After celebrating the 15th anniversary of their Korean debut, the dynamic duo of Yunho and Changmin turn their attention to the Japanese market for Tohoshinki’s same milestone there.

If there was one thing that we have held true until now through the duality of TVXQ’s/Tohoshinki’s discographies is that, when it comes to anniversary albums, TVXQ is probably going to have the better set.  The Korean side of the discography has dropped Mirotic, Tense/Spellbound, and The Truth Of Love as notable offerings for their fifth, tenth, and fifteenth anniversaries.  Tohoshinki gave us nothing (lawsuit in progress), With (which is good but the weakest their albums to that point), and now…

To be honest, we didn’t know what to expect from this album because we couldn’t figure out what kind of shape it would take.  Jealous remains a bop and its inclusion in the album made sense even if it would be nearly a year old upon release. The follow-up single of Hot, Hot, Hot left a lot to be desired in terms of the vocal quality on display, but Mirrors was significantly better and the kind of power B-side that we expect from this duo’s Japanese releases.  The final single, Guilty, was unexpectedly Jpop/rock in style and had an interesting build and left a good impression that tended to grow with subsequent listens.  But all of these songs had their own distinct vibe and it was very hard to see how they would all fit together.  This feeling was exacerbated when the snippets were released and every new track had its own power and flow.  While they all sounded good individually, we thought this would sound like a hodge-podge mess when played in sequence.

But we were wrong; it all fits together rather well and we are extremely pleased.

We always contend that album sequencing is important to making the songs on an album sound their best and this project is proof of that.  One track out of place and the whole thing falls apart because the outros and lead-ins, despite the hard stops, would have a distinct mismatch.  There is also the fact that, even with the varied production choices overall, there is a basic continuity between the songs’ speed, pitch, and underlying beat.  Many of the songs fall in the same vocal range and mid-tempo speed, making it easier to join one to the other.  There are some similarities to the underlying beats as well, but they are not so similar that the album goes full Ace of Base on the listener.

The sound of this album is highly experimental for this group both in terms of production and vocals.  Compared to their previous album, Tomorrow, this has fewer Western musical influences overall (most likely due to the executive producers of that album being a Swedish duo) and sits quite comfortably in the what you would consider Jpop without treading stereotypical waters.  There are distinct uses of the koto, sanchin, and shamisen throughout the tracks that can easily be mistaken for guitars and banjos as they integrate into the non-traditional styles of the music very well and give more complexity to the beatwork.  The vocal styling is much more diverse as well.  The gentlemen take on roles in the songs that they have not before and really push themselves to try something new; whether it be taking on parts that they haven’t normally or pushing the limits of their vocal abilities.  This combination of tactics not only leads to something different for the longtime fan and something engaging for the new ones, but also (more likely than not) pays off big time in terms of showing off their talents.

Some of the notable spots of the album are when the songs just grab you by not sounding like you expected.  Master which, despite the abrupt verse-to-bridge transition, is pure eighties goodness with a kind of tongue-in-cheek arcade cabinet style in the beginning that works on a few levels to both ground and elevate the track.  Manipulate hits you with a hardcore beat in the beginning and Changmin takes point for this track by delivering the bars and most forefront vocals.  The interesting switch-off of roles is a pleasant surprise and works to help the song come in fresh and gives an overall different air than when Yunho raps.  Tears Of The Firefly (track nine) is a lovely ballad with simple but strong instrumentation that really lets Yunho’s vocals shine.  This is the first time that his falsetto has been on such prominent display on a Japanese track and his signature sweet delivery is a gentle rejoinder to the violins and piano that permeate the track.  Ballad Of The Night When Snow Falls (track fourteen) shows off their ability to keep their distinct vocal colors while harmonizing and trading off who takes which range depending on who is taking the lead.  Pay It Forward managed to surprise us when it worked in an unexpected bass vocal from both men towards the end.

Of course, no album is without flaws. Hotx3, while fitting into the album better than we imagined and sounding better in context, is still the weakest offering in the set as the vocals sound strained and unfocused.  Everday, despite the bright production, just kind of passes by without making much of an impact one way or another.  Crimson Saga is epic in both production and vocals, but is probably going to illicit some giggles thanks to the You’re my only buddy line and that can ruin the song’s atmosphere for some.

Despite that, the album is still an enjoyable listen from beginning to end with even the worst of itself is still delivering an experience worth having and coming in at a solid 55 minutes, it flows well and doesn’t overstay its welcome.  While The Truth Of Love was an extremely good album, XV has managed to take the win the anniversary face-off by raising our expectations and exceeding them.

Note: The physical copies of the album contain the special bonus track of Truth, Japanese version of the single from their Korean 15th anniversary EP, which was unavailable at the time of this review.

Favorite songs: Hot Sauce, Master, Jealous, Tears Of The Firefly
Most skippable: Hotx3, Everyday