Review Summary: One of the best produced pop albums you will ever hear (and Perfume's finest hour)
Level3 changed Perfume. It feels a bit morbid to say this now, given how their studio output since this album has gone down the toilet, but the leap Japan’s favourite power trio and their whizkid producer undertook here is arguably the most exciting in their career, rivalled only by the emergence of their debut GAME and their upcoming stint in the Tokyo Olympics. Their slightly disappointing third album JPN marked the last outing of the perky bitpop that had underpinned their sound since GAME, and producer Yasutaka Nakata clearly felt it was time for a sonic rebrand. Not that any of the first three Perfume records have short runtimes or a shortage of ideas, but Level3 is the most expansive, varied record the group put to tape (/whatever digital format preferred by Nakata’s DAW). Out for the most part are bitpop, vocal modulations and soppy lovesongs, and in are club jams a' la Edge
, kaleidoscopic trips a' la Butterfly
, and a wide variety of dance influences that switch gear from song to song with clear inspiration.
Let’s be clear: Level3 is a dance album toe-to-hairline. The somewhat unfairly reviled album mixes of singles Spring of Life
and Spending All My Time
are decidedly more club-ready than their older selves and where once he would have emphasised bass and vocals, Nakata seems to prioritise beats and loops throughout. It’s also one of the best produced pop albums you will ever hear, if not the best: Nakata pulled out all the stops for this one and the results are dazzling, though often unpredictable in style. Several critics picked up on how much of this album doesn’t particularly sound like J-pop; many will define the sound of J-pop as whatever Perfume happened to sound like at any given point in time, but they have a point and this is a reflection of the mesh of influences at work here. Spending All My Time
and the thunderous Party Maker
sound like a perfect average of every Western radio pop slapper from the early-mid ‘10s, while 1mm might as well have been beamed right in from any ‘80s Top of the Pops screening. Handy Man
integrates Middle-Eastern tones and melodies remarkably tastefully, while Sleeping Beauty
is a trance-infused mindbender. That’s right, a Perfume track that will actively mess with your headspace: Level3 has it all going on.
Naturally, some parts could only ever have happened on a Japanese album: Daijoubanai
’s ecstatically repetitious glitch is a quintessential example of J-pop’s most addictive qualities and holds up as a Perfume classic, while Magic of Love
is the spitting image of a well-behaved Oricon single. Not bad as far as covering all bases goes, but the cohesion of the overall package is striking and commendable. With the exception of Mirai no Museum
and Furikaeru to Iru Yo
, both of which drop the ball and mess up the pacing after the strident tracks that precede them, Level3 flows evenly and with a remarkable level of consistency for a pop album this long.
It’s interesting to look at Level3 this far in retrospect. For a 2013 dance pop album, it’s about as cutting edge as it gets. By today’s standards…well, Nakata being every inch a man for his time, any time, some of the album’s genre pastiche and choice of synth tones feel more than a little dated, but for the most part the album is wall to wall bangers with a dizzying range of textures and styles expertly arranged. On the whole, it’s a comprehensive reference point to the first half of the decade’s pop vogue and an impressive set of heavyweight jams. 1mm
and Party Maker
in particular are huge standouts and stand right at the tippety top of the Perfume canon, but one of Level3’s more understated triumphs lies in how it shifted the group’s footing from the singles-act attitude that ran through Triangle and JPN, landing a consistently rewarding dance extravaganza over a challengingly long runtime.