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Ayumi Hamasaki Album Review: Rock'n'Roll Circus

Updated on August 2, 2012
Ayumi Hamasaki promoting her 11th album "Rock'n'Roll Circus'.
Ayumi Hamasaki promoting her 11th album "Rock'n'Roll Circus'.
CD Only.
CD Only.

"Rock'n'Roll Circus" is Ayumi Hamasaki's 11th full-length album released on April 14th, 2010. The themes of the album derive from most of its creation in London a few months before release, with first presses including a photobook of Ayu touring around the city. Only two singles were released to promote the album in the year before, the summer song and ballad "Sunrise / Sunset ~LOVE is ALL" and the double-ballad winter single "You were... / BALLAD", making the heavy rock anticipation a surprise for most fans. This album takes on a decidedly darker trend than most of Ayu's previous albums, with most of the costuming provided by late designer Alexander McQueen.

This review consists of a track-by-track analysis followed by my overall thoughts. Each song is scored on a 1-10 scale, with 10 being the best. It should be noted that scores are based on comparison's to Ayu's other works, not to music as a whole. With over 200 original songs in her library, I mostly compare Ayu's work against itself, and thus the scoring will reflect a song's standing in her library.

Disclaimer: By no means is this review the be-all-end-all of what is and isn't great. I'm just one big fan with a lot of bias but also a lot of expectations. Feel free to add your thoughts about this album in the comments below!

Track #1 - THE introduction

Music & Arrangement: CMJK

Not just any introduction, but THE introduction! Or is it? Well, it's definitely something interesting. For our first track on the album we get some 80's sci-fi nod, which makes me think that this "circus" is basically going to be aliens shooting out of canons and marching upon Japan in neat little alien rolls while Ayu shoots fireworks at them. Yes. Yes this is what I imagine. It's a ridiculous introduction that's almost impossible to take seriously and definitely does not invoke a "rock and roll" feel, but at the same time it's kind of fun in a totally different context. Is this on the right album?

SCORE: 7.25

Track #2 - Microphone

Music & Arrangement: Yuta Nakano

Amazingly, "THE introduction" leads us straight into a whimsical organ and slashing guitars. Ah, so this is where the rock and roll was hiding? I can dig it. "Microphone" is one of the two best songs on this album, and the fact it's right up front means Ayu wanted to slap a lasting impression on us listeners. Throughout the song Ayu tells us "tell me why, tell me why" which makes me wonder if she's got a microphone hiding somewhere that I can't see. The lyrics in general are pretty moody as Ayu shouts about hating somebody so much to the point of never being able to live without them - gnarly. The verses are quietly sung while a guitar broods in the background, and the chorus explodes into a chaotic mess of rocking anger. If you can't jam to this song, you can't jam to any song on this album. The highlight of course is the organ at the beginning and ending of this song - give me more organ and maybe we could talk about raising the score on this song. Maybe.

VIDEO: Welcome everyone to the rockin' gothic world of Rock Queen Ayumi Hamasaki, complete with Alexander McQueen costuming, foreigners being bizarre as heck (based on Ayu's videos alone, I'm noticing this trend in her videos shot in London...), with everything now with HIGH RES TOUCHSCREEN capibilities! The "Microphone" video is a visual medley of Ayu owning a stage in a giant black gown while half of London pop and locks around in their own vignettes. Meanwhile, the director's been playing with his Power Point and taking slide wipe notes - the scenes are interchanged by a slide of Ayu's finger (as if the screen were a smart phone touchscreen) or "crumpled" like paper. Sounds ridiculous? Yup. But it's the biggest, funnest sort of ridiculousness you're going to find on this whole album. It's the most rewatch-worthy video of them all here and its explosiveness can't even be touched by most of Ayu's other releases. The scene of her finger sliding a random Brit into her shoulder wins all the awards ever. (Oh, and it's to be continued! Turns out "Sexy little things" Ayu was in control of the touchscreen all along!)

SCORE: 8.0

Track #3 - count down

Music & Arrangement: Yuta Nakano

(Huh, another song completely done by Yuta Nakano. Where is this album going?) In what is probably the most depressing song on the album, "count down" is Ayu's personal tale about her struggles with the disease that left her completely deaf in her left ear. The lyrics are full of "hearing" allusions and "left side" motifs. Essentially, Ayu says that the "end is coming", but instead of an apocalyptic ending we get the ending of her hearing. The song is not defeated in nature however, since Ayu declares that she's still strong on her "left side". This message is carried across a slow, forceful composition and a flurry of strange, abruptive sounds in the background, perhaps reflecting the sensations of going deaf and being unable to trust one's hearing anymore. It's a very poignant song and not one to mess around with.

SCORE: 7.5

Track #4 - Sunset ~LOVE is ALL~

Music: Hana Nishimura

Arrangement: Yuta Nakano

Suddenly we go from the first two rockish songs to a very, very slow and soft piano ballad. Well, okay. Bit early for the soft and slow piano ballads in an album called "Rock'n'Roll Circus", but "Sunset" was a single song so iti's kind of required to show up on this album. Now, this song is the same composition as its partner "Sunrise", although that one doesn't show up until the end of the album. This ballad version has a different arrangement (provided by Nakano, again) and lyrics, and the lyrics are essentially love-love and a total 180 from the raw emotions of the first two songs. Sound wise, the ballad-ness doesn't sound too out of place, but one has to wonder what this song is doing here in this spot on the album. Well, we wonder that until the next song, anyway....

VIDEO: As the sequel to "Sunrise" (see below), "Sunset" takes place a few hours later when Ayu has changed into a flowing sarong. She continues to sing on her lift, but now all her dancers are doing some interpretive stuff while a super orange sunset glows everywhere. Congrats, Ayu, this is one of your most boring videos ever.

SCORE: 6.5

Track #5 - BALLAD

Music: DAI

Arrangement: Yuta Nakano

Ah, look! Another ballad...called..."BALLAD"! Well, at least it's aptly titled. Following "Sunset" we have "BALLAD", another single song but of much higher quality. "BALLAD" is a sweeping...erm...ballad with traditional Japanese musical instruments (particularly a flute, but also some strings and drums) layered beneath traditional pop elements. As is customary for such a titled song, "BALLAD" is a depressing "please don't leave me" song, but instead of being cheesy it's actually quite nostalgic and emotional. Ayu sings with a soft voice not heard before in her other songs. The composition is easy to follow along with (but then again, it is Dai Nagao, one of the best she's ever worked with) and melts wonderfully with the dramatic arrangement. The best touch is the final notes Ayu sings with a power new to the song. Their despondency sticks with you even after the last notes fade away.

VIDEO: As perhaps the most cinematic video off the album, "BALLAD" tells the pastel-colored story of Princess Ayu singing wide-eyed and wig-haired in a field while notorious back-up dancer Shuya runs around assaulting post boxes. Oh, and there's some really hilarious CGI of them riding a motorcycle and mowing over anime cats. Clearly, Shuya is in a coma, and Ayu is trying to communicate to him through his dreams as....Princess Ayu. Also, clocks ticking. There's nothing really mysterious or new about this video, but it is gorgeous to look at as the sets are astounding. I particularly like the "flower field asteroid" Ayu sings on and the wall of clocks Shuya likes to brood in front of. What I don't like is the predictability and the fact that it's Shuya starring in it. I kind of have an irrational hatred of this guy showing up in everything Ayu does. It's one of the nicest videos on the album, but doesn't stack up to some of her better classics. Nice, but forgettable.

SCORE: 7.5

Track #6 - Last Links

Music: Tetsuya Yukumi

Arrangement: CMJK

Finally, a song untouched by Yuta Nakano! Instead we get a refreshing composition from Tetsuya Yukumi. and a down-to-earth rockish arrangement from CMJK. That's the other thing - hooray for leaving the ten minutes of soft and flowy~ ballads for some more punch! "Last Links" is described as a song for the Earth, and its lyrics reference the sun and the sky and wind more than once while insinuating a love for all that it contains. The overall sound is a classic pop-rock melody with fresh acoustic guitars throughout. This song is one of the nicest, unsuspecting gems of the album: which means it's largely ignored and forgotten. For shame.

SCORE: 7.5

Track #7 - montage

Music & Arrangement: Yuta Nakano

Here comes the sandwich brigade, beginning with "montage", a little interlude diddy played up with dramatic, ominous strings reminiscent of a period mystery piece. Yeah, it sounds very retro London. Where's Sherlock? Oh wait, now we're delving into dark strings that sound like empty palaces...and now there's the harpsichord to remind us of dancing dolls and God knows what else. What an interesting little interlu - oh wow, that was a sudden ending...

SCORE: 7.5

Track #8 - Don't look back

Music: Yuta Nakano

Arrangement: CMJK

Back in the beginning when I said "Microphone" was one of the two best songs on this album, "Don't look back" was what I implied as being the other. It's an enticing Middle Eastern inspired song that plays on your curiosity. Each time Ayu whispers "don't look back" in the verses I get a little chill as I imagine her saying it with a smirk on her face. Meanwhile, the choruses are a treat as they spiral from lucidity and into a completely different world. The lyrics are the only part of the song that makes any solid sense. As the title implies, "Don't look back" is Ayu musing that too many people dwell on their pasts without bothering to think about their futures - but she's no better than these same people as she too is wary of moving forward with life. "Don't look back" is a mantra to herself to focus on her goals. And it's the best damn mantra ever!

VIDEO: An awesome song deserves an equally awesome video, and that's what we pleasantly get with the "Don't look back" video. Ayu is gorgeous as she sits and reflects at a table and stands in front of a tattered wall while making faux-happy faces. Suddenly the camera pans out and it turns out that Ayu has defaced blown-up versions of her "A BEST 2" covers, an homage to her "ourselves" video from seven years before. What continues to intrigue the viewer is the hasty camera work between happy Ayu at the wall and sad Ayu at the table. Surrounding sad Ayu (who keeps breaking to cry) is cut hair and sheers, although Ayu is seemingly "fine". And then the final chorus erupts to show the other side of Ayu, with her mangled make-up and hacked hair. Man, Ayu is really struggling with that whole "moving forward" bit. Luckily for us it's a gorgeous struggle. (Put down the lipstick, Ayu!)

SCORE: 8.0

Track #9 - Jump!

Music & Arrangement: CMJK

Our last interlude of the album (and of this song sandwich) is "Jump!" a little electrorock diddy comprised mostly of "ooooh"s and a chorus shouting "Jump! Jump! Jump!" for a minute. The breakdown in the middle is a nice touch to breakup the monotony. Overall, I would say this is probably the best interlude on the album. It's just short enough to keep the listener from wanting to throw this repetitive song through the proverbial window.

SCORE: 7.5

Track #10 - Lady Dynamite

Music: Hara Kazuhiro

Arrangement: CMJK

Time to bust open the obligatory party song of the album, "Lady Dynamite"! This raunchy free-for-all is an electro-rock party that takes jabs at men and their apparent habit of talking too much (what culture is this?) There are no surprises in this song, however - just in your face party beats and a straightforward composition. "Lady Dynamite" gets the job done as an upbeat nod to the feminine mystique but doesn't do much else. It's fun for the four minutes it plays but then is easily discarded for better songs on the album.

VIDEO: Ayu heads to her favorite party spot, Shinjuku Ni-chome, the biggest gay club area in the world. In this particular world Ayu arrives as the queen diva and begins her extravagant party with all the serious and would be drag queens of Tokyo. And yes, the BDSM boys. Ayu really knows how to party in Ni-chome. Now, Ayu is certainly considered a "gay idol" in the Japanese queer subculture, and Ayu's tabloid exploits in Ni-chome are almost legendary, but there is that sense of exploitation that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. But it doesn't last too long when you realize that this is probably the best press this side of Shinjuku has had in...well, forever. Oh, and there's also Shuya being not annoying for once. Always a plus.

SCORE: 7.0

Track #11 - Sexy little things

Music & Arrangement: Yuta Nakano

The final notes of "Lady Dynamite" segue right into the opening notes of "Sexy little things", one of the most bizarre songs Ayu has ever put out. For almost four minutes we're treated to Ayu's cutesy voice sputtering over a poppy, almost 8-bit arrangement that is other-worldly. There's no other way to describe "Sexy little things" than "click on the video to the right and listen for yourself". If this song doesn't make you start to question your own thought processes by the end then apparently you're less sensitive than I am - especially when the weird sound effects and applause break out in the end. Extra props to one of the most unique songs in Ayu's discography.

VIDEO: Picking up where "Microphone" left off, we see Ayu in red McQueen plugging in bleeding outlets (which, according to the video, is hilarious) and futzing around with eyeball-stereos. Otherwise it's basically a bizarre fashion show for the strange and weird until the end when "Microphone" Ayu shows up smashing a guitar. While the video for "Sexy little things" definitely fits the vibe of the song, I can't help but feel that there's a lot of lost potential here. Apparently I need even more weirdness.

SCORE: 7.5

Track #12 - Sunrise ~LOVE is ALL~

Music: Hana Nishimura

Arrangement: CMJK

As the partner track to "Sunset", "Sunrise" is the upbeat, electro-poppy and positive song meant for beach parties and declaring one's love for life. The intro is enough to set this song apart from its summer predecessors and is, in my humblest of Ayu-fan opinions, her best summer song since "fairyland" in 2005. But just because it's the best in its category doesn't mean it's anything to write home about and declare undying love for. "Sunrise" is a good summer song that does its job, but it gets old quickly and isn't going to set any records. Wait, I take that back, it did set some records - its original cover art was reportedly so horrendous that many fans derided it as her worst ever. Fantastic!

VIDEO: Ayu's on a deck happily singing while swinging a towel around. That's about it. What makes this video stand out at all is that it features a hundred or so extras from her fanclub, "Team Ayu". The best part of this video is the making of that shows all her fans getting in buses bound for the sea to watch and take part in a promotional video for their favorite singer. Not gonna lie, I would join this bore-fest too and have the time of my life. But the "Sunrise" video is like a baseball game - it was probably a lot more exciting in real life than it is on film.

SCORE: 7.0

Track #13 - meaning of Love

Music: Tetsuya Yukumi

Arrangement: HIKARI

Oh goodness, we're suddenly back to the ballads...and "meaning of Love" takes the cake as the most boring, useless filler track on this whole album with its uninspired composition, overdone sappy lyrics, and phoned-in arrangement. Ayu's vocals are probably the best part of this song, but even they tend to screech off key more than once. I think I must have listened to this album a hundred times since it first dropped and I still couldn't tell you how this song goes off hand. Bad. Just bad.

SCORE: 5.25

Track #14 - You were...

Music: Kazuhiro Hara

Arrangement: HAL

Main winter ballad singles always have a precedence to live up to, and "You were..." was no different in that expectation. As both the winter ballad and the last single released before the album, "You were...." pulled double duty in generating seasonal interest. Ayu's yearly sad ballads are practically legendary in J-pop, so how does "You were..." stack up? Especially this late in the album? Well, I'm happy to say that "You were..." is a super solid single from Ayu, full of bitter emotion as Ayu laments for her "lost love" who left her for someone else long ago. The frustration and resolution in her voice soars above the intense arrangement and heart-stopping composition. The seasonal winter feel to the song even fits in with the rest of the album's mood. Kazuhiro Hara is a fantastic ballad engineer and his contribution is a real delight to this album.

VIDEO: For a great ballad for some reason we get a not-so-great video. Well, it's certainly pretty, with the lovely profile shots of Ayu singing and the cute hand puppets, but overall it's pretty much just standing in place singing and some more interpretive dancing. (Seriously, what is with the dancing on this album?) At least Ayu's dress is super cool: it lights up! The entire video looks like a faux-winter wonderland for the despondent and the depressed.

SCORE: 7.5

Track #14 - RED LINE ~for TA~ (album version)

Music: Tetsuya Yukumi

Arrangement: Yuta Nakano

The last song of this album is "RED LINE", or at least the album version of the bonus song that appeared on the "You were... / BALLAD" single. "RED LINE" is an inspirational pop-rock song dedicated to "Team Ayu", Ayu's fan club. The most notable part of this song is the uplifting chorus that brings to mind an image of Ayu and all of TA standing on a hillside waving their arms together while guitars and drums serenade them throughout the afternoon. What makes this version different from the single version is the ending that fades out to an acapella of Ayu singing the chorus. Her voice is kinda flat and screechy, but it's always a treat to hear her voice as it naturally is. Technically this song isn't a bonus track, but it kind of feels like one when compared to the rest of the album. Overall I really enjoy this song and continuously kick myself that I've yet to stuff it somewhere on my iPod.

SCORE: 7.75


Listened to the album? What do you think?

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Album Rating

4.5 out of 5 stars from 4 ratings of Rock'n'Roll Circus

Final Thoughts

Since it was first announced in late 2009 that Ayu was recording tracks and videos in London, anticipation for this album had been high. When the title "Rock'n'Roll Circus" was revealed, anticipation leapt through the roof. Fans had been waiting for a "rock" centered album from Ayu for years and it seemed that it was finally coming to us, even with three ballads and a summer song as introductory singles. And for the first couple of tracks, it was rock'n'roll heaven. But then the ballads came in - but they were single ballads and thus bound to be crammed in somewhere, yes? And from there the "rock'n'roll" all but disappeared until it was just a little thread Yuta Nakano left to string the tracks together. The tracks themselves are not horrible (well, "meaning of Love" is not so hot) but most of them did not live up to expectation either. Tracks such as "Microphone" and "Don't look back" make the album, but even they couldn't get a higher score than 8 on this review. "Sexy little things" and "THE introduction" both offered an appreciated quirkiness but their charm wears off after repeated listens. Two of the four ballads are gorgeous and all-around lovely, but that's only 50 percent - and where do they really fit in this album? The album tracks are raw in their emotion and multi-layered in their sound, but the single tracks demonstrate releases put out before any album theme came into fruition. This is a downside of the J-pop release method, but usually Ayu is more on top of things than this. Then again, maybe it was her intent all along.

"Rock'n'Roll Circus" is far from a horrible Ayu album, but it's also not rock n roll or even circus-y. The hype didn't live up to the reality for sure on this release. It's an album full of nice, solid tracks, but nothing Earth-shattering or career defining. The videos are better than some before or some after, but the art direction of the album leaves a lot to be desired. There was a lot of missed intent in this album, but it's still a pleasant listening experience.

All images in this hub are copyright avex trax. They are used here for promotional purposes only.


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