Album Review: Perfume – “Cosmic Explorer” (Japan, 2016)

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It’s been three years since their last LP LEVEL3 but Japanese dance-pop superstar three-piece Perfume are back with a brand new full-length record Cosmic Explorer, and it is everything we’ve been hoping for.

Perfume have spent the past 13-odd years honing their signature sound and performance – sparkling synths, danceable beats, clockwork choreography and futuristic sets and costumes, and it’s obvious in the quality and consistency of Cosmic Explorer that their years of experience haven’t gone to waste. The first taste of this record came at 2015’s SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas, where the trio performed an explosive rendition of the previously unreleased track “Story” (Track 5 on the new record) using projections and translucent screens, totally blowing away the crowd both in the theatre and around the world via YouTube live stream. The darker, more industrial tones of “Story” aren’t quite in sync with the sweet and catchy ditties Perfume are known for, but this direction suits them just as well and there are elements of it threaded through out Cosmic Explorer. Given that dance and visual effects are a huge part of the Perfume experience, it’s no surprise that vocals take a backseat in many of their songs –  “Miracle Worker” and “Next Stage With You” are very synth driven tracks, and the latter uses effect-laden voices as instruments in their own right with lyric-less voice lines.

The title track, “Cosmic Explorer”, seems to have taken a few cues from stadium dance DJs like Avicii – it is Perfume’s take on house, and it’s not lacking. Spacious (appropriate to its name), dark and pumping, it has dance floor favourite written all over it, with plenty of Perfume’s signature sparkle and a little video-game chic in the bridge.

The latest to receive the single treatment, “FLASH”, falls mid-record at Track 6, and with its tension-filled pre-chorus and house-friendly lyric-less chorus, it is bound to be a party-starter. Though only a short version MV is available so far on Perfume’s official Youtube channel, the track was picked up for the live action film adaptation of manga and anime series Chihayafuru and seems set for immense popularity.

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Fans will recognise a few tracks album from Perfume’s recent single releases – “Sweet Refrain” from late 2013 with its strong four-to-the-floor beat, the singsong “Relax In The City” and acoustic guitar-peppered “Pick Me Up” from mid-2015 and most recently “STAR TRAIN” – a syncopated almost-piano-ballad. It’s a testament to the girls’ distinctive sound and continuity that even the oldest of these tracks doesn’t sound at all out-of-place on the record. It is well-paced and carefully placed, though most of the older tracks are grouped towards the later half of the record.

Closing track “Hold Your Hand” seems a little anticlimactic after so many established hits – with a slightly slower tempo and a fairly steady build with little dynamic variation, while certainly not a bad song, it doesn’t seem the ideal choice for a record closer. Penultimate track “Cling Cling”, on the other hand, picks up the energy and gets stuck in your head, and keeps things a little unpredictable with a dubstep-influenced vocoder breakdown – making it a far better option for the big finish.

As a result of Perfume’s often repetitive songwriting style, the pervasive use of common dance tempos and the fact that Perfume’s songs average on the longer end of radio-friendly pop tracks, the record can get a little predictable and monotonous at times. I can see it being an excellent party-ready playlist, but for focussed listening your ears will be tired and possibly a little sore from all those sharp synthesiser sounds. I’ll definitely be keeping my favourite tracks (notably “Cosmic Explorer”, “TOKIMEKI LIGHTS” and “Pick Me Up”) in high rotation, but I’d prefer to let the rest of the record find me in a playlist on shuffle, rather than a start-to-finish affair.

Perfume have earned the respect they’re awarded in the J-pop community through their innovation and envelope-pushing, and Cosmic Explorer is another great example of what this powerful trio are capable of. Surely we’re set to hear much more from them this year, and I can’t wait to see what they have stashed up their sheer and shiny sleeves.

Review score: 8 out of 10.

Cosmic Explorer will be released on April 6 on Universal Music Japan.


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