Ayumi Hamasaki

Rock'n'Roll Circus

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The first cuts on Rock'n'Roll Circus really live up to the album's name and may induce the audience to believe that Hamasaki is serious in her attempts to intrude on the terrain of Olivia and Anna Tsuchiya -- powerful and melodramatic gothic rock in the vein of Linkin Park and Evanescence. But these are only obligatory novelties, thrown in to give the album something to differentiate it from the rest of Hamasaki's output, and the main body of the record is pure and classic J-pop, with the occasional dash of commercial J-rock (think Uverworld) appearing here and there. Rock'n'Roll Circus is pretty versatile: there are a couple of pop/rock tracks, a Middle Eastern techno tune, a playful plastic pop song, even a jungle interlude, and, of course, a slew of epic, string-drenched ballads that no J-pop singer seems to be able to resist performing, probably because their lack of originality makes them great anime-credit fodder. The music is meticulously arranged, and multiple stylistic layers ensure that the record does not wear thin after the first few listens -- but although Rock'n'Roll Circus is a testament to veritable professional skills of Hamasaki and her producers and songwriters, its emotional power is questionable, to put it mildly. The record is compiled of J-pop and J-rock cliches, which gives it a lackluster feeling, at least for those familiar with the genre. The ballads are the worst offenders in this case, but it's easy to tune out on the rest of the songs as well, despite all of their bombast. This is Hamasaki's eleventh album, and so songwriting routine is to be expected, to a degree, but she would have been better off going all the way with the alt-rock gimmick instead of meekly complying with the already trite conventions of J-pop, even if she had created those herself.

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