Since forming in 2005, ONE OK ROCK have fought their way to the top of Japan’s overcrowded and fiercely competitive music industry. Now, with their eighth studio album Ambitions, they look to conquer international markets, particularly America. The album has been released in a separate English language international edition in addition to the Japanese version. This dual release strategy was first tried with 2015’s 35xxxv, which was distributed outside of Japan by Warner Music Group. In 2016 ONE OK ROCK signed with US record label Fueled by Ramen, home of bands such as All Time Low and Paramore. The label is a better fit for ONE OK ROCK’s brand of music and, as a subsidiary of Warner, can still call on some major marketing muscle to promote Ambitions internationally.
In recent years, ONE OK ROCK’s music has been evolving from hard alternative-rock to a more pop-rock or emo style, and Ambitions continues this move away from their raw, angry Linkin Park-inspired sound into territory occupied by the likes of Fall Out Boy and 30 Seconds to Mars. In interviews, lead singer TAKA has described the themes of the album as hope, ambition and singing together. The singalong motif is present throughout, as many of the songs seem composed with live performance and crowd participation in mind, but the real motivation behind the album is their ambition. ONE OK ROCK are looking to break out internationally and they’ve crafted an album aimed straight at the American market.
The album opens with Ambitions – Introduction, a brief, atmospheric, instrumental piece featuring synth, strings and a sample of somebody getting out of a car and walking off for reasons unknown. This eerie little track doesn’t give any hint of what is to follow, though. It’s the first song, Bombs Away, that shows where ONE OK ROCK are heading. This track, like the rest of the album, has the immaculate, shiny production typical of most American pop-rock songs and employs a lot of synth to fill out the big, radio-friendly sound. After the song’s deceptively quiet start, the urgent “tick tick tock” chorus explodes in a burst of gang vocals and bombastic guitars and it rips along with plenty of energy.
Taking Off, the lead single of the album, is a soaring anthem to a crash and burn love. TAKA puts in a strong vocal performance, expressive in the quiet verses and powering through the big, booming choruses. The slight American accent his singing voice has picked up gives no hint of the band’s Japanese origins.
We Are is another huge anthemic blast and finishes off the one-two-three combination that gets the album off to flying start. It’s built around a stadium crowd pleasing singalong chorus. This one should be a real highlight when performed live.
Next up is Jaded, an upbeat pop-rock number featuring Alex Gaskarth of Fueled by Ramen label mates All Time Low. This is another track that carries the singing together theme, with gang vocals and crowd friendly singalong sections. Gaskarth’s voice is difficult to pick out in the mix but his influence on this track is clear. It would fit in happily on an All Time Low album.
After a strong, fast-paced start, the tempo slows with Hard to Love, a sentimental, mainly acoustic number about TAKA’s relationship with his father. TAKA’s rich, emotional voice is allowed to shine on this song, free from the layers of production lavished on it on other tracks.
Bedroom Warfare is another single from the album, although it lacks the melodic hook and driving beat of previous tracks. A pointlessly muffled passage adds nothing, perhaps some collateral damage from duvet wrestling.
American Girls bounces in, determined to cheer everybody up. This perky, upbeat song is pure pop and it sits rather awkwardly alongside the other tracks on the album. The sunny, catchy tune is likely to prove popular with newfound international fans but may leave some longstanding ones wondering if the band’s change in musical direction has taken a wrong turn here, being so out of character for a ONE OK ROCK song. The next track, I Was King, puts them back on the right road, another big stadium, crowd-pleasing number, full of purpose-built sections to clap and sing along to.
The tempo and mood are brought down again by Listen, with its sombre lyrics about depression. This is a synth led song and TAKA puts in a sensitive vocal performance. It’s rearranged from the version on the Japanese album, which is a duet with Avril Lavigne and some of her performance seems to remain in the backing vocals. The downbeat feeling continues with One Way Ticket, a song about the loneliness of a long-distance relationship. This is another track that sees keyboards dominate while TORU and RYOTA’s guitars are backing up.
Bon Voyage and Start Again are similar, synth heavy, emo pop-rock songs. While they’re both upbeat and carry some catchy guitar riffs, they suffer from TAKA’s voice being heavily processed. He is clearly putting a lot into his vocal performance, but at times the production has the effect of muting it under a blanket of auto-tuning and electronic distortion.
While some of the momentum from the album’s powerful start is lost over the second half of the album, the final track makes for a strong finish. Take What You Want features Australian pop-punk outfit 5 Seconds of Summer who give the song a refreshingly different vocal sound. TAKA’s voice works well in harmony with the boys from 5 Seconds of Summer and he also shows his power, holding an impressive long note in the song’s bridge to the final chorus.
Ambitions continues ONE OK ROCK’s recent evolution to a more pop-rock oriented sound as they look to appeal to a wider audience overseas. At times the lush, radio-friendly production has polished away some of the raw energy that can be found in the band’s live performances and their older songs such as No Scared and Jibun Rock, but there are more than enough strong tracks on this album to win over a new audience and help fulfil the band's international ambitions.
The international edition of Ambitions can be streamed or downloaded at:
Apple Music http://smarturl.it/OORAmbitions-am
Google Play http://smarturl.it/OORAmbitions-gp
ONE OK ROCK - Ambitions
review - 06.03.2017 11:01
ONE OK ROCK take on the world with the international edition of their latest album.
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