“Level3″ is No. 1 on Japan’s Oricon music chart this week, but it is not a J-pop album.
While Perfume’s studio-slave producer Yasutaka Nakata has always built the trio’s anthemic hits from a bedrock of carefully layered and intricately produced electronic sequencing (the very voices of Ayaka “A-chan” Nishiwaki, Ayano “Nocchi” Omoto and Yuka “Kashiyuka” Kashino processed to the micro-bit level), here he takes the music further than modern J-pop would usually go, while easing off on the vocal effects to let the women’s natural voices shine through.
“It’s a very different album,” agrees A-chan as the four of us and their entourage sit in a featureless meeting room at a TV studio a few weeks before the album’s Oct. 2 release date in Japan. (It is released today on CD in parts of Asia, with Britain, Germany, France and other parts of Europe to follow in the next couple of weeks; the album is also released digitally around the world today.)
“We’ve started to perform at club events and to do performances that are more evolved, so the album is like a statement of intent from Nakata I think,” she says.
That statement begins with “Enter the Sphere,” in which the dirty synth riff featured on Perfume’s global-facing website is expanded into an instrumental-heavy full-length track. If you liked the eight-minute-long maximal-house rerub of “Spending All My Time” that accompanied Perfume’s much-talked-about “video dresses” shows in Europe (more on that in a minute), then rejoice, because it appears on “Level3″ in a concise four-minute form. “Spring of Life” and “Magic of Love” also follow as harder, deeper versions that are practically new songs altogether.
“I didn’t even know about the new versions of the singles until I heard the completed album,” says Kashiyuka, who recently shocked fans by appearing in the video to mid-tempo groover “1mm” with her trademark bangs swept to one side, revealing her forehead. (She laughs when I ask about it: “It was just for a bit of variety, and the others were so supportive of it!”)
The album reaches a thrilling midway climax with the seven-minute Ibiza-ready club meltdown “Party Maker,” further proof that Team Perfume credits its fans with far more musical maturity than the SMAPs and the AKB48s of this world. And all this without ever sacrificing a catchy chorus; almost every song is a brutal balance of rhythm and melody, including the dub tempo and muddy bass of A-chan’s favorite track, “Furikaeru to Iruyo,” and the tick-tock beat of Kashiyuka’s, “Clockwork.”
So it’s pop, for sure, but marinated overnight in a delicious dance music sauce. Or maybe it’s the other way around. But J-pop? No way.
For a group with an image of expertly crafted artifice, in person there is surprisingly little pretense with Perfume. The members will talk openly about pretty much anything regarding their career so long as you can get it past their managers and, unlike many idol groups, they are upfront about how little control they have over their music. Luckily they have bleach-haired perfectionist Nakata (who is also the man behind Capsule and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu) to take care of that.
“We were just 14 when we first met him, and he was 23 or 24,” says A-chan. “Now that I’m 24 myself, at last I feel like we can just talk normally. And in the studio he now considers how to put us at ease, which he never did when we started out. He’s opened his heart to us bit by bit.”
The live performance is the cornerstone of the Perfume experience. A stage brings out the best qualities A-chan, Nocchi and Kashiyuka possess: their easy rapport with their audience and their impossibly tight dancing. The millimeter-perfect choreography and futuristic lasers combine with speakerfuls of booming bass to make for a show that would turn Madonna green with envy. And all that in high heels. A-chan told me once that they keep buckets of ice at the side of the stage for their feet.
And in July, Perfume took its ice buckets to Europe for the first time, with shows in Cologne, London and Paris comprising the second leg of a rather leisurely “world tour” that began in November 2012 with a handful of shows around Asia.
“That experience was a stimulus for sure,” reflects Nocchi. “I’d always wanted to perform in Europe, but until I saw with my own eyes that there were Perfume fans in those countries who were waiting for us, it didn’t quite seem realistic.”
A-chan found it eye-opening in different ways. “One fan we met started undoing his trousers, and just as I was about to freak out he showed us the tattoo on his waist: ‘Love the World,’ the title of our overseas compilation album. Sometimes the passion of the fans there seemed even stronger than in Japan.”
I happened to be in London at the time, and blagged a ticket to join 2,000 local fans for the sold-out show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire — a surreal experience in itself.
Perfume opened the two-hour set with that extended “Spending All My Time” remix, which they had previewed a week or two before at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in France along with their video dresses — mechanically enhanced white outfits onto which were projected trippy club visuals that followed the members as they danced. The performance, directed by digital artist and Perfume set-designer Daito Manabe, is on YouTube, but seeing this pioneering projection-mapping technique in the flesh was completely bewitching — a proper display of magic.
“We have to become one with the projection equipment and will the light to hit us,” jokes A-chan. “Not really. We had to undergo all sorts of programming, complex calculations, working with the equipment to develop the idea. It’s designed so that the mapping only appears on our dancing bodies; it works in real time. It’s so hard to explain but it leaves me amazed every time.”
Nocchi insists there is no meaning to the album title, but it’s easy to think of “Level3″ as referring to Perfume’s progression from indie labels to a major (Universal) and then to the world. While almost their whole catalog is now available globally on iTunes, “Level3″ is Perfume’s first album to get a CD release outside Japan.
As Japan no doubt prepares to show the very best of its talent to the world at the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (and hopefully not just a parade of uninspired idol pop), Perfume seems the obvious choice. So long as you forget about the seven-year gap between now and then, obviously.
“Lots of people are asking us about the Olympics, and I’m so thrilled, because it means that people regard what we do as a great example of Japanese entertainment to show the world,” says A-chan, seeming, as she usually does, genuinely humbled. “But it’s in seven years! I’ll be in my 30s. Will I still be able to dance by then?!?”
“Level3″ is out now globally for digital download. The CD is out now in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea; Oct. 18 in Germany and the Netherlands; Oct. 21 in France, Spain and Austria; and Oct. 28 in the U.K. More countries will follow. Perfume plays Dec. 7-8 at Kyocera Dome, Osaka; and Dec. 24-25 at Tokyo Dome. For more information, visit www.perfume-web.jp or www.perfume-global.com.