Shouta Aoi “Ø” (Review)

Credit: King Records

Shouta Aoi returns with what is one of the most impressive pop albums of the year. “Zero” is a strong candidate for pop album of the year. A must listen/have for any Shouta Aoi fan.

Regular edition

Title: Ø (Zero)
Label: King Records 
Release date: 11/10/2017
Genre: J-Pop/Pop-Rock/Electronic-Rock/R&B

Tracklist:

01 零 [TITLE TRACK]
02 奏世
03 INVERTED
04 DDD
05 イノセント
06 Stay With Me!!
07 flower
08 Powder snow
09 Always Be Together
10 Hungry Night
11 ココに
12 SMILE SMILE SMILE

Track by track analysis:

01 零 

Zero is one of those songs that was composed/performed to impress the listener, there’s other way around it. Its traditional vibe shines through the rock embued instrumental. The shamisen, heavy guitar riffs, powerful drums (this time around those are not sampled) and a delicated piano melody in the background, bring to the life this impressive instrumental. It’s not often that we find rock mixed with traditional elements performed at such a high level and with this much quality. The instrumental was met with Aoi‘s majestic performance. Alluring, delicate and fierce are just some of the adjectives we need to use to describe this charming performance. He gave his all to make all of this sides standout during the song. His delicate falsetto was perfect to accentuate the whole traditional vibe we got from this song. On the other side we find Aoi‘s not shying away from delivering a suitable rocking performance that could charm the listener without being out of place or forced. Aoi did good on both ends, managing to showcase a double charm to his listeners. We couldn’t think of a better way to kick off this album. 5/5

02 奏世

Things tone down a bit for this track. “Sousei” brings to the table dreamy synths mixed in a pop-rock tune, rooted on guitar riffs and drums (even if those are, this time around, sampled). This exciting and uptempo song strays a bit away from the heavy guitar riff-driven title track, but on paper, both share most of their elements between themselves. Of course, we’ve mentioned the guitars, synths and drums but the shamisen, for example, is also brought back for this track, adding a delicate, traditional touch to the song, even if the guitars reign the instrumental. It’s not easy to notice the bassline but thankfully, the drums samples are bassier enough to make up for it. “Sousei” is exactly the kind of song that we would have put on DDD‘s single. It has a late 90’s touch given by the ethereal synths and strings mixed with uptempo rock. Aoi swept everyone off their feet with his powerful falsetto and high notes. 5/5

03 INVERTED

INVERTED falls in a mix of 90’s throwback pop and the most recent pop trends. The core of this song follows a simple piano melody but what stands out are the heavy synths. Between saw and dirty synths, sequencers and all the apparatus in the instrumental, this almost 4 minute song will pass by insanely fast. The fast paced drums samples and synths set energy levels to new highs among Aoi‘s songs. Even if this song leans more towards an electronic/dance pop avenue, guitars are still alive and kicking, adding an extra edge to the song. The bridge’s delicate piano melody made us beg for more but sadly that wasn’t the focus of the song. A small note about his singing technique: he sounds a bit like an enka singer in some of the verses – more about the pacing and emotion rather than on sounding cool. It’s interesting to find him exploring and incorporating new techniques in his arsenal. INVERTED might have been a bit too much on the instrumental end but in terms of vocal performances there’s nothing but praise. 4/5

04 DDD

[As previously reviewed] From time to time, there are artists that perfectly emulate their inspirations or their countries’ pop icons. Shouta Aoi kicks off this song with an addictive mix of electronica, pop and rock, in a T.M.Revolution fashion. It’s undeniable that TMR was the major inpiration for this track. The instrumental piece is trademark TMR. What we didn’t expect was Aoi to fit so well within this original formula that has been going on for years and solidified TMR as a Japanese pop icon (not to forget his rock career). So what can we expect of DDD? A song with thunderous guitar riffs mixed with just the perfect ratio of electronica provided by the synths. Don’t be afraid to check out this song, because synths aren’t necessarily on the front row, the focus tends to lie on either the guitars or drums. The synthetic drums bring so much to the table, making the song unpredictable in terms of tempo. It will either be slower and provide a dubstepish break in the song, go full out in an up tempo fashion, or simply tread things consistently in the verses showcasing a steady mid-tempo. There’s so much going on the background that it’s impossible to point out everything. DDD is a polished dance tune that puts Aoi in a more comfortable registry, not requiring that much trips to the high notes department, only attacking it with occasional bouts of falsetto to raise the tension in the chorus. DDD is what a polished dance tune really is, a song with such a rich instrumental and that doesn’t follow the current dance pop trends in Japan. 5/5

05 イノセント

[As previously reviewed] Already known to his fans and fans of the shoujo anime “Hatsukoi Monster”, Innocent puts Aoi in the middle of a rocking instrumental. With agressive guitar riffs and thunderous drums being the main core of the track, adding a powerful edge to Aoi‘s delicate, energetic vocals. Although his vocals are at times delicate and ethereal (especially in the intro), he packs a hell of a punch during the verses alongside an instrumental piece that begs and is met by a powerful vocal. Exciting, addictive and certainly another edgy song to add to his repertoire5/5

06 Stay With Me!!

The strings and a slow paced piano melody in the intro hinted at a ballad but what we got was an hybrid of it. “Stay With Me!!” is a beautiful pop ballad that doesn’t go all out emotional or should we say, towards the traditional ballad route. For this song we have electronic elements, mainly sampled mid-tempo drums, washy synths, synth pads, as well as the raw/traditional ballad ones – the strings and piano. Aoi‘s emotions pour in for this song, the way he uses his falsetto, the way he tackles the lower notes, even his ad-libs or background florishes, everything was done in such a sweet way that it’s impossible for the listener to not notice his genuine emotions. The sweet “Stay With Me!!” will certainly impress you. 5/5

07 flower

[As previously reviewed] “Flower” kicks off with a beautiful piano melody, slowly building up into a minimal, mid-tempo electronic pop tune that will grab your attention – if not right from the start, then from the stunning chorus. The instrumental by itself is a hit for us. Everything was well crafted for this tune and the piano parts are just incredibly beautiful and addictive. Then we have Aoi‘s vocals… His vocals… What can we say if we’re struck by his mesmerizing falsetto as soon as we enter the chorus? His vocals are once again fascinating and his flawless technique leaves us in awe. This song is the embodiment of beauty. 5/5

08 Powder snow

Powder Snow” is quite possibly one of the best songs Aoi has ever penned and performed. A haunting piano melody leads the way alongside Aoi‘s emotional vocals. A noticeable bassline and minimal synths join in to create the etheral vibe we get from the first part of the verses. The slow pace in the verses doesn’t stay like that for long, the verses themselves start building up to the chorus – but fear not, it’s not anything ridiculous or overwhelming -, it’s done properly and we dare say the pacing for this song is perfect, matching the lyrics and the emotional performance Aoi delivers (his falsetto and high notes are to die for). This is the kind of song we’d recommend to anyone trying to get into his music. It’s perfectly crafted, the pacing is great, the performance is flawless and the overall mood is haunting yet beautiful. A gem. 5/5

09 Always Be Together

Always Be Together brings to the table R&B for the first time in Aoi‘s career. Acoustic guitars, minimal synths, a sweet piano melody, simple, bassy drums samples and a mesmerizing bassline create this simple instrumental. The listener can’t be indifferent to such a gentle and romantic song. His vocals fit surprisingly well with R&B, his performance is breathtakingly fascinating. His ad-libs, high notes, the gentle tone in which he’s singing, almost as if he was confessing his feelings to the listener – if we’re reading into the lyrics’ meaning, this song could very well be about/for his fans -, regardless, a performance like this is a first time for him and we’re throughly impressed with it. Hands down the best song on this album. 5/5

10 Hungry Night

Hungry Night is the playful, upbeat song that is used as Shouta Aoi‘s radio show with the same name. The song, already known to the fans, has some serious 80’s vibes to it. The playful, mid-tempo drums mix with strings (there are several strings’ parts/samples in the background), the jazzy piano melody and the noticeable bassline create this listener friendly bright song. Aoi’s performance is slightly different from what we’ve listened to on this album. He focuses more on sounding cute than rather on technique or a lower registry. Although this song strangely fits with his cute image, it seems a bit out of place on this album. 4/5

11 ココに

“Here” is a sweet ballad that, contrary to what Stay With Me!! did, embraces all traditional ballad elements. From the slow pace, to the emotional piano melody, the simple but deep bassline, the acoustic guitars (barely noticeable at times) and delicate strings, everything falls into place with Aoi‘s mesmerizing performance. This is the kind of song in which he brings everything to the table and somehow makes his fans’ break down in tears. His delicate performance, resorting to high notes and falsetto are deadly in such a song. This heartwrenching ballad will certainly have a place in his fans’ hearts. And Aoi is beauty incarnate. 5/5

12 SMILE SMILE SMILE

To close this album we’re presented with SMILE SMILE SMILE, a dance pop song that has a conflicting cute and alluring vibe at the same time. This was supposed to be an uplifting song for his fans but he ended up sounding too sexy to handle in some instances of the song. Intentional or not, thanks to that it was difficult to erase the grin that was stuck on my face while listening to this song. Remember Mamoru Miyano‘s New Order? This has the exact same vibe in the verses (the chorus is clearly too different to even dare compare it). The instrumental is rather simple, focused on a dancefloor oriented sound. Progressive synths and slow paced drums samples do all the job to bring to life this addictive song. SMILE SMILE SMILE closes this album with a golden key. Best dance song on this album. 5/5

Final rating:

Remember Shouta Aoi‘s sound when he re-debuted with Blue Bird in 2013? Well, that sound is no more. He has embraced a blend of rock, electronica and traditional elements that fares incredibly well with his talented vocals. He even went out of his box and brought to the table R&B and progressive electronica, much to his fans’ surprise.

DDD“, released in 2016, was a good indicator for us that he was, indeed, on the right track to find the sound that best fits with his vocals, a sound that could also, at the same time, set him apart from most pop acts in Japan. It was about time he distanced himself from that cute, youthful image he was portraying. He needed to change, he found it and “Zero” is the result of all the tries at new mixes, new genres, new approaches, new everything, successes and failures that he experienced up until now, this is the formula he managed to create, a unique sound, a trademark sound for him.

For us that have been following Aoi‘s solo endeavors even before he revamped his solo career and re-debuted in 2013, it’s incredibly rewarding and satisfying to find him trying several music genres, new things and not settle for anything, instead incorporate all of them into what is now his trademark sound. As a result his music sounds more mature than ever before. Also his vocals are of such a high quality right now that we can’t help but to be in awe every time he sings. A reminder that his falsetto is deadly.

Out of the new songs, the highlights are “SMILE SMILE SMILE“, “Always Be Together“, “Powder snow” and the title track “Zero“. All these songs showcased completely different charms to his music. It was surprising to find an R&B song among these 12 songs. “Always Be Together” was such a nice change of pace that seemed to fit perfectly with the album’s vibe. This was quite possible the song and genre we weren’t expecting to find him exploring but thank god he did because it sounds like it was taylormade for him.

Powder snow” brought back lyricist Aoi. The song has a ballad touch but it ultimately stands out for its simple pop sound and beautiful lyrics.

SMILE SMILE SMILE” is that wolf in sheep’s clothing kind of song. It sounded like a cute song from the title and the chorus but the verses say otherwise. The song has a sexy vibe that is a little bit hard to ignore. Aoi‘s vocals were responsible for creating such a gap on this song. His falsetto has a delicate, beautiful touch but his lower, mid-tones are melodic and strangely alluring. This is a dancefloor anthem with contrasting charms that will impress everyone.

The title track “Zero” was, indeed, a surprising opening track. he went all out with his DDD‘s electronic pop-rock sound and even enlisted the help of traditional elements – as you could notice from the usage of the shamisen throughout the song. The song sounded fresh, fierce and edgy despite its underlining dance-driven instrumental.

About the old songs there’s nothing more we can say than what we’ve said before on their respective reviews.

The album came full circle. Started off strongly and ended up even better. In the middle of it, fans were presented with dance, pop and R&B tunes, ballads, rock songs and a variety of exciting and new things that Aoi carefully implemented on his sound.

Zero” not only is his best album to date, but it’s also the most complete release he’s ever made. On our side we consider this album as a strong candidate for pop album of the year. A must listen/have for any Shouta Aoi fan.

Ø” is available for purchase on CDJAPAN for all overseas fans.

0 / Shota Aoi
Shota Aoi
0 / Shota Aoi
Shota Aoi

 

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