REVIEW: Alice Nine - "Supernova"

I used to jokingly refer to Alice Nine as the Maroon 5 of visual kei because of their status as light-rock heavyweights who effortlessly turn out hit single after hit single. I had no idea that that analogy would also be a prediction of the band's future. Pulling their own version of Maroon 5's 2011 transition to club music, Alice Nine incorporates a large amount of noticeably mainstream elements into their newest album. Supernova embraces these elements with all the production power that a major-label band as big as Alice Nine can be provided, and the result is a decent experimental project that narrowly avoided becoming a trashy sell-out swan song.

Supernova Regular Edition Cover
2. +-
4. mebius
5. Daybreak
6. Shooting Star
7. Exist
8. 1 Minute Kidding
9. KID
10. SHADOWPLAY (Supernova Edition)
11. kaisenzenya
12. Prelude-resolution-

I'd like to begin this review with a word of warning: it's not uncommon for visual kei bands to blur the line between pop and rock while staying true to what they stand for, but of all the albums I've listened to, none have come so dangerously close (emphasis on the word "close") to becoming an act of mainstream pandering. Supernova involves so many mainstream sounds with such audacity that some experienced Alice Nine listeners may be caught off guard by it, or even outright hate it. This album has some solid songs and some decent musical experimentation, but if you dislike pop and dance music, you will not enjoy it.

Supernova opens with "SHINING", an upbeat song with electronic sounds and beats interspersed throughout. What's most noticeable about this song (and many others on the album) is how finely-processed the guitar chords sound. It makes the guitars sound much less intrusive on the song without diminishing the listener's awareness of their chords. This is something that could appeal to potential new listeners who are open to trying rock music but find many guitar sounds to be too harsh. While there are many songs that follow a similar sound as "SHINING", "+-" is one of the exceptions to the rule. This is a strong rock song reminiscent of Alice Nine's more signature sound: it's upbeat and easily digestible while still having solid instrumentation and a strong, rocking feeling. I did have some slight objections to the weak screaming attempts in the background of this track, and I also found the "whoa-oh-oh, whoa-oh-oh"'s in the chorus to be a little bit forced, but the song's pace and instrumentation make up for these awkward moments.

"SEVEN" is tied with one other track for my favorite song on the album. It inherits the well-produced guitars and subtle electronica introduced by "SHINING", further blends them together, and releases them into a loud track that will sweep you off your feet. Its funky style and dramatic flair are an excellent example of the musical curve balls that Alice Nine likes to throw at the listener from time to time (such as the title songs off of their Gemini album). This excellent track is then followed by "mebius", my least-favorite track on the album. Set to a drum beat and outdated synth music, both of which sound like they were pulled from a 70's disco song, this track attempts to smother catchy vocals and instrumentation with poppy electronic sounds. Fortunately, the album rights itself with "Daybreak", a track that does a much better job of making the rock and pop sounds work together. This song accompanies the rock instruments with quite a lot of bass beats and ambient music, but the two are blended very well, and create a rather powerful sound.

"Shooting Star" is a soft song that follows the less-is-more philosophy during the verses, using slow piano and sparsely-played (not to mention highly-distorted) guitar notes to bring attention to the vocals, before bursting into the chorus in a grandly romantic fashion. This song could easily be misconstrued as a pop song (although a very nice pop song at that). As if to put the listener at ease about the direction of the album, "Shooting Star" is followed by the "heaviest" track on the album. "Exist" is strong on guitars in the verses and bridge, but lightens up for a mediocre chorus. The most bothersome part is the screaming at the end, which sounds really out of place. It seems like Alice Nine made "Exist" to prove that they can still be heavy, then changed their mind during the choruses. As a result, this song sounds a little all over the place.

"1 Minute Kidding" is a minute-long dubstep/house interlude that transitions immediately into "KID", my other favorite track on the album. I've never heard a song quite like "KID". It is almost a 50-50 fusion of light rock and club music, and it works perfectly. A build-up and bass drop follow the chorus, guitar notes take turns with squealing dubstep, and the vocalist's strong voice ties it all together perfectly. This is a song that could easily be played in a nightclub, yet it solidly delivers the best of Alice Nine's signature sound on a level that the more rock-focused songs on this album fail to reach. For me, "KID" is the reason to check out this album.

The album continues with "SHADOWPLAY", a rather epic light rock song that has arguably the best instrumentation on the album. It is embellished by beautiful  piano and symphonic melodies. It's a fantastic followup to the exciting "KID", lulling the listener into a dream-like state. "kaisenzenya" wraps up the album with a quick pace, strong guitars, and a few heavy moments that always end with an upbeat chorus (albeit one with excessive and slightly awkward drumming). It's a decent song overall, and gets all of the band's energy out in one last hurrah. Supernova ends with "Prelude-resolution-", an enchanting instrumental that starts with orchestral music before transitioning into peaceful and inspiring electronic music.

When I first listened to Supernova, I had just finished listening to an excellent rock/metal album, and was so caught off-guard by Alice Nine's new sound that initially wrote the album off as a piece of trash. But then I went back and listened again with a more open mind. I listened with the intent to hear and enjoy any kind of music, not just rock music. Then I went back again, this time with the intent to hear pop and dance music in a fresh new way. I enjoyed myself much more the second two times, and I think that's an excellent summary of the experience the listener could have with this album. Whatever you feel about the new sounds explored in this album, you won't have to feel that way for long. The band's leaving of long-time label PSC, along with the vocalist's use of the words "starting over from scratch" to describe their next steps as a band, seem to suggest that Alice Nine is going back to its roots and avoiding interference from any mainstream pressures. For many fans, the Supernova period will have been fun while it lasted. For others, it will have been a nightmare that they can soon wake up from. Which side you fall on entirely depends on how much mainstream experimentation you can stand.

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