LEVEL3, the latest album by Japanese pop trio Perfume, is out now. Their fourth full-length (fifth if you count 2006’s Complete Best, a compilation of early singles, as an album), and produced as always by Yasutaka Nakata, it includes some of their most aggressive, dancefloor-oriented music to date, as well as a few pieces of surprising delicacy. It opens at full-strength with “Enter the Sphere,” a buzzing, whirling, thunderous techno track that’s got a few dashes of pop around the edges but is basically intended to pummel the listener into submission quick and hard. The three singers who make up Perfume—Ayano Ōmoto (“Nocchi“), Yuka Kashino (“Kashiyuka“), and Ayaka Nishiwaki (“A-chan“)—are heard only twice: once about a minute in, and again in the track’s final seconds. They chant a few lines, including the title, “enter the sphere,” but then the music takes over. The second track, “Spring of Life,” is similarly hyper-aggressive. As a single, “Spring of Life” was a chirpy 3:50 electro-pop tune with an infernally catchy chorus that actually included the phrase “dance for joy.” Here, it’s been blown out to six minutes, and despite the fact that the vocals haven’t been treated or changed in any way, it feels like a radically different song, more like a 12″ mix from the early 1990s than an “album mix.”
LEVEL3 includes four tracks previously released as singles (“Spring of Life,” “Magic of Love,” “Mirai no Museum” and “Spending All My Time”) and three B-sides (“Point,” “Daijobanai,” and “Handy Man”). Two additional B-sides, “Hurly Burly” from the “Spring of Life” single and “Communication” from the “Spending All My Time” single, are not included, and in the former case that’s a real shame; it’s a terrific song, a stomping mix of huge drums, video-game keyboards, and chirping, interlocking vocals that’s pure Perfume. In three out of four cases, the singles have been substantially altered; the only one that remains unchanged is “Mirai no Museum,” a song that started out as the theme to a Doraemon movie for small children, and sounds like it, with a simple up-and-down bounce and relentlessly major-key melody clearly intended to inspire back-seat-of-the-car singalongs as Mom and Dad contemplate driving into oncoming traffic. “Spring of Life” and “Magic of Love” are equally good in their album and single versions, but one track in particular suffers in the transition from single to album.
“Spending All My Time” was one of the best songs of 2012, a hypnotic track whose vocal melody looped over and over until it was almost like a round; it seemed to build and build without ever actually reaching any kind of musical or vocal climax—indeed, the almost dispassionate way in which the women of Perfume sang the lyrics matched perfectly with its awesome and vaguely terrifying video (see below), in which they portray girls who can shatter objects with their minds, and/but are locked in a small room together where they perform intricate hand-waving choreography together, staring deeply into each other’s eyes before bending spoons or blowing up ceramic figurines. On the album, the song gets to about the 50-second mark before it’s interrupted by the sung phrase “Oh my god,” which signals the arrival of a dance breakdown, and only at about 1:20 does the chorus come in, but the snowballing power of the original has been lost. Also, the arrangement is less spare than on the single, with airy, swooshing keyboards filling in the background, and hard techno demanding that the listener dance rather than surrender to the trance that the single so capably induced.
The seven brand-new songs on LEVEL3—”Enter the Sphere,” “Clockwork,” “1mm,” “Party Maker,” “Furikaeru to Iru Yo,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Dream Land”—are uniformly excellent. “Party Maker,” the album’s longest track at 7:22, is a crushing techno storm that sounds more like Nakata’s own project, Capsule, than anything he’s ever done for Perfume before. The combination of the singers’ soaring vocals over the relentless, pounding beat is one of the most euphoric moments on an overwhelmingly energized album. The fact that the next song is the cybernetic slow jam R&B of “Furikaeru…” only serves to emphasize the breadth of approaches available to Perfume within what might initially seem like a somewhat narrow range; after all, their voices are relatively thin, and harmonize very closely. One thing that’s very noticeable is that Nakata isn’t manipulating their voices as much as he has in the past; there’s autotune and digital sweetening present, of course, but on the last Perfume album, 2011’s JPN (reviewed here), he chopped them up into digital fragments, practically turning them into another rhythm track. Indeed, digital stuttering in general seems to have been largely dropped from his toolbox, except for “Sleeping Beauty” and a few dubstep-ish moments on “Daijobanai (I’m Not Okay),” the B-side of “Mirai no Museum” and one of LEVEL3‘s most percussively twitchy tracks.
“Spending All My Time,” sung almost entirely in English, was the first step in what appears to be Perfume‘s attempt to reach a greater number of non-Japanese-speaking fans. This was followed by the compilation Love the World (get it on iTunes) and the digital release of all their prior work. Perhaps the release of LEVEL3—not only Perfume‘s best album, but one of the best albums of 2013—will lead to a world tour, and the global success this unique act deserves.