Album review: Perfume - Cosmic explorer

Album review: Perfume - Cosmic explorer | Random J Pop

Perfume's sound was easy to pigeon hole at one point. But over the years it has gone through some changes. Changes which only reveal themselves once you place their albums side by side. What their 5th effort Cosmic explorer highlights in a way that none of Perfume's other albums have is what clearly works for them and what does not. The strange thing about this is that it should not be a revelation or even news, given that Perfume are now game veterans who have had their entire discography helmed by the same man for the past decade. The writing on the wall is that perhaps Yasutaka Nakata doesn't know what Perfume's sound truly is any more and Perfume are just happy to be the vessel for whatever material he puts in front of them.

For those who do not know, Yasutaka Nakata is by all intents and purposes the fourth member of Perfume who has written and produced their songs since their commercial beginnings. When a song is good, he gets the praise. When a song is bad, fans call for his head. One thing I will commend Yasutaka Nakata for is never trying the same trick twice. He makes no attempt to unashamedly chase past hits, and with the exceptions of "Sweet refrain" and "Hold your hand" sounding quite similar, no two tracks sound alike on Cosmic explorer. But what has become evident over the past 4 years is that Perfume's sound is not one but many, and Nakata doesn't always know where to place it. He gets it wrong in instances where he shouldn't. Sometimes he gets it wrong because a song is just plain bad. Other times he gets it wrong because he is selfishly or lazily forcing Perfume into a template he had moulded for the likes of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu or Capsule, and obviously so.

As has become customary for Perfume albums, Cosmic explorer features the ever controversial album mixes. Ranging from those which sound so different from their single counterparts that they feel like remixes, to those that sound so similar to the originals that there was barely any point in differentiating them as album mixes in the first place. "Tokimeki nights", "Sweet refrain" and "Star train" all sound more or less the same as their single versions. All three feature a reworked intro and a reworked outro and a few instrumental revisions here and there - but the overall songs in general are pretty much the same. The changes aren't enough to change your opinion of them or offend those who were fans of their single iterations. "Tokimeki nights" and "Star train" in their single forms both featured strong choruses, but lacklustre verses. So it's a shame that they were not revised for the album mixes, as two mediocre songs could have been transformed into something great. "Flash" and "Cling cling" both feature revisions so extensive that they should be classed as remixes. "Flash" bears no resemblance to the single mix what-so-ever. The end result is a song which sounds like he just dragged and dropped from Capsule's Wave runner and it doesn't fit the album at all. There are so many instrumental passages that it sounds less like an actual song that Perfume would perform and more like something that would play during their tour intermission. The only thing about this album mix I like are the keys during the first run of the chorus, but then the whole thing goes downhill from there. The chorus feels far too vapid due to Nakata stripping out the vocals and placing in the most generic of EDM drops known to man. He flat out ruined what was never that a great song to begin with. Perfume's charm has always been that they skirt on EDM, but never adopt it in the most generic of forms. But that's exactly what Nakata makes them do here. The album mix of "Cling cling" is a big improvement on the original. The new arrangements make the song flow so much better. This is especially evident on the chorus.

The one song on the album which could have done with an album mix, but was sadly left alone is "Pick me up". This is one of Perfume's best singles and probably the only single off of this album that most fans will unanimously agree was good. But as much as I love this song, it always felt short to me and lacking a middle 8. So it would have been nice for this to have been give as such for the album and for the "Pick me up, pick up!" call out from the music video version of the song to be included, as the song starts rather abruptly without it.

Album review: Perfume - Cosmic explorer | Random J Pop

The new material is decent. Tragically so, because the album would have been markedly better had there been more of it. Well...at least in theory.

"Cosmic explorer" is very unexpected and unlike anything the girls or Nakata have ever done before. Channelling the likes of Gary Numan and David Bowie, it's every bit the anthem and it captures the song title perfectly. There is no other song that Perfume can open their Cosmic explorer tour with other than this. It will be interesting to see how Perfume and their visual team will interpret this live, because it will require a very different type of energy and form of movement to that of what we have seen from them in the past because of the tempo.

"Miracle worker" revisits the EDM fused with Far Eastern soundscapes that we had gotten with the single mixes of "Cling cling" and (to an extent) "Flash", but nails it in a way the aforementioned tracks had failed to. There is a less of a clean cut edge between the organics of the far eastern melodies and the EDM elements. The flow, the production, the pace - everything about this song is perfection. The vocal work on this song is especially nice and features a form of layering and harmonising that we've never really gotten on a Perfume song before. What makes this song work so well is the very same thing that made "Pick me up" such a winner. It's a great Japanese take on EDM which still feels distinctly Perfume at its core. If the live performance of this song is anything less than lit, I will be disappointed. Perfume, Mikiko and Rhizomatics need to come through and leave wigs in the crowd spontaneously combusting. This is one of the best songs on the album.

"Next stage with you" channels Perfume during their Triangle phase, and it also channels Daft Punk in the same way many songs on that album had done. I felt cheated with this song in the same way I felt cheated when "Display" was finally released in full; which is that the final version of the song doesn't feature a great deal more than we'd all heard in the Mercedes Benz commercial that the song had originally featured in. The production is good. I love the guitar in the intro (note to Nakata: put more guitars on Perfume songs please) and the music is nice. But at 4 and a half minutes, the running time is too long for a song which doesn't really change-up a great deal beyond what we'd heard in the commercial back in November of 2015. It's a real shame, because this could have been something on a "Dream fighter" tip.

"Baby face" is the weakest link of the non single material. The chorus is too sparse and the instrumental passages are too long for pieces of music which aren't captivating enough to warrant them. "Baby face" feels like a song which was scored for something very particular. Set against a video of some Pikmin, Baloo from the Jungle book or Perfume sat around a camp-fire with Nakata in a straw hat and Birkenstocks with an acoustic guitar, this would work. But as a stand alone song, no. The flow of "Baby face" is also strange. It builds then drops and then builds and then drops. The song should have either stayed continually soft and muted or built up to a rousing, rowdy final run of the hook.

A big concern for me was how this album would hold together when it features a bunch of weak singles which were so different from one another. But surprisingly the songs sit along side one another better than I thought they would. Cosmic explorer is still patchy and inconsistent, but I feel it will be the one Perfume album which will gain itself a new set of legs as a result of the tour which supports it. There are some good songs here which will work well live in a tour setting. So if Perfume's team can put together a solid setlist and create some show stopping setups, then this album will come off better for it. Unlike LEVEL3 which was a good album marred by a boring tour, saved only by "Party maker".

Cosmic explorer is hurt by a random track order. It's pretty much a case of all of the new material at the top and the singles running off in the latter half, and within this clear division, the tracks are sequenced strangely. I find it perplexing that "Hold your hand" was selected as the album closer instead of the obvious "Star train", and that "Story" was not made the follow up to "Cosmic explorer" given that "Cosmic explorer" ends the same way that "Story" begins. The decision to lump the likes of "Pick me up" and "Cling cling" at the tail end of the album in between "Relax in the city" and "Hold your hand" is also strange. Then again, this album is brought to you by the same folk who placed "Mirai no museum" in between "1mm" and "Party maker" on the last album, so...

Nakata is a skilled producer, but he is also an incredibly inconsistent one. The quality of his work on this album varies greatly from outstanding to downright shitty. There is still this nagging feeling that has rolled over from LEVEL3, which is that Nakata doesn't seem sure in which direction to take Perfume's sound. When he pushes it to a new place, it really works. But he also has a habit of selfishly imposing sounds onto Perfume which sit outside of what many of us would deem as 'their sound'. For "Story", it works. Although I wonder how I would have felt about the song had I not been introduced to it for the first time via their show-stopping debut performance of it at SXSW which will forever define the song. Because by all accounts, it truly does sound like a song intended for Capsule's Stereo worxxx or Wave runner. Even on the occasions when Nakata manages to nail it for Perfume, it feels arbitrary rather than intentional.

The album feels like it's being pulled in different directions between straight up EDM, a homage to the Yellow magic orchestra, electro-pop and Yoshi's story. In each instance there is a song which works, but within the overall scope of the album it still feels like a bunch of songs got thrown together with an overall concept only coming in later - which is probably what spurred some of the drastic album mixes to try and fit old songs into the concept. But in the case of "Flash", the mark was missed completely. And even with a song like "Next stage with you", which feels like a classic Perfume song, it doesn't feel as tight as any of the songs on Game and Triangle. I often feel like Nakata is in limbo when it comes to Perfume's music, because his output for them is rife with inconsistencies. He's in the best position to know the group and their sound, but sometimes it feels as though he doesn't know either of them at all. I also get the feeling that Perfume are becoming increasingly secondary to the music. So many of the songs on this album were produced and written to be a tie in with a commercial product and it shows in the dance routines, you can hear it in the lyrics and you can even hear it in the production. "Next stage with you" sounds tied to some car driving along a highway at night. "Tokimeki nights" sounds like a theme for a commercial about morning supplements or some cereal. "Relax in the city" isn't your most obvious soundtrack for a beer commercial, but it sounds like some shit you'd hear in a holiday program or a travel agent commercial. Perfume have always been supplementary to the music. But it would be nice if they were put first for a change. I want the songs to be written about them, their life experiences, their lives either as living girls, or as space explorers or androids within their own Perfume world. Just stop having them sing about throwing Pokémon cards on the floor, buying clothes from Isetan or the resolution of 4K Panasonic TV's. This leads into my next gripe with Cosmic explorer. Which is that it is one of Perfume's most passive albums. A third of the songs either feature barely any vocals from Perfume, or they feature verses and hooks which consist of 15 seconds of oooo's, aaah's and woooah's. The instances where this works are in the songs where the structure of the song feels very deliberate and thought out i.e "Miracle worker" and "Story". On others it feels like there is a clear omission of vocals because Nakata either couldn't be bothered to write lyrics or come up with any new sections of songs. It's "Display" all over again. One section of the song with the vocals sounds amazing and promising, everything either side of it is a copy and paste job with phoned in arrangements.

Five albums in, chances are as a fan you either except Perfume's vocal style or you're sick of it by now. I'm beginning to get sick of it. I accept that Perfume singing the way they do is part of the package, but it grates with songs on this album more than it ever did before. What makes the vocals worse is that there is little in the way of vocal production and arrangements. Nakata is not good with producing vocals and he either needs to get good or bring somebody on board who is. These girls are approaching 30, but they're dressing like 15 year olds at their Quinceañera and sounding like Teletubbies. This vocal style ruins songs. I cannot sit through "Relax in the city", "Hold your hand" or "Baby face" because the vocals are so childlike and cringe-worthy. It needs to stop. I am also tired of Perfume not harmonising. I'm sick of their vocals not being well layered. I'm tired of Nocchi being sidelined in songs where she would be better suited to take on certain sections as opposed to Kashiyuka or A-chan. I'm also tired of catching odd notes in backing vocals being sung completely off key. Nakata's answer to vocal production before was just to drown the vocals in auto tune and vocoding. But he needs to start allowing these girls to truly sing and to start getting more intricate with the vocal arrangements, because there are far too many instances on this album where the vocals are flat. The chants on "Cosmic explorer", "Miracle worker" and "Star train" are pitiful. They either should have been layered to hell or been recorded by a group of guys. Perfume's vocals come off like an afterthought on this album and there are songs where the instrumentations completely overpower their already weak vocals. The second verses of "Cling cling" and "Baby face" both feature instrumentations which are far too loud and dominant. Not only do they feature a completely different melody and rhythmic flow to the vocals, but they are loud as fuck. "Cosmic explorer" has a really big sound, but the vocals are poorly mixed and get completely lost in it all. Big soundscapes with minuscule vocals do not work. Especially if you're taking the song as an aural experience without the theatrics of a Perfume performance to go with it.

Album review: Perfume - Cosmic explorer | Random J Pop

Cosmic explorer is a strange album. Initially the surprise of how well the singles and new material hold together present a feeling of relief and surprise that Nakata didn't completely screw this album up as we though the would do or already had done. But taking the album in song by song, it's still not truly representative of where Perfume should be at in this stage of their careers, and it is not representative of the kind of material that Nakata should be giving these girls having worked with them for so long.

The album title is represented in some form, but not truly. This is a symptom of the Japanese album release model, which has singles released over such a long period of time; so when the time comes for album tracks to be recorded and a theme is conceptualised, the singles often never fit it. Whilst this doesn't damage Cosmic explorer in anyway, it definitely speaks for the inconsistencies. Something which did not affect the likes of Game or Triangle due to the lack of singles which preceded the albums and the songs all being recorded within a set time frame and not intermittently over a span of years. Many of the shortcomings of LEVEL3 are repeated here. A bad track order, unnecessary album mixes which ruin songs and a lack of cohesiveness of sounds. Perfume's albums need a greater level of quality control and if this is a release timeline that Perfume are going to continue, then Perfume's album execs need to be a lot more brutal with what makes the cut for albums or they need to start considering bringing in other producers aside from Nakata to helm songs.

Whilst this album isn't the train wreck it could and probably should have been, it isn't a 'great' album. It could have been had Perfume's team been much more selective with the singles, were tighter on the album mixes and also took greater care with the track order. There is no one song on the album which I would completely terrible. But there is a sense of incompleteness with this album which stems from the lack of vocal production and dodgy song structures on certain songs. There just isn't that same level of tightness here as there was on Game, Triangle or the likes of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's Nanda collection (to name a contemporary for comparisons sake).

Cosmic explorer is surprisingly good. But I just wish Perfume had reached a little further for the stars as the album title signifies. Nakata needs to be as laser focused with Perfume's music as their creative team are with their visuals and their choreography, as the definition of Perfume's sound is blurring too greatly and slowly losing its meaning.


RATING: 6/10

Album highlights:
■ Navigate
■ Cosmic explorer
■ Miracle worker ★ J's fave
■ Story
■ Pick me up

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