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Seo Taiji, Korea’s rock vanguard returns with another Westernized album full of his signature melodies in hopes to break the K-pop slump with emo-core.
[Geo Soo Dae Baek Kwa Sa Jeon, Jan. 2004]
Rock visionary Seo Taiji returns from a three year hiatus with his 7th album (3rd solo) aptly titled VII Issue, perhaps just in time to revive the faltering Korean pop scene. Ironically acclaimed for having single handedly revolutionized Korea’s ‘gayo’ (Korean pop music) world with his debut in 1992 with Nan Ara yo (I Know), Seo Taiji has been intermittently releasing albums as a solo artist (two years after disbanding from his two dance partners in 1996) into a market satiated with image-obsessed pop idols that technically do not match up to the legacy he should have left behind – self sufficient songwriting and producing. Though he is almost always referred to as a major influence by pseudo contenders in Korean pop, Seo Taiji is indeed in a class of his own with a handful of legitimate contemporaries like Shin Hae Chul and Kim Jong Seo.
Keen to Western musical styles, Seo Taiji is known to spearhead the next step in K-pop. Quite cleverly, he emerged in the gayo world with a pair of back up dancers and introduced the country to dance, rap and hip hop, which instantly landed him mainstream success. The group’s sophomore record innovatively meshed traditional folk with heavy metal and by this time, Seo Taiji & Boys had gained an enormous fanbase that has been militantly loyal to this day. While reverting back to his rock roots, Seo Taiji raised social consciousness with issues such as reunification and the repressing educational system. He broke many barriers in the media by confronting issues regarding censorship and artists’ rights. Consequently, his career has been dominated with overbearing press that have hounded him on issues of Satanic backward masking and ripping off American bands such as Cypress Hill and Korn.
Seo Taiji has been pushing the boundaries of Korean rock since his solo debut in 1998, not only through his own work but promoting underground bands. Heavily influenced by Western metal, he scoured from experimental alternative to nu-metal (Ultramania, 2000) and now presents the genre of emo-core in his third solo effort, a rock style that has been popularized in the states by bands like Fugazi and Sunny Day Real Estate. Some would argue (as they have) that Seo Taiji is overly credited for mimicking American trends (gangster rap, rap-metal), which does contain a grain of truth. It’s evident in his music that he keeps to date with the current developments in rock and channels what he picks up to Korean listeners. However, there is a difference with borrowing ideas from popular genres and flatly plagiarizing and Seo Taiji does not seem to be guilty for the latter.
Following the tradition of his solo works, VII Issue is a no-filler musical narrative beginning with a pensive intro and closing with a personal outro, offering seven full tracks interspersed with three fluid interludes. It exhibits his growth as a producer who seamlessly handles complex sonic textures apparent in the sentimental punk revivalist spirit of “Heffy End” that embodies various dimensions and speeds of guitar noise. “Victim” is sought with palatable melody, buried screams, reaffirming cadences and lyrically faces the issue of gender equality – a very appropriate topic considering that his fanbase is approximately 80% female. The lyrics of this particular album are his most introspective yet, contemplating the loss of innocence in the yearning subtly digitalized melody-core of “(Robot)” and an acoustically flourishing ode to adolescence in “(Oct. 4th)“, but most audible in “0 (Zero)” where he brings in composer Takayuki Hattori’s orchestral arrangement that soars with strings mid-way through the anthemic rock epic dedicated to ‘dear mother.’
“Live Wire” and “F.M. Business” are based on heavier Western stylings, respectively similar to the skateboard neo-punk of Sum 41 and blink-182 (minus the puerile humor) and hip hop rap-metal + mixing of Linkin Park. Though Seo Taiji has mastered nu-metal in his previous release, it’s safe to say that he should probably invest his efforts elsewhere in the name of artistic sanctity, considering that the genre has run its course at least in America (where he is rumored to break into in the near future). On the flipside, his retaliatory message about the “f-cked up music business” is suitably delivered with his progressive fine-tuning of rap-metal in “F.M. Business.” Though VII Issue is emo-centric in theme, Seo Taiji dabbles in elements of industrial and drum & bass in enticing interludes “Down” and “DB” respectively, as well as experimental mixing and programmed beats in tracks “Victim,” “Live Wire,” and “(Robot).” Hopefully, this foreshadows a future techno or d&b album, showcasing his mixing skills and continuing his electronica endeavor from 1992’s Taiji Boys Live & Techno Mix and “Susia” from his band’s second album (1993).
Overseeing every aspect of his projects (even the cover art of his albums), it may be difficult for new listeners to comprehend that Seo Taiji is practically a one man show though he has more than his average list of handymen that contributed to the new release. His previous albums not only set musical trends but show how well rounded of a rock musician he is, stretching each genre he has funneled to the point of personalizing them. Critics’ suspicions of his copycat trendsetting method are flawed only in its exaggeration. If the Korean press are concerned about Seo Taiji’s gaining fame and favoritism for duplicating Western bands, why aren’t those very bands pointing fingers themselves? But more importantly, why hasn’t his supposed heirs fulfilled the legacy he ignited? Perhaps because Seo Taiji is, in fact, ahead of his time in K-pop but right on par with his Western influences, which VII Issue testifies to. Not to mention that the gayo world has only inherited the superficialities of his success, leaving him a peerless maestro who’d probably find greater artistic challenges elsewhere.
Date Posted: 2/20/2004