Album review: Ayumi Hamasaki - Rock 'n' Roll Circus

Album review: Ayumi Hamasaki - Rock 'n' roll circus | Random J Pop

Ayumi Hamasaki seems to really have taken on board that Next Level was a little bit crap and a blip in the discography (save for a hot single or two). Because she's back on form for her eleventh studio album Rock 'n' Roll Circus, and there's not a hint of deafening electro synths, auto-tune, EDM foolery and try'na play Gaga on this whole album.

The heart of this album most certainly lies in the more rock driven songs. And the album fittingly opens with "Microphone" - Rock 'n' Roll Circus' most aggressive song, and the one which lives up to the album title perfectly. The song is a great mix of rock, pop, goth and even classical. It's so overblown and dramatic that even if you don't like the song, you have to admire its audacity; and that despite the constant hopscotching between genres, there is a catchy hook at the heart of it all. Great song. "Count Down" continues from where "Microphone" leaves off; slowing things down and easing the pedal on the theatrics. It acts as a nice continuation, but it doesn't hold together as well as "Microphone" does. The verses are great, but the chorus is lacking, and the guitar thrashing gets a bit much and to the point where Ayumi's vocals get  lost mongst it. Harmonies arranged around the chorus would have helped Ayumi stand out more and sound as though she facing the power of the guitars head on, as opposed to whimpering in their wake. This song will probably rock live though, as it has a very 'let's all stand together sing out hearts out and sway' feel about it. So I'm betting that when she performs it live it'll come together in a way the album version should have.

"Last Links" is Rock 'n' Roll Circus' mellowest rock song, and what a song it is. Sounding like Kumi Koda's "You" with some extra BPM's, guitars, and a lick of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Despite not being your typical Japanese ballad, it features strong ballad over tones because of the strings being arranged in such a Japanese ballad type of way. It's a shame Ayu didn't release this instead of "You Were..." - as it's a much better song that she could have done a great video for. Fellow mellow(ish) "Red line -for T.A-" closes the album and is the complete opposite to the dark as hell opening. The song finishes with a solo acapella from Ayumi, which I found to be a little cringe worthy due to her vocals being as thin as paper. But I'm sure fans will find it charming.

Amongst the rock angst are your fun, pop filled tracks that'll have you shaking your ass like nobody is watching. "Lady Dynamite" is officially Ayumi's gay anthem. How can it not be after that video?! "Lady Dynamite" is nothing special, and sounds like the type of cheese you'd hear in a club on a night out. But it's because of this that the song works. "Lady Dynamite" is not trying to be anything it's not. It's just a fun song you can get a little crazy and buck wild too. "Sexy Little Things" sticks out like a sore thumb because there is no other song like it on the album, and sounds almost as though it is an off-cut from Next Level. Electro pop isn't a style which really suits Ayumi, but "Sexy Little Things" just about manages to work because it's so whimsical, catchy, and somewhat ties in with the 'Circus' aspect of the album title due to the playfulness of the music. The album could have done without this song and been no better or worse for it though. "Sexy Little Things" is not a great song, but it's not terrible neither. "Sunrise ~Love Is All~" features at the very tail end of the album. And whilst I found it to be a strange placing for the song initially, it fits rather nicely there. In fact, I think it should have finished off the album. The video was some bullshit. But the song is exactly what it sets out to be; a feel good anthem to pump your fist to.

"Don't Look Back" sits on its lonesome; halfway between being a ballad and featuring the angst of Rock 'n' Roll Circus' more rock driven songs. I could not stand when "Don't Look Back" when I first heard a clip of it. But upon hearing the song in full, it gets a thumbs up from me. Ayumi's voice has always been dramatic, sounded really old and sometimes sounds like what I can only describe as warbling. But on an Arabian middle-Eastern influenced song, she's accidentally in her element.

The album features four of your typical J-ballads, which are probably contractually obliged to appear on the majority of J-releases. Out of the four ("Sunset ~Love Is All~", "Ballad", "You Were..." and "Meaning of Love") "Ballad" is the strongest. Where as "You Were..." throws in the Japanese kitchen sink, "Ballad" keeps things simple and sounds better for it. Ayumi's vocals are put into the spotlight due to the minimalist approach to the music, which whilst simple, still sounds rich. She warbles a heck of a lot, hits a couple of flat notes and sometimes sounds like she is karaoking Enka. But the song still holds firm and stands tall. I think part of why I like "Ballad" so much is that it reminds me so badly of Crystal Kay's "Kaerimachi", which I adore. "Meaning of Love" is okay, but it has an overarching feel to it similar to that of "Sunset ~Love Is All~", which is the better song. "Sunset ~Love Is All~" in itself doesn't feel as powerful without the music video. And the song sitting in tracklist before its "Sunrise" counterpart so early on in the album makes you feel as though the song is pushing itself onto you at an un-welcomed time. Placing the song further down in the tracklist would have done the song a greater justice.

Album review: Ayumi Hamasaki - Rock 'n' roll circus | Random J Pop

Rock 'n' Roll Circus' style is a lot more consistent that Next Level's was. It really is a shame that Ayumi Hamasaki rushed out Next Level, because the likes of "Sparkle" and "Rule" would have sounded much more at home on this album and really tied it together nicely. The interludes are rather nonsensical and feel like a cheap attempt to conceptualise the album title. The album could have done without them all - unlike Next Level, which had interludes so good that they should have been full length songs and shamed half the songs on the album with vocals. The album intro is decent, but "Montage" is pointless and "Jump!" is just stupid.

Ayumi doesn't give you a great deal more with this album that she's not given with past releases in terms of style. But what makes this album work so much better than many of her other albums is that Ayumi Hamasaki has greater ownership of the sounds.

If you're an Ayumi Hamasaki fan, you'll lap up everything this album has to offer. And if you're new to Ayumi Hamasaki, then this album acts as a solid introduction to her as an artist. For me personally, I think this is one of the few albums where Ayumi Hamasaki sounds comfortable and locked into its sound.

VERDICT: Hamasakingham Palace

■ Microphone 🔥
■ Count Down
■ Sunset ~Love Is All~
■ Ballad 🔥
■ Last Links 🏆
■ Don't Look Back
■ Meaning of Love


  1. Great review! I like the new 'J's Fave' feature you're starting to use now too! I do like a few of the songs released as singles (I'm playing Sexy Little Things on youtube) so I'll maybe get round to giving the album a full listen at a later date.

  2. I really don't like the album cover at all. It doesn't even look like her. But anyway the few songs I've heard I like so it's already 100% better than Next Level.

  3. umm, i've read your reviews on ayumi and i can't help but think that you are being bias and such. u see, im not a very big fan of ayumi but i do listen to her album. next level is not very good but still u should give credit to her since shes trying to spread her wings to different kinds of music. rock and roll circus, i loved it so much. and jump is not like what u said, jump is just full of emotions and energy that i feel like jumping, in a rock and roll kinda way.. seriously, u always compare ayumi and koda kumi and other people as well, whaat u should realize is that ayumi is not like them. ayumi's voice is unique and she should try many kinds of music to experiment, so that people know she did try rather than not trying. above all, i dont like your reviews on artists since u are very harsh with your words in your description. i know you do have musical knowledge but still respect the artists. peace

  4. Biased?

    I'm a Hikaru Utada fan till the day I die. Yet, I gave one of her albums 5 / 10. EXACTLY the same score I gave Ayumi Hamasaki's Next level. Near enough every Rock 'n roll circus related post I've put up has given Ayumi praise. And I'd mentioned many times I was looking forward to this new album because I liked the singles. So please tell me how exactly I'm biased?

    As for my Next level review? It's how I honestly felt about the album. Should I say an album is the best thing ever and recommend it just because it has Ayumi Hamasaki on the cover? Of course not! I go by how I feel about the music, and I felt half of it on Next level was not good. I'm not going to give an album a good review just because it tries something new neither, when I feel the end result is bad. Clearly Ayumi wasn't 100% feelin' the electro pop direction she took Next level in herself, because she ditched it spectacularly for Rock 'n roll circus with the exception of 1 song.

    I give props to Ayumi Hamasaki. I wouldn't have given an album of her's a good review and said I'd want to see her on tour if I didn't.


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