When f(x) released “Pink Tape” last year, I was blown away by the huge step up in quality from their previous releases. It was a solid album filled with electropop gems and sonic surprises that are typically absent in K-pop. Looking back, I wouldn’t say that it was an avantgarde, experimental release; let’s not get too pretentious here. It was a solid release that sampled music genres rarely heard in a genre that was too saturated with the same sounds.
One year later, not much has changed in K-pop – rookie and veteran groups alike are still hopping aboard various trends, dishing out tracks that sound catchy but aren’t too inspired. The domination that Brave Brothers has exerted on the industry is just baffling – they practically produce the same song every time, peppering each song up with different spices to make it sound a bit different, and yet their tracks win big in K-pop. I digress a bit but my point is that f(x) could have very well hopped aboard the RnB/hip hop meets retro pop train but they didn’t.
Instead, “Red Light” chooses to set trends by pulling in international musical influences and continuing the sound f(x) had established in “Pink Tape”. While they were a little late to the welcoming party for the trap wave in K-pop (2NE1’s “MTBD” and Hyosung’s “Good Night Kiss” beat them to it), their lead single for the album sounds edgy and fresh (if a bit confusing and messy) with the addition of trap elements. “Red Light” has its flaws that are more glaringly obvious than their last release but, if anything, this release is still just as cohesive. There are clear instrumental themes spread across some of the tracks – while “Pink Tape” focused on jazz, rock, and swing, this time, we got trap, we got chiptune/electronic music, we got country pop.
There are outliers but, for the most part, if you listened to “Pink Tape” (which, if you haven’t, you definitely should), things in “Red Light” should feel familiar because there are a lot of tracks that continue along the musical direction of songs from last year’s release.
I’ve already had my spiel on this track but let’s just say that it is messy, hardcore, psychotic, and intense. The choreography is pretty tricky and, visually, I think f(x) looks stunning with the whole grunge (or whatever you want to call it) concept. It is not the most cohesive track in existence and SM producers still do not know what the meaning of the word “transition” is because transitions are either absent or poorly constructed in this song. I’ve encountered a lot of mixed reactions to this song since I last wrote about it and opinions have been polar; either people embrace the frenetic, unorthodox nature of the song or they just absolutely hate how “I Got A Boy”-esque it is. Being a quirky individual myself, I actually have to hand it to f(x) and say that I really enjoy this track. The gritty, electrotrap parts hit hard and the psychotic choruses are intense (Luna’s wailing during the dramatic bridge is a particularly intense moment); there never really is a boring moment in the song. Like EXO’s “Wolf”, this is a performance track that is intended for the stage, sacrificing casual listenability for theatrics though on a lesser scale than “Wolf” (“Wolf” seriously was all flash and little cohesion); “Red Light” at least makes for an interesting listen off stage.
The first few seconds really confused me with the weird sound effects. However, I was quickly reassured that this would be a lush, vibrant track to listen to as that Bollywood-esque beat and instrumental kicked in and the first verse began. Vocals are layered with beautiful harmonization as usual and the speak-singing actually did not seem too out of place. I love the coy vocalizations that ornate the track (“haha-ah~” 0:39-0:42) and the very strange, wondrous chord progression provides for a very engaging listen. One of the best parts of the song has to be the fact that all of the verses are different. The first verse (0:10-0:22) is pretty standard. The second verse (1:14-1:31) amps things up with some awesome harmonies (“ah~” at 1:31-1:38) and augments the complexity of the melody. My favorite verse though has to be the last one (2:17-2:33) where Luna gets the spotlight. Luna’s falsetto is lovely to listen to and the melody combined with the harmonizing that Victoria does (starting at 2:25) create a very spellbinding verse.
Being an f(x) track, the characteristic speak-singing section afterwards felt right at home. The chorus is very playful with that whistling and accent on “milk” though it does get a little stale before we reach the end of the song. However, I cannot stress this enough, SM producers need to learn how to create legitimate transitions because this song also suffers a bit from inadequate transitions between verses and choruses (what the hell is with that “transition” at 1:09-1:13?!). Otherwise, this is looking to be a fan favorite track, and for good reason – it is an upbeat and unique song that is definitely one of the crowning moments of this album.
I predicted that this song would be a trippy, ethereal one and so the first verse came at a surprise to me because it sounded very straightforwardly electropop, with those mischievous grinding synths in the background. This part of the song gives me a BoA kind of vibe as it sounds like a slower version of her “Dangerous“. However, the track quickly develops into what we were introduced to in the highlight medley. The chorus sports a very ethereal, electronic instrumental with equally wispy vocals. The bridge (1:50-2:10) near the end of the song sounds lovely and dreamy, contrasting with the rougher sounding verses in the beginning. I would recommend this song for listeners who dislike the unorthodox sound of f(x)’s other tracks because this track is a compromise. “나비” is certainly more straightforward of a pop song than “Red Light” and yet it would not sound out of place on an indie electronic album, thus bringing to the table a familiarly formatted song that has interesting elements to it without being too wild.
The first six seconds of the song turned me off so much. I was like, seriously? I’m about to listen to two minutes and 47 seconds of glitchy rap? Then that “ohhhh” came on and I was taken by surprise and blown away. That hip hop beat from “Red Light” was brought back, giving this song an edgy lilt. The chorus sports a very optimistic sounding and gentler sounding melody that sounds reminiscent of Korean folk music. Transitions are much better in this song so I am confused for the lack of transitions in the previous songs. My main gripe for this song though is Luna’s rendition of the second verse (0:56-1:10) sounds unnaturally nasally and I don’t remember Luna having such a quality with her voice.
The last third of the song sounds especially bouncy as the track introduces a very exciting syncopated rhythm that shakes up the chorus one last time before the song bows out with another iteration of the hip hop beat along with some very mysterious vocalization, adding even more to the edge of this song. There are many elements to this song that I keep finding something new about this song that I like with every iteration of this song on iTunes so to say this is a solid track on “Red Light” is an understatement. If you’re looking for a pick-me-up, energetic song with a slight bite to it, “무지개” is it.
I initially lauded this track for being funky and groovy but, after listening to the rest of the album, this track pales by comparison just because it is so standard and the preceding tracks just aren’t. It’s the “Signal” of the album – a pretty bland piece of retro pop that would have worked on some other album but falls short when there are more interesting tracks available out there. “All Night” just screams filler, which is unfortunate but forgivable because all K-pop albums have at least two or three of these kinds of tracks. If I get exhausted with the more unusual tracks on the album, I’d probably gravitate to this song because of how straightforward (even more straightforward than “나비”) of a pop song it is.
f(x) just cannot pull off pop rock. Their vocals just sound out of place – like “a five-year-old walking into an AA meeting” out of place. The “hey, buddy, we’re on va-ca-tion” part in the chorus was just cringeworthy. The bridge of this song (2:14-2:33) is where this song tries to redeem itself because it actually sounds decent with some very nice sounding melodies. Otherwise, I would not recommend this outlier of a track.
뱉어내 (Spit It Out)
If you missed “Kick” from “Pink Tape”, “뱉어내” is its spiritual successor on this album. I mean this in the best way possible but “뱉어내” is essentially “Kick 2.0”. It is messy but still much more refined than “Kick” was while still retaining that hyper vibe. That instrumental break with those electronic sounds bouncing along a club-worthy beat (0:40 – 1:02) leading to a pretty intense rap section, which leads to a more melodic section is already evidence enough of how quirky, rambunctious, and tiring of a listen this song is. Just like “Kick”, it is a hyperactive, frenetic mess of a song but there is a more clear theme to this song. While “Kick” featured a smorgasbord of sound effects, “뱉어내” sticks to chiptune and syncopated beats and electropop elements that are more familiar to the average listener. Of course, this track is pretty out there so I don’t expect it to be too well-received but I would recommend it on the basis of how exciting, quirky, and energetic it sounds.
Boom Bang Boom
The snippet for this song in the highlight medley did not do this song justice at all. The song begins by setting up a pretty standard sounding hip hop track. As the track unfolds however, there is an edgier sound that develops. The vocalization in the background from “MILK” returns in this song and, for some reason, there’s a guitar riff too? It actually sounds pretty well-placed. The song also has some 8-bit sounds sprinkled in to create a sense of continuity from “뱉어내”. The chorus is appropriately explosive, if a bit overdramatic. After the 2:05 mark, the guitar gives way to this jittery instrumental layer that sounds borrowed from reggae, diversifying the melting pot of sounds. The downfall of this song though has to be the random dialogue at the very end; incredibly cheesy and unnecessary. Is there also some sort of English quota in these tracks as well because it just seems like they wanted to add English lines at the end for the sake of having English in the song. If you just cut off the last few cringeworthy seconds of the song, “Boom Bang Boom” would be a pretty solid track.
Another filler track that feels uninspired, I was very underwhelmed by “Dracula”. This would have fit right in with f(x)’s repertoire pre-Pink Tape era but, now that f(x) has established themselves as a band that tries to deviate from K-pop norms, it just pales in comparison to some of the more brilliant tracks on “Red Light”. The scream sound effects are rather cheesy and the chorus is just boring.
We have yet another filler. “Summer Lover” is a very standard pop song in every way. The song’s structure is regular and predictable, the vocals don’t exactly push any boundaries, and there is less harmonization so f(x)’s vocals sound vulnerably thin and I don’t mean that in a good way. With f(x), there is a reliance on harmonization to create fuller sounding vocals because each member, besides Luna, just do not have the vocal chops to carry a verse impressively on their own. Together, they sound great because nobody really dominates the harmonies and so they collectively sound lovely. Apart, they just sound average, which does not help this generic track one bit.
종이 심장 (Paper Heart)
I actually appreciate the folk/country pop route they took to satisfy the obligatory ballad requirement* on the album. The electric guitar with the banjo riff sounds very lovely and much more organic in comparison to the rest of the album. Vocals were actually pretty good in this track – Amber gets to shine more in this track! They definitely need to utilize Amber’s vocals much more because her lower range complements the shriller vocals of Krystal and Victoria (whoever sings “I got a paper heart” at 2:26-2:30 sounds like a little girl and it definitely brings the maturity level of this track down significantly). I think the echo effect on the vocals really added to the quality of the vocals because, like I said, f(x) has pretty thin vocals and the echo effect makes them sound fuller. “종이 심장” isn’t exactly my cup of tea but I would listen to it when I’m in the mood for more downtempo tracks.
It was obvious that the effort put into producing the tracks in “Red Light” was not evenly distributed among all of the tracks. Tracks like “MILK” and “무지개 (Rainbow)” sound absolutely whimsical and inspired whereas fillers “Dracula” and “Summer Lover” detract from the album’s originality.
“Red Light”, despite its flaws, does sport its own set of tracks that slay. A lot of hype was built for this release which makes me feel optimistic for f(x) because SM seems to be taking them a bit more seriously as a K-pop group now. They have a prominent place in K-pop, they have the potential to go international with the group’s linguistic prowess (members got English, Chinese, and, of course, Korean on lock), they just need that extra TLC when it comes to building their vocals and stage presence (because, let’s be real, the only two members in the group who look sorta excited on stage are Luna and Amber and they are the ones who are overshadowed for no good reason).
“Red Light” is not much of an improvement on “Pink Tape” but that doesn’t stop it from being a solid album. It has some things going for it, namely the increased complexity in harmonization, the exploration of more music genres and, definitely, a regained sense of edginess to the songs. While filler tracks kill the album a bit, they were probably there as insurance for listeners who dislike non-standard pop. Again, looking on the bright side, the increased amount of filler tracks might be SM’s attempt at making f(x)’s music more marketable to a wider range of audience and thus showing that SM is starting to invest in f(x) more wholeheartedly.
Here’s hoping that “Blue Table” or “Green Shorts” or whatever the next album will be called will be an actual expansion and elaboration on the music that f(x) has in their repertoire. For now, I can safely say that, for better or for worse, “Red Light” will be one of the iconic K-pop albums of 2014.
Red Light [ominous sounding, psychotic and messy, gritty trap sections that lead to frenetic and intense choruses]
MILK [Bollywood-inspired instrumentals, mysterious chord progression, heavenly and spellbinding harmonies and vocal ornamentation]
나비 (Butterfly) [mischievous electropop verses lead to ethereal, dreamy choruses, very solid f(x) track]
무지개 (Rainbow) [more trap, lovely melodic verses and choruses, contrasted by hardcore trap post-chorus sections, very upbeat, especially during the last third of the song]
뱉어내 (Spit It Out) [Kick 2.0, more cohesive, just as rambunctious, lots of retro 8-bit sounds that bleep along to hip hop beats, random bursts of intense electronic instrumental breaks]
바캉스 (Vacance) [f(pop rock) = no, cheesy filler that detracts from the album]
Dracula [uninspired and straightforward, the cheese factor continues in this song, vocals are not impressive]
Summer Lover [uninspired and straightforward (just like this description), the cheese factor continues in this song, vocals are not impressive]
*There isn’t actually a definite requirement but it just seems that every K-pop album release has at least one ballad/downtempo on the track list.