element in the song that is interesting or even just good. Instead, Ayumi treats us to an annoying, nasal melody that just keeps repeating the most obnoxious phrases since “What’s a beautiful day…what’s a beautiful day…”. I don’t think I’ll ever need to encounter this song again. It’s a lowest common denominator cash cow song of the type that I thought Ayumi had outgrown – and I sincerely hope that it’s the only song of the kind on the album.

The Ranking

This week has delivered two great singles, two acceptable ones and one that, even though it came from my favourite Pop singer, is one of the biggest disappointments of late. Ranking them was rather easy in the end.

1. THE NOVEMBERS – 今日も生きたね

2. BUCK-TICK – 形而上 流星

3. Superfly – Live

4. Eri Kitamura – 掌 -show-

5. Ayumi Hamasaki – Hello new me

What do you think? Did I horribly misjudge some of the songs or was I correct in my ranking? Share your thoughts in the comments!