Perfume return with a slice of serviceable technopop
Having achieved domestic success, the Technopop trio of Perfume continue to carve their global path and appear to have emerged as the flag-waving vanguard for J-Pop.
LEVEL3 is Perfume’s 4th studio album (and their first on the Universal Music Japan label) following on from 2011’s JPN release. Expectations have been high for LEVEL3, which made it all the more surprising that initial web commentary on the album revolved around the fact that Kashiyuka had changed her hairstyle for the album sleeve. Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, the question being asked was whether or not LEVEL3 can meet the high standards that Perfume and producer/writer Yasutaka Nakata have set for themselves.
Opening track ‘Enter The Sphere’ will be instantly recognisable as the background music originally used for Perfume’s global website. Here it’s been beefed up with vocals and expanded into a full tune – and a powerful one at that. This is a track that could have seamlessly appeared on a Capsule release with its percussive rhythms and crunchy synths. It serves as a perfect intro to the album and demonstrates Nakata at the top of his skills.
If there’s a constant in the world of pop music, then it’s the remix. It’s become something of a tradition for Perfume albums to incorporate remixed versions of their single releases. Where a track could previously be tweaked to enhance its own strengths (see ‘Laser Beam’), LEVEL3 tends to favour restructuring large elements of the original song with mixed results.
So ‘Spring of Life’, which originally kicked straight off with its trademark vocal intro, opts for a lengthier intro on the album mix which builds into an ominous bass synth rhythm. As remixes go, it’s a serviceable number that provides some surprises and yet still manages to keep the zip of the original. Meanwhile, Perfume’s 23rd single release ‘Magic of Love’ survives more or less intact on LEVEL3, albeit with some additional electronic melodic overlays and effects.
‘Clockwork’ unveils the first new tune proper on LEVEL3 and it’s a slow burner of pop perfection. ‘1mm’, which was issued in September as a digital release to promote the album, opens with a captivating tumbling percussion that brings to mind the likes of ‘I Still Love U’ from their 2009 album Triangle. As a song, ‘1mm’ offers up a densely layered selection of reedy melodies and traditional harmonic vocal trills.
‘Mirai no Museum’ was originally written as the theme song to the animated movie, Doraemon: Nobita no Himitsu Dōgu Museum. It’s also the single release that attracted derision from some quarters of the blogosphere. It’s certainly a switch from what’s regarded as the traditional Perfume sound and is more closely aligned with a traditional idol pop sound which, critics may have forgotten, is precisely the type of music that Perfume originally started out with. Also, it’s a tune for a cartoon about a cat so it’s unclear what the critics were expecting here, possibly the second coming of Yellow Magic Orchestra or something.
The real error here is ‘Mirai no Museum’ being included on LEVEL3 because it’s a complete gear change from the rest of the material on the album. A shrewder decision would have been the inclusion of the top notch B-Side track ‘Hurly Burly’.
If there’s a point at which LEVEL3 really comes off the rails however, it’s ‘Party Maker’. The longest track on the album (it clocks in at over 7 minutes), this number starts off in good form but then seems to veer horribly off into a by-the-numbers thumping club mix before rescuing itself, briefly, at the midway point.
‘Party Maker’ had originally seen life as the music for a cm for Chocola BB drinks and the brief powerful pop16-second segment used there is what we were all expecting to hear on LEVEL3, expanded into a satisfying 3 or 4min version. It’s not difficult to conclude that ‘Party Maker’ probably was originally constructed in such a fashion, but the nature of LEVEL3 to mix and rearrange everything means that the tune for this song is frustratingly obscured here.
Taking the pace down a bit, ‘Furikaeru to iru yo’ offers up a more restrained Perfume number that’s enhanced by a subtle use of sub-bass effects. Meanwhile, ‘Point’ delivers a euphoric Technopop number whose bright and airy pop moments and clipped melodies showcase a track that originally began life as simply a B-Side number to ‘Spending All My Time’.
‘Daijobanai’ gives us a fast choppy tune with percussive fills. It’s yet another Perfume gem that was previously a little lost as a B-Side track (and for ‘Mirai No Museum’ no less, which didn’t please hardcore Perfume fans).
If there’s one particular standout moment on the album it’s the inclusion of ‘Handy Man’. It’s another of Perfume’s finer B-Side tracks – this time for ‘Magic of Love’ which, we would argue, is far superior to it’s A-Side equivalent. ‘Handy Man’ has a relentless driving rhythm to it guaranteed to get the feet tapping. Attendees at Perfume’s UK debut might recognise this track in its instrumental form as it formed the intermission music at the halfway point of the gig.
Into the final third of the album we get ‘Sleeping Beauty’, Nakata here appears to be veering back into a more loose form of song construction. More of the reedy melodies that were evident on tracks like 1mm, but with a compelling arpeggio driving the song along. The vocal elements are very subtle (essentially just a breathy rendition of the song title) and give a dreamlike element to the track.
‘Spending All My Time’, here curiously relegated to the last but one track on the album is another Perfume number that upset elements of the blogosphere due to its use of English lyrics (and the sheer audacity that Perfume should actually embark on their plans of seeking global success).
Here, the album mix version of the single starts off well but unwisely strays back into the clubby morass that bogs down ‘Party Maker’. The insistent melody of the original was an adequate club-friendly tune and it seems bizarre to want to deconstruct the song in pursuit of a better dance tune that never quite arrives, although rendered in a live setting reworking the song still curiously remains an inspired gesture.
Lastly, ‘Dream Land’ presents a nice album closer with its washes of sound, glissando effects and charming music box rhythm.
LEVEL3 is an adequate enough Perfume album that’s not going to disappoint the fans, but it does feel at times like it’s just falling below the expected standards. Some revisions on the track listing (providing room for the likes of ‘Hurly Burly’ and new release ‘Sweet Refrain’ for instance) would have resulted in a much stronger album release in J-Pop Go’s opinion.
There’s clearly a scheme here to reinvent the trio as a much more dance-orientated outfit, which is a worthy enough goal but retro-fitting existing Perfume songs may not be the best way forward. There’s clearly room for both a Perfume remix album and a standalone album of pure Perfume songs and we can’t help but feel that this would have been a much shrewder path to take with LEVEL3.