If you thought Korea was just limited to a world of K-Pop, you thought wrong. Meet Hyukoh, the upbeat indie rock band fronted by four 23-year-olds who are topping the charts in South Korea. Their hit Comes and Goes, released in 2015 on their EP 22 with the lyrics: “And we play comes and goes/’cause we did this when we were child before” that reflect themes of boyhood, growing up and a sense of displacement to their surroundings, which seems to be an increasingly common inspiration for present-day young bands. Singing: “When I was young I used to sneak a peak in my dad’s journal/ Now I remember how he wrote about his worries of the day”, Comes and Goes undoubtedly evokes a sense of nostalgia towards the worry-free days we had as kids.
Fast forward to April 2017, the band releases 23 a full length album consisting of 12 tracks, that features songs in English, Korean and Mandarin. Like their previous EPs 20 and 22, the songs encompass a mixture of emotions from life, relationships and hurdles faced by Hyukoh at this stage of their careers. In a recent interview, frontman, Oh Hyuk explains: “There are many great things about the scene, but the market changes very quickly. When saying ‘K-pop’, dance music tends to be the most famous. I recommend that anyone interested should try listening to bands or musicians like us, because you’ll find many awesome, unconventional teams in the scene.”
I won’t lie, at times Hyukoh may remind you of your frequented indie rock bands on Spotify. But if you listen again, I guarantee you will find something unique and ‘unconventional’ about them, given their experimentation in a wide range of genres. In a Noisey interview from 2015, the band tells us: “We don’t just make one genre of music… We like all genres, so we mix them together. We just make what we want. We don’t necessarily think about [what people will like].”
Although at the core Hyukoh stays true to themselves as an indie group, its members come from a diverse music background. While incorporating R&B and soul elements, Oh Hyuk says: “Dong-geon has hard rock background, while Hyeon-jae likes soul and In-woo likes hip-hop. I’ve also played some unique genres of music as well. So our music is influenced by these diverse backgrounds.” Hyukoh’s versatility, ability to incorporate elements from multiple genres, and properly constructed instrumentation is definitely something that will help the band go far. In saying this, here are my personal recommendations from 23.
TOMBOY — Starting off nice and slow, the fourth track on 23 is one of my favourites, reminding me of the rainy Saturday afternoons I spent inside watching Korean dramas with my mother. In an interview, Oh Hyuk speaks of the song: “I wanted to give an unresolved feeling to this song. When you’re insecure, you try but you don’t even know what to do and the nicest things people say to you, does not apply to you living your life.” These emotions are packed tightly into this 4 minute track, with the song mentioning a young boy’s inability to reciprocate his mother’s love: “I was awkward with the love my mom always showed/ Maybe that’s why, things are always so hard”.
Wanli — With the marching sounds at the beginning, this track will make you feel like you’ve time traveled to a battle scene with warriors in ancient China. As a tri-lingual musician, Oh Hyuk, who has lived in various cities in China in his youth, writes and sings Wanli in Mandarin: “前方的月亮好奇妙/ 海上的船都看不着” (The moonlight before us is marvelous/ The ships on the sea are all invisible). Did I mention the music video was filmed in Mongolia? With the whole band dressed in red, contrasted across a barren, desert landscape, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor type guitar riffs. It’s definitely something worth watching.
Jesus Lived in a Motel Room — Sung in English with a heavy blues influence, this track may remind you of The Black Keys. Delving into a darker space, the lyrics reflect an individual’s anxieties on their relationship with religion: “Think I left my bible ’bout around here somewhere/ So I go through the table, under my bed to figure.” Serving as a reminder that 23 is not a happy album, but one which reveals heavy emotions of isolation and gloom.
Lastly, apologies for this late review, I know the album was released late April this year. But there are just not enough bands with people of colour being appreciated in the independent music scene. Despite the language barrier for some, please take a moment in your coffee breaks to appreciate Hyukoh’s talent.