Perfume: Level3

This isn’t going to be a review in the traditional sense because with two long features on Capsule recently written and currently going through the proofing process at The Japan Times and Time Out Tokyo, I’m feeling quite Nakata’d out. Instead, I’d like to draw your attention to a couple of pieces other people have written about Perfume and hopefully add remarks of my own where relevant.

First up, there’s m’colleague Daniel Robson’s interview in this week’s Japan Times. The definition of the term “J-pop” is vague enough that he can get away with saying Level3 isn’t a J-pop album, although I think you have to take a pretty strict, 90s purist attitude to really hold that view. What Daniel means, I think, is that Level3 isn’t a normal J-pop album, which it isn’t. More so than any Perfume album before, it’s a dance record, bringing in lots of the ideas that Capsule took to self-parodic extremes on World of Fantasy and then started to refine into something more acceptably pop on Stereo Worxxx. With Capsule now pushing in a radically different tack (seriously, wait for their new album, it’s… well, it’s interesting), these electro-house elements seen quite at home with Perfume now.

The songwriting isn’t radically different from what we’re used to, but unlike 2011’s solid but still a little disappointing JPN, Level3 is full of little moments that jump out at you and make you go, “How the fuck did Nakata get away with that?” The dirty synths of opening track Enter the Sphere are just the first in a long line of these moments, and one of a number of places where the album reminds you of when you first heard Game. Daniel goes overboard a bit, I think, when he describes the new album mixes of Spring of Life and Magic of Love as “practically new songs altogether”, but the new mixes do work a lot better here than they did on JPN, with Spending All My Time perhaps a highlight, albeit hacked down extensively from the epic live version.Perfume: Spending All My Time (live mix)

Kashiyuka’s comment that she didn’t know about the new versions of the songs until she heard them says a lot about the girls’ role in relation to the production process, but then we already knew about that, right? Nakata pays attention to the people who will be performing the music he makes, but the end result is basically an interpretation by him of whatever the pre-stated requirements of the ad agencies and management companies are. All of which, of course, makes his achievement on Level3 that much more striking.

I’d also like to point you towards comrade Ryotaro Aoki’s detailed album review, which provides a more cool headed assessment of the album’s strengths and flaws, although basically I think he, Daniel and I are all more or less in agreement that it’s a fine record.Perfume: 1mm

Ryotaro singles out Mirai no Museum as a weak point, an unwelcome intrusion in a run of tracks that rips a chasm open between the rather fine single 1mm (which Ryotaro wrote about on this blog earlier in the week) and the delightfully over-the-top electro-house meltdown Party Maker. Like Ryotaro, I don’t have such a problem with Mirai no Museum, partly because everyone already hates it and I’m a contrary son of a bitch, but it’s a very so-what? sort of song, and there is absolutely nowhere on this album where it would fit in comfortably.

Personally, I think another weak moment is the horrendously misguided drum’n’bass track Point. I may have grown up in Bristol in the 90s, but I don’t think I’m a purist about that sort of thing (I was willing to allow My Bloody Valentine their weird, rockist take on the genre earlier this year), but Point just sounds wrong, wrong, wrong. Seriously, experiment, mix forms, genre is fluid, but some things are just in crappy taste. With the album reaching 65 minutes in length, these tracks would be ideal places to start trimming off the extra fat.

And it is too long. One of the commenters under Daniel’s Japan Times piece points out that it doesn’t feel like 65 minutes, and they’re right: it feels like 55 minutes, which is still about ten minutes too long. The forthcoming Capsule album, Caps Lock, is only 35 minutes and the pacing is perfectly pitched, but then Capsule operate under a very different set of restrictions (basically none on the new album) and Nakata was rather freer there to make an album to be listened to in just the way he wanted it to be and that was the exact length it needed to be.

So yes, Level3 is better than JPN, doing (with one or two rare exceptions) a much better job of integrating the singles into the overall context of the album. It also reaches closest to the shock and awe many of us felt upon first hearing Game, although in the end, I think it’s more or less on the same level as Triangle in the group’s canon. It’s still a J-pop album with all the commercial baggage that entails, but it’s also among the very best J-pop albums of the year.


Filed under Albums, Reviews

18 responses to “Perfume: Level3

  1. perfumeophile

    “One of the commenters under Daniel’s Japan Times piece points out that it doesn’t feel like 65 minutes…”

    that was me, under a different screenname, ian…but personally, i don’t find this “55 minutes” overly long in any way… as i say a lot “opinions, they differ”

    my immediate reaction to caps lock was, “wow that’s great, and it really works as an album..sure wish it was longer.”

    • I’d rather they just made two albums of about 40 minutes each and maybe put them out more often. Caps Lock could have been longer, but I’d rather be left wanting more. It’s a perfectly formed little gem.

      • perfumeophile

        well, i certainly wouldn’t object to shorter perfume albums more other….

        going back to cap locks’ running time, ian, it’s only a bit shorter than “ralf and florian,” one of a number of krautrock and older electronic albums that came to mind as i listened

        ps: about the comment thread at daniel’s piece…mine was the only one that actually talked about level 3…some of the others were flat out bonkers

      • The restriction of vinyl in forcing bands into 20-22 minutes a side is something I think many bands nowadays would benefit from. The indie record market in Japan is built around the 20-30 minute mini-album, partly I think because the live booking environment forces bands to think in terms of 30-minute segments. I like the conciseness but I guess it sometimes hampers a ban’s ability to explore.

        As for the JT comments, the moment an idol thing appears, all the loonies come out. Incoherent prejudices are very much the order of the day.

      • perfumeophile

        “Caps Lock is a perfectly formed little gem.”

        i think that gets it exactly right. listening as i type..just over [the dark side of] the moon about it. there’s so many cool 70’s references included, it’s going to take a while to tease them all out

        the a-side of the new kyary single, mottai night land, is also totally fantastic.. .

        i can’t remember the last time i saw a songwriter / creator on a roll the way nakata is right now

  2. UltimateMusicSnob

    Point has a complex drum pattern, but I heard it more as shibayu-kei than drum ‘n bass. Nakata knows jazz chords and goes that direction harmonically to greater extent sometimes, and far less others. The textures and synth patches are *awfully* sweet for my tastes (I prefer “Edge” and “Starry Sky”), but they match the text and, I assume, the sponsor who’s using this material to sell whatever.

  3. perfumeophile

    not surprisingly i woke up with “point” going through my head this morning

    to me the sweeping harps and fantastic melody totally overpower the rhythmic base…and since i was only interested in d&b briefly in the 90’s, i have no emotional reaction to whatever uk cultural baggage is attached to it and simply don’t think about the song that way

    this was the one b-side i thought wouldn’t make the album, so i was happy to see it made the cut

    • I know a few people who like it, and I don’t think it’s the cultural baggage that’s affecting my reaction to it (I don’t have the same issues with, for example, trip hop being used in J-pop as Mr. Children and My Little Lover both tried to do in the late 90s). My initial, instinctive idea when I first heard it as a b-side was, “Oh, interesting idea…” but the more I listened, the more dissonant those elements became to the point where it just feels yuck now. It’s just that madly skittering beats like that with a saccharine melody over the top just don’t gel for me. It’s not just that track in particular, I’m just not sure J-pop will ever really sound right with drum’n’bass:

      • perfumeophile

        not to belabor the “point” here [apologies]…but it’s the chords that makes the song really work for me…and for others as well because there are number of mashups using the song…ironically enough, the first time i ever heard a taylor swift song was when i came across this….

      • perfumeophile

        in the “opinions, they differ” department here’s what patrick st. michel wrote in his level 3 review: “Point” merges drum ‘n’ bass percussion with bubbly pop (and some lovely harp) to form the most daring production work Nakata has produced in the past two years.”

      • Yeah, when I said earlier that I know some people who like it, I basically meant Patrick, but just didn’t want to seem to be picking a fight with a colleague. I disagree that it really “merges” anything though. It slaps a cheesy post-Shibuya-kei tune over a totally inappropriate beat and they don’t hang together. It’s not daring, it’s just half-assed. I think the only way you can make stuff like this work is if you push the whole thing over the edge into something totally manic. @deepmusiclistening linked to the Kyary track below, and for his stuff with Kyary I think Nakata was very influenced by Plus-tech Squeeze Box, who were the absolute masters at manic bubblegum post-Shibuya-kei with mad beats:

      • perfumeophile

        “opinions; they differ.”

        to be clear, i’m not giving you a hard time, ian…i just happen to disagree with all the point hate…

        in the meantime here’s the new kyary video

      • Sure, no offence taken or inferred. I know what I’m getting into when I engage in debate with someone called “perfumophile” 😉

        The new Kyary… not doing it for me. On first listen, it’s her worst track in a long time.

      • Of course I don’t know the actual process, but I had adopted the notion that Nakata experiments in capsule, and floats the mainstream-ish electro-pop hits out to Perfume. I appreciated the quality of the music composition in Perfume, which never seemed remotely as ‘way out’ as something like capsule’s “Fruits Clipper” album. “Point” does provoke that ‘wait, what?’ moment I get **all the time** in capsule, I’m kind of surprised to see the experiment take place in Perfume.

        It’s far from the worst way to proceed as a composer (mashing up discrete musical genres), and even with my very shallow knowledge of J-pop subcategories, I’m pretty sure I can see Nakata borrowing materials from *everywhere*, East and West, to concoct his hits. Doesn’t always work. I’m not a fan of bubblegum anything, so this track is more difficult for me to get into. What I’d really like is for Nakata to borrow from the Sex Pistols and see how that goes…

      • perfumeophile

        “What I’d really like is for Nakata to borrow from the Sex Pistols and see how that goes…”

        @deep listening

        while it’s more power pop than punk, nataka just wrote a conventional rock song for scandal called “overdrive” [various tv shots of the song are at youtube]

      • perfumeophile

        I know what I’m getting into when I engage in debate with someone called “perfumeophile” 😉

        hey!!! i resemble that remark…..

        i had thought about posting as john perfumo, but decided that might be too obscure….my screennames aren’t meant to be taken seriously…check the one i use to leave comments at your japan times articles, ian…

        anyway, at this point [sorry!] the debate about the track has come down to “i hate that colour combination” vs “i don’t mind that color combination.” might as well argue how many a-chans can dance on the head of a pin…[saving us the trouble, it’s either 575 or 2330]

        and just a gentle reminder: it was me, as perfumeophile, who posted the links to the eno’s hospital room and history of la monte young articles…an act that, hopefully, should shatter any illusions i’m simply a starry-skyed, er eyed, fan of a certain three girl techno-pop unit…..


  4. I’m sure I’m not hearing it the way Nakata does [for sure], nor the way native Japanese would. The female singers are generally at least half an octave higher than American pop artists anyway, and their timbre is far closer to soubrette (light lyric) than America’s altos. Even the [ahem] older ladies of Perfume have a much younger sound in their vocal timbre than do most American pop singers, regardless of age. Add the saccharine melody to the youthful timbres, and we’re a lonnnggggg way from nearly all Western pop music. This is not quite drum ‘n bass, but it does have the machine-gun snare fills and a relatively busy beat; on the other hand, the energy of the vocal is better matched to the busy rhythm here:

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