While the country is best known for its clean and meticulous pop, these groups are leading a renaissance of rawer guitar music
South Korea’s meticulous and sophisticated pop music is its biggest cultural export, having found its way not only into international music charts, but also into Olympic sporting events, political delegations, and, as of yesterday, football. K-pop’s dominance makes it hard to imagine a genre like rock, which eschews the slick beats and slicker idol groups of K-pop for something more raw and wild, could ever flourish within the country’s music industry.
In fact, long before modern K-pop was born in the early 1990s, one of South Korea’s first musical revolutions was spearheaded by guitarist and singer-songwriter Shin Joong-hyun. Following the armistice that brought an unofficial end to the Korean war in 1953, the numerous US military bases scattered across South Korea – home to the soldiers who’d decided to stay back in the country – burgeoned into performance spaces for local bands and artists, holding auditions every six months for their on-site clubs and providing regular gigs for musicians. Influenced by the American jazz and psychedelic rock tunes he’d heard on the radio, 19-year-old Shin Joong-hyun auditioned in the hopes of finding regular work; soon enough, however, he was performing as often as 40 times a month. Shin is often dubbed South Korea’s ‘Godfather of Rock’, and in 1962, he formed the country’s first rock band, Add4, which led to an uptake in the number of ‘group musicians’ performing to audiences. When former President Park Chung-hee’s regime cracked down on musicians across the country, Shin was one of the first to be censored and blacklisted.
When South Korea finally opened its borders to the world in the mid-80s, there was almost 40 years’ worth of music to catch up on, leading to a rock resurgence. Bands like Crying Nut and No Brain effectively introduced Korea to punk rock, but by that time, pop was already well on its way to becoming the country’s defining sound, and rock moved to the indie scenes, clubs, bars, and buskers. There were enough bands in the mainstream media to keep the genre alive, but the most exciting things happening were in indie and underground spheres, with bands like Rux, Skasucks, and Sanulrim. Today, the genre is undergoing a creative revival – and the acts below, who started as products of the movement, are now on their way to becoming pioneers of South Korea’s rock renaissance.
Seeing a quintessential indie band like Hyukoh top the charts in the polished, meticulously planned arena of the Korean music industry is unprecedented, yet Hyukoh – who appeared on this year’s Dazed 100 – take you by surprise with everything they do. Maybe it’s their rough, simple sound that tings out in guitar riffs and catchy solos, maybe it’s frontman Oh Hyuk’s deep, scratchy voice that blends into the music, or maybe it’s the way the band treats fame, but Hyukoh are a breath of fresh air. The band have become the face of a generation crumbling under societal and personal expectations, referencing South Korea’s stringent academic structures, broken job market, and alarming suicide rates in their lyrics.
Hyukoh’s adamant refusal to pander to the perfectionist mindset of the Korean music industry is what sets them apart, and eventually landed them on the Billboard World Albums Chart. In July 2015, they became the first act to sign with HIGHGRND, a subsidiary of the hugely influential YG Entertainment. Despite their association with a ‘Big 3’ label, however, the band have no plans to change. “At the end of the day, when it comes to music, if you can’t show that you are capable of bringing something more to the table, you become stale,” guitarist Hyun-jae said in an interview with Ssense.
It’s been less than a year since The Rose officially debuted with “Sorry”, but longtime fans of the band will recognise them from their years on Korea’s vibrant busking scene. Vocalist Dojoon and bassist Jaehyeong met while busking in the lively Hongdae district, first planning to play as a duo before forming the group Windfall with a third member, Hajoon, and eventually becoming the quartet The Rose when their present leader and vocalist Woosung joined the band. Though The Rose have a distinctly pop rock sound, their lyrics are too introspective to be paired with comforting guitars and light drums – they talk about loneliness, unsatisfactory relationships, and debilitating guilt, and they make it work.
It’s impossible to talk about Korea’s indie rock scene without mentioning Nell. Having cited Radiohead as an influence and collaborated with rap stars like G-Dragon and Epik High, critics have credited Nell as one of the most important architects of the rock genre in the country. For the most part, you have lead vocalist Kim Jong-wan to thank for that – he writes, produces, and composes almost all of the band’s songs. Nell’s success, however, was unprecedented in more ways than one, mostly because the band never went in the same pop-friendly direction as similar acts of the time. Over the years, their depressive, dark songwriting, coupled with their psychedelic roots, has become their trademark – as well as the reason they’re still considered a niche proposition. Their music has helped usher in a new creative era for rock in South Korea, and helped put the genre on the map internationally when they became one of Billboard’s best South Korean acts in 2014.
Wetter are young, both figuratively and literally. They debuted in November 2016 with the single “Who” and followed up with their debut album Romance in a Weird World just a few months later. Those two records established Wetter as a band open to interpretation and experimentation – while “Who” is an upbeat track looping simple guitar sounds and backed by calm drums, album track “Lucy” is darker, slower, and more complex. Wetter use their music to express their anger and indifference, but don’t take themselves too seriously. In “Who”, for example, they put their feelings simply: “Buddy, you should get off my soul/my body, my music/my tax, my loving/just fuck off.”
It isn’t just Julia Dream’s name that references Pink Floyd – listen to their single “Lay It Down On Me” and you can easily hear the band’s influences. The track is divided into four parts: the first sees a haunting, disembodied voice ask “Do you want to sleep?” while vocalist Joon-hyung’s voice croons in the background, before bleeding into three more parts, each alternating between vocals, guitar, and distortion that turns those sounds into an electric, looped residue. The band consciously stamp their identity on every song they produce while acknowledging their own inspirations: “Fans over there (in America) have a really good understanding of which artists have influenced other musicians,” frontman Joon-hyung told DO Indie. “Apart from fellow musicians, most people in Korea don’t really know much about that kind of stuff.”
In the same interview, Joon-hyung talks about Korean music’s need to diversify while retaining its distinctive Korean-ness: “Koreans tend to think it’s fine to just make reinterpretations of the music they’re influenced by, whereas in America, they’re not all that fussed about your playing skills, but don’t like it if it looks like you’re ripping off another band.”