Maki Goto – Ai Kotoba (VOICE)

November 20, 2011 at 11:18 am | Posted in Maki Goto | Leave a comment
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  1. What is LOVE
  2. Get Your Way
  3. YOU
  4. Tsukikage
  5. Ai Kotoba
  6. EYES
  7. Paradise
  9. Houseki
  10. “Nee…”
  11. hanauta
  12. Believe
  13. Ashiato

[Collabo-Works Disc]

  1. Queen Bee with BIGGA RAIJI
  2. Lady-Rise
  3. Candy
  4. TEAR DROPS with KG
  5. Mine with KEN THE 390
  6. Fly away
  7. Plastic Lover
  8. with…
  9. Golden LUV
  11. Fly away (HOUSE NATION Remix)
  12. Plastic Lover (Club Mix)

After four mini-albums under avex, Maki has finally released her long-awaited debut album. I’ve enjoyed her releases to a certain extent but I was getting somewhat annoyed by the constant release of mini-albums because it left me confused with what kind of artist she wanted to be and what sound she was going for. Her last mini-album wasn’t as strong as her previous ones and even though I didn’t outright dislike it, the constant change in direction was a little hard to grasp. She went from electropop to pop rock then to a summery ballad-infused album and it was quite overwhelming. Then Maki announced, out of the blue, that she was going on hiatus. This was her last chance to win me over and needless to say I was skeptical with how Ai Kotoba (VOICE) would turn out. However, when I listened to it everything made sense and all the different styles came together perfectly. Maki has released her best album and the most memorable album from Japan this year.

What is LOVE starts things off with a bang. I passed on it when it was released digitally and just decided to wait for it to be released physically. I’m glad I did because it’s a fantastic surprise for me. I was sold right at the intro because it wastes no time throwing the catchiest part of the song at you. It begins with the grittiest synth riff used in a Maki song to date, paired with a pounding beat and captivating vocals “what is True LOVE/what is Pure LOVE/what is Real LOVE LOVE LOVE breakin’ down.” She sounds amazing and the dark electronic elements that pervade the track are delicious. The energy is in constant overdrive, even in the verses. The thumping synth and bass beat is joined by her deep, whispering vocals and she sounds so sexy. Her voice oozes sex and continues to do so as she begins to sing in a faster pace as the verse heads towards the chorus. Once the chorus hits, it hits hard. It’s impossible to ignore with its contagious concoction of dark synths and Maki’s exciting delivery. The intro makes a return as the post-chorus and it fits right in perfectly. The breakdown is amazing as well and she offers a wide array of vocalizing that range from hot whispers to vocoded ad-libs. This is the first Maki song I’ve ever truly loved and it’s the best song in her discography. The excitement continues in Get Your Way, a rock and electronic hybrid. Opening the song is a vocoded a cappella performance from the songstress and the rock elements burst in soon after. Her voice is laced with vocoder during the verses and they consist of heavy synth beats. The rock aspect takes over during the chorus and it has a much greater impact than the verses. Her in-your-face vocals are vocoder free and they flood the chorus with an addicting energy. It’s a heavy hitter and will work its way into your head. The post-chorus is divine and hearing her sing “you got to, you got to, you got to get your way” with such delicious vocals makes you fall captive to its fist-pumping beat. The electric guitar bridge is typical but equally amazing as the rest of the song and I love how intense it sounds.

YOU, the first ballad, is highly reminiscent of other avex divas but luckily Maki makes it hers. It’s a very typical Japanese ballad in both structure and sound. Its sweeping instrumental is made up of chimes, strings, guitars and a light piano which creates a nice, elegant melody. Her voice slowly strengthens as it moves on and her voice reaches its highest peak during the chorus which explodes into a stunning rock melody. The rock elements maintain the sadness and beauty of the calm arrangement but intensify them. It’s emotional, powerful and Maki nails her delivery. The electric guitar breakdown is a nice touch to liven it up and it’s actually the most unpredictable element of the song. The only issue with the song is how generic it is. This exact structure and sound and been used countless times but I’m impressed with how Maki handles it and she does a great job of showing off her vocal power. Tsukikage is another ballad but it’s vastly different. While the previous ballad focused on vocal power, this one focuses on vocal vulnerability. It’s gorgeous partly due to the delicious oriental instrumental but mostly due to her beautiful and light vocal performance. I love the traditional element and it goes so well with her deep voice. It’s very soothing and in the verses her voice drifts with a sweet piano. The oriental aspect is centered in the chorus where it’s joined by magical chimes, a piano and some haunting backing vocals. This isn’t a powerful song but its airy atmosphere more than makes up for it. The bridge is awe-inspiring. The oriental piece is paired with vibrant strings and Maki vocalizes blissfully in the background. It takes the song that extra step and cements it as a standout. What an incredible song from start to finish.

Can you feel my voice?/let me know,” she sings in the most beautiful tone I’ve heard from her at the start of Ai Kotoba. She uses a delicate, breathy high register that is absolutely marvelous and the piano melody is just as gorgeous. The song then takes an unexpected turn when it enters the pre-chorus where it awkwardly shifts into hard rock. There’s just too much of a contrast between the two sections that it doesn’t allow you to settle into the new melody. However, the chorus is much better. The blasting rock melody is infectious and her voice is full of energy. She puts a lot of emotion into her vocals and I love that it’s unpredictable but the piano-driven instrumental is so good and it’s hardly used. I wish it had a larger role but thankfully the rock aspect has grown on me. The bridge is intense because of the bombardment of drums and angry electric guitars. It sounds massively cool and the song ends by fading back into its lovely piano. EYES returns the album to dance but it throws in a delicious retro twist. It blends 80s disco and an early 1900s jazz influence into a modern creation that’s irresistible. The arrangement consists of sparkling synths, horns and catchy percussion beats which come together in a fun and funky way. There’s so much energy, especially in the chorus where the music crescendos and she performs with dazzling vocals. During the bridge, it shifts into a fierce breakdown and it takes you back in time as the retro jazz theme comes out even stronger. The chorus after the bridge is void of any of its old school sounds and it’s a bit slower but just as effective. I’ve really grown to love this track and I can see why so many people adore it. This is one of her best songs and a great inclusion to the album.

I thought Paradise was going to be an elegant mid-tempo or ballad with a euphoric atmosphere. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This is the sexiest song on the entire album and my absolute favourite. The beat is sick. The verses are percussion heavy and dramatic spazzes of synths are thrown in to accompany her super hot vocals. There’s a mysterious and urgent feel to it that is so addicting. In the chorus, a busier arrangement of synths comes along and it’s very catchy, especially the “do or die” parts. It’s faster than the verses, it enhances the sex appeal and it’s playful. The song gets even better with its steamy breakdown where it channels techno through a kaleidoscope of heavy synth beats. This is an amazing dance tune. Maki shows off her playful and sexy side all at once and I love every second of it. SCANDALOUS is another fantastic dip into dance but it has its own distinct flavour. It shares the first track’s heavy electropop style but there’s a slight retro sound contained in the synths. One thing I adore about this song is the abundant use of her high register. There aren’t many songs on the album that focus on this tone so it’s nice to see her use it a lot here because it sounds really good. The chorus is pure dance and the pulsing synth beats, along with the English lyrics, are super catchy. Maki’s rap in the bridge is phenomenal and makes the song even more infectious, “S-C-A-N-D-A-L-O-U-S/SCANDALOUS/you got me feeling like/I wanna be so scandalous.” The scream at the end of the rap is so sexy and fierce. Following this are her sweet vocoded vocals singing parts of the chorus and it’s great. After hearing the vocoded vocals I wouldn’t mind if the chorus featured some of them because it would have made it even catchier. Maki’s killing it with the dance tracks and this is another one of the album’s best moments.

Houseki threw me off completely when I first heard it and it’s produced by Shinichi Osawa which explains why. The instrumental is spectacular due to its complexity. It starts off as a soothing electronic ballad with sweet synths and a few piano licks while in the latter half of the verse some snapping beats, a short string section and beeping synths join in. When the chorus hits it literally does a 180 and blasts in a synthetic dance song. The synth line is aggressive compared to the one in the verses and it’s catchier. Unlike the other electropop numbers, Maki’s delivery doesn’t really match the heavy synth arrangement. She opts for a sweet and girly vocal approach rather than a deep, powerful or sexy one. This is a good thing because it makes for a nice contrast and helps it stand out. It’s a good blend of sounds and makes for an entertaining listen. The album goes into a ballad spree for the next few tracks and starts with “Nee…It begins with a gorgeous piano, some synths and a few guitar notes that lead to a stripped-down composition for the verse. Before, the verses came off as a dull and generic. They’re still not extraordinary but I like them a lot more because they make for easy listening. Maki’s vocals are great and her deep vocals go well with the elegant piano melody. However, the chorus is much better because of the strings and chimes which add a beautiful layer to the song. They really do make a difference and they bring this ballad to life. Even Maki sounds livelier and she puts more emotion into her vocals. I’ve warmed up to it but it is outdone by the other ballads, especially the new ones.

Next up is hanauta, a heartfelt ballad that Maki wrote for her mother who committed suicide last year. The incident surrounding this ballad led me to believe that it was going to be tragic, depressing and a total tear-jerker. Surprisingly, it’s not. There’s a lingering sadness but there’s a stronger sense of love that makes it quite uplifting. Maki’s vocal performance is sincere and filled with so much emotion. Containing chimes, snapping beats and a somber piano, the verses have a traditional vibe to them and this makes the song so much better. The soaring chorus shifts to a grandiose arrangement with strings and it’s very elegant. The organic arrangement is gorgeous and really shines during the instrumental break. It’s not sad but just knowing what she went through at that time makes this tug at your heart. The final ballad, Believe, takes her back to an oriental sound and it’s stronger than the last two ballads. The verses, like the ones in Tsukikage, don’t use the oriental instruments. Instead, they feature an ambient piano that is stunning and magical. Maki’s sweet vocals are beautiful as well and this may just be my favourite vocal performance from her. The song builds up slowly, becoming more captivating as it moves on, and it transitions into its powerful chorus gracefully. It’s the most impacting hook on the album and her vocals are flawless. The expression, strength and emotion of the chorus make this a highlight. Her background vocals are excellent and the piano interlude is so amazing. The final chorus enhances all the wonderful instruments and it’s such a blissful conclusion. I was left speechless after hearing this and it really is beautiful. Ending the album is Ashiato, and it’s a little surprising because it doesn’t end the album on a sad note. Despite this being the last release from her for now, it closes with a bright song. The pop rock elements are immediately apparent as it begins with a breezy guitar. At first, it appears to be a mid-tempo but then halfway through the percussion is added and it becomes a lot more upbeat. The chorus is very energetic and the added synths blend well with the overall pop rock arrangement. The second verse is a bit different from the first as light drums, synths and chimes are incorporated into the melody. Maki graces the ears with girly, fresh and invigorating vocals. She makes the song fun and it’s such an infectious way to end the album.

[Collabo-Works Disc]: Queen Bee with BIGGA RAIJI is one of Maki’s most daring tracks and marks the time when I started to pay attention to her. The song blends pop with rap and even throws in a bit of reggae to spice it up. The production is fire. The verses are set up with some nice club-friendly synth beats while the chorus gets a dose of seductive percussion beats that make the song a huge hit. Her vocals are fresh and fierce which is perfect for the addictive melody. However, there’s one minor issue and it’s the atrocious rapper that’s featured. I’m pretty torn on BIGGA RAIJI’s inclusion because at times I despise his vocals and find him very annoying but other times I feel like he somehow makes the song what it is. With or without him, Maki does her thing and you’ll have the chorus, “boom boom boom boom/take it baby, honey baby/try me, try me, I’m Queen Bee,” stuck in your head for ages. Lady-Rise is another one of my favourites and it’s performed by a very feminine and seductive Maki. The instrumental is dominated by slick electro beats and a sexy guitar riff. It’s full of hot, fierce goodness that’s intoxicating and completely impossible to ignore. She’s really playful on this track but she gets quite aggressive during the chorus when the arrangement turns into frenzy of dance beats and she enthusiastically shouts “Lady-Rise!” It’s such a fun hook and it has a bit of an exotic flair thanks to her vocals. The bridge is pretty typical but all is forgiven because the screaming in the final chorus is so sexy and such a great addition to an already amazing hook. While not the catchiest of the SWEET BLACK tracks, Candy is a treat of dark electropop. It’s not overtly dark but the slow and steamy rock beats are laced with a dark flair. This accents the sexual nature of the song and the two come together in a very delicious way. Despite being a mid-tempo, it has a great punch to it and the hook oozes sex with its clapping percussion and slick electro beats. She heats things up even more during the bridge as her voice gets a sexy dose of vocoder. The song doesn’t leave a lasting impression but it sure is a nice listen.

The second disc reaches its first ballad and TEAR DROPS with KG is gorgeous. KG is a much better vocalist than BIGGA RAIJI and his deep voice sounds pleasant along side Maki’s sweet tone. He’s not amazing by any means but he does a good job. Maki is the star of the show though and her vocals range from light to high tones that accent the divine production. It’s made up of a duo piano and guitar melody that is simply exquisite, elegant and emotional. I love how the chorus includes synths into the composition because it brightens the song up and it sounds very optimistic. It’s an old track but it’s one of her best ballads. Mine with KEN THE 390 brings the fire back and it brings it back hard. This was one of the standouts when I first heard SWEET BLACK and it’s still just as amazing. The composition is similar to Candy because it has a slick, dark sound to it but it’s upbeat. The percussion and synths have a sexy urban vibe to them and Maki’s voice is great. The verses have her using a deep tone and in the chorus she focuses on an airy, high tone. The chorus has a strong dramatic edge to it because of the pulsing dark synths and her high vocals. It’s very catchy and it’s my favourite hook off the second disc. KEN THE 390 should have been featured on the first track as well because he’s a fantastic rapper. He really adds to the song and makes it even better. His raps are quick, engaging and infectious. This is an awesome song and collaboration.

Fly away blew me away when I first heard it because I never expected an ex-H!P member to release something of this caliber. Everything about the verses is dramatic. The tenebrous clapping beats, the electro underpinning, the exotic backing vocals and Maki’s voice are all intense and in-your-face. The verses are seriously the best thing about this song and it’s saddening that the chorus doesn’t carry their epicness. It shifts suddenly to an optimistic setting in the pre-chorus, losing the intensity and infectiousness of the verses. Although, I do like the contrast that it creates and how it plays with the light and dark sounds. The chorus is pretty catchy with the added emphasis on the synths but I just wish it was a bit more mind-blowing. I’ve grown to like it much more than before and I appreciate how distinct it is. It’s definitely a great way to get into her music because it’s such a unique track. Plastic Lover is made strictly for the club dance floor. There are so many different synth beats utilized here and it’s so cool. It’s the most impressive and interesting composition from SWEET BLACK. The drum and bass beat is off the wall and makes you want to dance, especially the chorus because of its dynamic blitz of synths. Her vocals are vocoded but they sound awesome paired with the heavy dance beats. The bridge is marvelous and shows off its crazy synth riffs which range from a high, hyper synth line to a deep, heavy one that than shifts to a bombardment of malfunctioning synths. Its dance heaven, super flirty and Maki hits some impressive notes during the final chorus. I don’t remember it being so good but now it’s a favourite. with… is the final SWEET BLACK collaboration and it’s another ballad. A guitar comes in immediately, joined by a few notes from a twinkling piano which gives way to drums. It’s very innocent and she uses a sugary tone to emphasize it. In the chorus, chimes are incorporated to increase its sweetness and the backing vocals are really good. This is the least impressive track but it is a nice listen. This sweet and light tune helps digest all the dark, club beats that the rest of the SWEET BLACK project is made up of.

The ravex coloration, Golden LUV, makes an appearance and it’s one of the ravex tracks that I didn’t pay much attention to. Now that I have, I’m surprised that I didn’t care for it before. This doesn’t sound so far off from her own sound because it has a retro jazz and disco melody. The arrangement in the verses is simple with synths and a piano but the song takes a turn for the better when she sings in a fast-paced manner for the pre-chorus. This leads to the fabulous chorus where the retro elements come out hard. The synths are amazing and it’s a really catchy tune. Maki always seems to nail the club inspired tracks and this one continues that trend. CRAZY IN LOVE feat. MAKI GOTO with FALCO & SHINO is the most girliest track on the entire album. It’s bizarre because it has an urban and hip hop sound but instead of being heavy and aggressive, it’s super flirty and vibrant. This makes it interesting and it’s cool that it’s not so predictable. The rappers do a standard job. You could replace them with any other rapper and it wouldn’t make a difference. Maki does a great job of sustaining the excitement and regardless of the repetitive chorus, she sounds really cute so it’s hard not to find enjoyment in it. The second disc ends with two long remixes, the first being Fly away (HOUSE NATION Remix). The intro led me to believe this was going to be a typical remix but then it mellows out with vibrant synths. It’s the complete opposite of the original and even though the dark sound of the verses is removed, it still sounds wicked. The chorus is spiced up by the synths from the intro and I love its light feel. It’s such a great twist to the original and it works as a soft track just as well as it did as a hard one. Plastic Lover (Club Mix) is more of an extended version than a remix and like it implies, focuses more on the club aspect of the song. There’s not a big difference but if you liked the original than you’ll surely enjoy this just as much.

Conclusion: Maki’s debut album is all kinds of amazing. I’m stunned by how much I love it. She came through and delivered one of the greatest releases of the year. Ai Kotoba (VOICE) is her strongest release and it’s so cohesive. The album flows extremely well despite having some old songs featured on it. All the different styles of her mini-albums which I complained about actually come together as a whole and she really made me eat my words. What makes this even better is that it contains the entire SWEET BLACK album plus a few other collaborations. There’s something here for everyone and I’d be surprised if someone didn’t find something to like about it. It’s a shame that she’s going on hiatus now that she’s won me over. I hope it goes well for her and that she returns in a few years because I’m looking forward to hearing from her again. It has been a long and painful journey for Maki during these last few years but she’s become such a fantastic artist.

Recommended Tracks: Paradise, What is LOVE, SCANDOLOUS, EYES, Believe, Tsukikage, YOU, Mine with KEN THE 390, Fly away, Queen Bee with BIGGA RAIJI, Plastic Lover, Lady-Rise and TEAR DROPS with KG



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