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LABEL: Avex Trax RELEASE DATE: 2002 GENRE: Pop-Rock
// review by SoyBomb

J-Rock meets J-Pop Star.

The youth of Japan seem to worship J-Pop superstars. They are the equivalent of Britney Spears (okay, the old version of Britney Spears where she adopt an unusual lifestyle and let her children drive) over there. There are two in particular -- they seem to share a corny musical rivalry -- that hog the spotlight: Utada Hikari and Ayumi Hamasaki (or Ayu, for short). They dominate the pop charts, but perhaps Ayu can at least bask in the glory that eight of her albums (since 1999) have debuted at the #1 spot on the charts. I guess she must be good (or there's very little competition, although I doubt that's the case). One of her more popular albums is "I am...", a look into the peaceful mind of Ayu, as well as her feelings after the September 11 attacks, a source of inspiration for the songs featured here.

Keeping in mind that I don't speak a lick of Japanese, I really can't tell you whether the lyrics are good or not. She could be singing about rhinoceros rape for all I know...but I sincerely doubt it. She is a respected pop vocalist, after all! But why are the track names in English? Confusing, to say the least. Starting off with the title track, "I am...", she starts off singing solo and gets all nasal like she was trying to imitate Shakira or something. Dark and slow guitar and drums soon accompany her on a melancholy journey through Hell... at least I think. Well, it's apparent that we've entered J-Rock territory, and there's no turning back. Her vocals sound way too processed and it's a bit disturbing. Moving on... A quick trip-hoppy intro called Opening Run follows this, but has no presence of Ayumi anywhere. Next is Connected, which was actually produced by trance superstar Ferry Corsten (and as such, it's a trance track). It's pretty good, but only because I like trance music and Ferry Corsten's music too. This was composed prior to Corsten's electro days, so you can only expect pure trance. I've used the word "trance" enough times.

UNITE! (in all capital letters) brings more J-Rock to the forefront, as does Evolution, eventually sounding just like each other. I'm not sure why, but Ayu sings way too fast in her choruses. She needs to slow down and maybe reduce her caffeine intake. "evolution" is a bit more catchy and poppy though, so I'll recommend that one. They start out with a ballad-style introduction too -- how deceiving! Naturally is decent as well, but doesn't really stand out among the crowd, although the beat is danceable. I'm getting a bit tired of the generic cutesy J-Rock here with NEVER EVER -- as in, I NEVER EVER want to hear more J-Rock from you, Ayu! What does the J in J-Rock stand for? Jeneric?

Still Alone is a bit more relaxed and slower, so I can enjoy it a bit more. Frantic rock just gets to me sometimes. Daybreak sounds a bit more like something that may have fallen through the cracks of a bad My Chemical Romance or [insert a different generic North American pop-punk-rock band here] recording session. That doesn't make it good, but Ayu's fine feminine vocals shine through just fine (as they always do, although I don't mention it often enough). Taskinlude is another intermission that features no vocals, but it's still jazzy in a subdued fashion. Next is M, my favourite track on the album (and not just because of the great remix by Above & Beyond, which received global attention). It's a very chilled but introspective-sounding song (I can't be certain how introspective it is), a bit folksy at times but nice to listen to, plus it has some wild guitar work later on, reminiscent of Guns 'N Roses of olde.

A Song Is Born is quite the nice little ballad -- over six minutes long to boot -- which was the type of song I had been waiting for, to be honest. All that rock can't be good for the ultra-cute and ultra-feminine Ayumi Hamasaki! It's time to give her something softer to work with, and they did. Actually, they gave her two, because Dearest is also a ballad. Is the next song a ballad, too? It is. And the last track? Yes, that too. Oh dear, did they clump them together? This record has become a tad unbalanced, hasn't it? To round things out, however, there is a hidden bonus track at the end, entitled Flower Garden, which boasts some pretty powerful rock chops to complement earlier tracks. The circle of jammin' is complete, and all that I have learned is that Ayumi Hamasaki's voice belongs on ballads and softer tracks, not harder rock tunes. Leave that mixture of angelic vocals and blasting guitars for Evanescence to conquer.

To sum it all up, this is a very mainstream-sounding album, but also a slightly disorganized one. The flow from song to song is fine, but from genre to genre, there is an amazing dischord. Why they chose to clump all the ballads together at the end is a bit mind-boggling. If you can get past that, you'll find a slightly above average musical offering that illustrates her foray into rock music. It was an experiment that I wish she had only mildly dabbled in, as opposed to building an entire album around it. She's not exactly suited for hard rock. Nevertheless, there are a few gems to be found here, but expect to hear much of "the same" mixed in.

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