From film noir-inspired music videos to a killer debut from a boy band with an average age of 15, we look at the latest developments in South Korea’s music world
Whether you’re a serious fan or a curious newcomer, discover a monthly roundup of new releases from South Korea. From K-Pop to hip hop and everything in between, gorge yourself on all that’s new.
K-Pop has taken a backseat over recent weeks as scandal rocked the South Korean president, Park Geun-Hye, and protests – attended by hundreds of thousands of people – filled Seoul. Park is alleged to have allowed her longtime confidant Choi Soon-Sil to not only manipulate her for money and influence on both personal and business levels, but meddle in the country’s national affairs despite holding no official position. K-Pop has been drawn into the issue – notably the YG Entertainment powerhouse, who deny involvement and are yet to have any firm evidence shown against them – but as the K-Pop industry has long profited from government spend and assistance, should Park be questioned by prosecutors, the shit may well hit the fan.
Changes are occurring within K-Pop’s own bubble, too. After seven years, girl group Rainbow have disbanded, Big Bang’s T.O.P is headed for Korea’s mandatory two-year military enlistment (and it’s unlikely that the band will release anything without him), and Beast finally confirmed their break from their label Cube Entertainment. While established idols are forging new paths for themselves, new idols are attempting to strengthen their existing ones: Blackpink released a second set of A-sides (one good, one dull), Victon made a decent debut with the bouncy “I’m Fine”, and highly regarded rapper Tablo put out “Photograph” by upcoming duo offonoff on his indie label Highgrnd.
Finally, we look to the world of sub-units, where a few members of the same group release under a new or derived name. They’re either brilliant or awful, so when something middling comes along, it’s a disappointment. EXO’s sub-unit CBX put out “Hey, Mama”, which looks great and sounds nice but is easily forgettable. Its chart success lies more with EXO’s fan power, and even if CBX’s members had been gunning for this opportunity, the outcome feels more like an indulgence than a genuinely exciting new venture. Hopefully SM Entertainment will prove me wrong with their next single.
B.A.P – “SKYDIVE”
A ten-minute MV (music video) is a big ask on attention spans. With “Skydive”, B.A.P make a welcome return to dramatic vocals and stomach-dropping bass, but the song gets a little lost in the visuals. The plot’s act of betrayal represents the concept behind new album Noir: inspired by film noir, where femme fatales beckon from within an ugly tide of flawed humanity, B.A.P twist the genre’s motifs to suit their needs, lyrically gouging through lies, lust, and desperation – but in doing so, they reveal slivers of redemptive light, sometimes with upbeat touches (the 80s funk-laced “Killer”, or the delicate falsettos of “Fermata” and “I Guess I Need You”).
Still, Noir’s darkest moments are its best, where it holds a mirror up to the corrupt and the fragile. “Ribbon In The Sky” – with an intro similar to Kanye West’s “Power”, snare rolls and Bernard Hermann-esque violins stabbing throughout – ostensibly lashes out at the Korean government and media over the Sewol ferry tragedy, while “Pray/Confession”, the album's pivotal point, gazes into despair. B.A.P’s youngest member, the rapper Zelo, finds a new, powerful voice to express the horrors lurking within oneself, while the group's other rapper (and producer) Bang Yongguk tears himself open, his signature rasp frayed at the edges. It seems reasonable that the pressures on B.A.P following a 21-month hiatus caused by a label disagreement in 2014 contributed to the album’s shadowy corners, but it’s a double-edged sword. Noir spotlights the group’s reinvigorated creativity, yet a toll was taken on its primary architect, Bang Yongguk, who removed himself from promoting it to deal with his mental health. Yes, “Skydive”s video and its double-dealing, St. Valentine’s Day-style massacre is entertaining, but the album is the essential journey here.
24HOURS – “OUR NIGHT”
24Hours have been an indie scene staple for over four years, but their trajectory has wavered with the loss of a member and with the band parting ways with their record label. Despite this, they turned a corner this year with “Get It On” and “Our Night”. Not content with simply being consistent, their 2013 album Party People and its single “Tick Tock Tick Tock” leaned heavily on garage revival and English indie, while last year the No Way Out EP took a spin through post-punk. It’s unsurprising that “Our Night” is yet another departure, loosely foraying into the sort of floaty territory that Bombay Bicycle Club occupy (via a band like White Lies). Jangly indie is replaced with wide, echoing vocals and tremulous guitars on easily their best record to date. The only unchangeable factor is the quality of the videos, which – as a combination of zero budget and perhaps a wry sense of humour – remain endearingly crap.
GRACE – “TRICK OR TREAT”
Halloween themed... but not. Aside from the title, the premise of Grace Kim’s second single lies solely in letting the object of her desire get a taste of her candy. No monsters and definitely no mashing. It kicks out sinister bass and a stuttering vocal hook but although ‘Crazy Grace’ (as she refers to herself) found recognition on Unpretty Rapstar (the female version of rapper survival show Show Me The Money), her strength is a speaking-singing style that “Trick Or Treat” plays to perfectly. It’s a smart jump from the trashy fun of Grace’s debut, “I'm Fine”, with its throwaway chorus and a gaudy Harajuku superstar look, and should she continue to release gems like these, her star deserves to ascend far beyond the memory of reality TV.
THE EAST LIGHT – “HOLLA”
If you need some motivation in life, consider that the average age of The East Light is a cradle-rocking 15, and that the band’s members have individually managed to appear in singing competitions, variety shows, and films while still attending school. The brainchild of veteran producer Kim Chang-Hwan, The East Light’s concept feels in-debt to School Of Rock, but rather than parade their innocence, the boys dress identically in innocuous uniforms, faces hidden beneath various wigs. It demands that more regard is given to their music than their age, but little can divert from the teenage exuberance of “Holla”. There are undeniable parallels with early Britpop and 90s moppets Hanson, but it doesn’t once drag through the mire of nostalgia. It’s a brilliant debut, resolutely Korean yet capable of transcending cultural barriers.
MAMAMOO – “DÉCALCOMANIE”
Mamamoo’s “Decalcomanie” (the name of an art technique of pressing designs from one surface to another, and used in the lyrics to reference sex/bodies pressed together) has raised hell with its depictions of ‘dating violence’. To those unfamiliar with Korean dramas, female characters often (but not always) respond to sexual aggression and/or violence from partners or would-be lovers. She tries to leave, he grabs her wrist and now she wants to stay. She’s hesitant, he throws her against the wall, he kisses her – and she’s putty in his hands. It’s portrayed as an act of passion so often that it’s no longer seen for what it is. Mamamoo’s members each experience a version of it, the most disturbing being Solar struggling and pinned, kissed until her hands wrap submissively around his neck. The outcry was so loud that the MV was pulled and re-edited, sans Solar’s scene. Scrapping it entirely would have been better. Controversies aside, its does no justice to a great song. A sultry take on their frequently retro sound, “Decalcomanie” is a pop powerhouse, and without the insidious threat of the MV's male protagonist waiting for the right moment to strike, the lyrics have Mamamoo in control. It’s in the live version that you’ll find the empowerment that the video failed miserably to convey – four talented female singers on stage without props, dancers or lip syncing, and damn well owning it.