I had absolutely no idea who EXO were or what sort of record this would be.
Turns out they’re a South Korean boy band. And…it’s not half bad. Seriously.
Honestly, this seemed to be right direction to take in terms of maintaining my passion for reviewing music in general. The songs and records I have generally chosen to write about for this blog generally span three categories:
1. The safe, mainstream stuff that sounds good because I’m familiar with it. Stuff I can write some pretty words about without truly connecting with, because authenticity and sincerity are for losers.
2. Music by my favourite artists that I’m kind of tarnishing by writing about and thus spoiling the unspoken magic that allowed me connect with their music in the first place – or worse, feeling like my words aren’t doing the music the justice it truly deserves.
3. Hipster/indie stuff I review in order to keep up appearances…notwithstanding the fact that it’s sometimes forgettable, pretentious, unambitious and, in somewhat less diplomatic terms, complete shite (see: all of my reviews from 2015). Not always all of those things, but more often than not, some combination thereof.
Unburdened by the biases and expectations I generally hold towards Western music, I went into this record with a clean slate and an open mind. And while I’m no stranger to listening to foreign language music, it really feels as if you can appreciate the essence of music more when you’re not trying to offer up some pseudo-intellectual literary analysis of songs that run the inspiring creative gamut of getting drunk, going clubbing, or having one night stands. Does it bother me that these fabulously wealthy performers with an incredible platform for writing about things that could actually mean something have chosen to squander that opportunity by singing about their Saturday night hijinks? Well yes, a little, but maybe I’m just not enough of a basic bitch to completely buy into it.
But that’s the great thing about not understanding a single fucking word of the music you’re listening to, because all those petty gripes about shallow subject material automatically no longer matter. I mean, it’s entirely possible that those aforementioned topics are being sung about too, albeit in Korean.
So in such circumstances, the production and melodies and little else are foregrounded. And on that front, this record delivers admirably.
Great pop music tends to toe the line in embracing contemporary trends and pushing the boundaries a little further (but not too far), all while wearing an impeccable veneer of polish and style. On all these counts, EXO succeeds without a hitch, and the sound is all over the place – the good kind of all over the place; like a rollercoaster. There’s also the gratuitous English phrase, because that’s what all the cool kids do nowadays.
Tracks impishly oscillates between piano-driven pop, R&B, hip-hop and pleasingly off-centre detours into EDM and synthpop. Opener ‘전야 (前夜)’ (‘The Eve’) combines slow 90s boy band vocal harmonies with an indulgent, effortlessly cool groove – and its choruses boasts one of the cleanest sounding snares I’ve ever heard. ‘Ko Ko Bop’ is an intriguing fusion of reggae and trap, and ‘What U Do?’ follows the Carly Rae Jepsen template of funky and fun throwback to to 1980s pop music. And that’s all in the first 10 minutes.
It’s a consistently inspired, versatile, and deceptively cohesive effort, with very few stale moments. Any moment that threatens to become boring or unpredictable is abruptly offset with something completely different, yet no less great.
Maybe this is all the same as all the English stuff, and I’m just giving it a pass because it’s in a different language. Believe whatever you want. You don’t know me. It’s a weird thing to experience some new music with zero expectations, only to find that initial pessimism swiftly displaced by a torrent of fascinating sonic textures and fearless and exciting turns into the new and unexpected. Is this what experiencing new music should be like? I think so.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, it turns out that I’m not completely dead inside.
Based in: Seoul, South Korea.
Sounds like: The past decade of pop music.
Say what? In 2014, an ex-member filed a lawsuit against the band’s entertainment agency, wishing to terminate his contract for “violation of basic human rights by treating him like a product rather than a person, disregard for his health, unfair profit distribution and restricting his freedom”. Kim jong-un would be proud.
Over and out, Darren.