Ayumi Hamasaki


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Ayumi Hamasaki belongs to the top tier of Japanese musicians who find it almost impossible to do something below a certain level, so it's not really surprising that Secret is a competent album with immense charting power. However, while it excels in production and does well in the fun department, its artistic merit is ambiguous (though that doesn't equal "bad"). Being the product of Hamasaki's J-rock period, Secret does feature a lot of guitar playing, but the riffs usually just follow the general direction that the songs take, and that can be pretty much everything from classic hard rock and piano ballads to industrial-lite numbers, ABBA-styled disco, and Euro-dance adaptations (the latter two being especially prominent). The only constants besides guitar lines are techno beats, background synths, and Hamasaki's singing, which is so steadily heartfelt it sounds calculated -- but there's always plenty of other things in the mix, from acoustic breaks and children's choruses to strings and new age keyboards. This sounds like the recipe for a dynamic and varied album, but, ballads aside, the mood doesn't really change from start to finish, and all in all, the stylistic jumble is too big to make out what the record really sounds like. It's not quite like the case of Gackt -- a popular J-rocker whose tunes are so perfect they're unidentifiable -- but the whole of Secret is less than the sum of its parts. Taken separately, each song is catchy and dramatic enough, but when put together, they fail to leave a clear impression. But then, such evasiveness may be a virtue for a pop album, and the puzzlement over whether Secret is meant for dancing, dreaming, or rocking out makes up somewhat for the clich├ęd melodies that Hamasaki indulges in on the latter half of the record.

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