Seo Taiji Quiet Night

[Seotaiji Company; 2014]

Styles: k-pop, synthpop, nu polka metalstep
Others: Ryuichi Sakamoto, Phoenix, Neon Bunny

In selecting a godfather for the pop music their own children would someday enjoy, the South Korean youth of the 1990s couldn’t have chosen a bigger weirdo than Seo Taiji. When he exploded on the scene in 1992, Korea’s mainstream was stagnant: the nation was still shaking off the aesthetic residues of the authoritarian rule that ended in 1987. By then, Chun Doo-Hwan’s government had censor-smothered anything that wasn’t a pacifying regression to the bellyache ballads and rubric foxtrot rhythms inherited from the Imperial Japanese occupation of the early 20th century. A thick membrane of syrup, schmaltz, and the otherwise saccharine coated most everything that reached television or radio.

Meanwhile, this bespectacled 22-year-old turned his ears elsewhere. After cutting his teeth as a teen in the legendary Korean metal group Sinawe, Seo Taiji wrote, produced, and largely performed a debut album that ran uncleared samples of Bart Simpson and Flava Flav up against other recently vogue US ephemera: new jack swing, fret-for-fret AC/DC riffs, and Hi-NRG synths. The genre shifts usually jarred, the English rang awkward, and Seo Taiji had yet to learn a steady grasp of pitch. But he was the first to bring a modern, cosmopolitan concept of pop to Korean shores, and his esteem reflected as much. Taijimania, at its peak, is often said to have been analogous to Michael Jackson’s American popularity in the mid-80s; considering the aggregate of the Korean pop star’s fan clubs numbered 5 million in a population less than 10 times that size, he may have in fact eclipsed Jacko’s reach per capita.

Seo Taiji’s confidence as a performer grew quickly, but as a songwriter he’s granted himself few breaks. Over the decades, he’s sounded like everything from Built to Spill to New Order, Beastie Boys to The Carpenters; he’s insisted on writing power pop over breakbeats, symphonies around emo songs. With 2003’s Ultramania, Seo Taiji enjoyed maybe his greatest success as the pioneer of Korean nu metal — which, featuring songs like “Tank” and “Internet War,” served as the soundtrack for both youth rebel culture and the growing national phenomenon of MMORPGs (in Korea, a kind of dissidence unto itself). Seo Taiji’s music has always been interesting and sometimes raises a revealing mirror to Korean society at large, but no one album vouched particularly well for its author’s talents.

That makes Quiet Night the first. It features an elegant inventory of gestures from recent Western trends: the dub techno touches that introduce “90s Icon,” the bridge of “A Sad Record’s” bid for the subtlest use of a trap drum track since trap. But for the most part, Seo Taiji’s ninth is a modern synthpop album par excellence. Several songs reach the destinations that Phoenix’s last album seemed to seek, while the chopped and pitched syllables of “Lost” and “The Fighter in the Forest” help fashion a more decorous Purity Ring. With a gorgeous instrumental opener and the closing “Miracle of Christmas,” Seo Taiji also seems to be channeling Ryuichi Sakamoto’s classic 1983 soundtrack for Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (perhaps consciously, given the heavy holidays theme that runs throughout Quiet Night). Between these bookends, the understated sophistication of the album’s synthpop core glows with added luster.

The Korean media has always been quick to accuse Seo Taiji of plagiarism, and this time it’s lead single “Sogyeokdong” that’s met scrutiny. Indeed, the overall tone and certain melodic turns in the synth leads call to mind Chvrches’ “The Mother We Share” — but if the Western hit served as a template for Seo Taiji’s, he’s done much to write laps around Chvrches’ mundane melody and vocal arrangement. With a poetic lyric about Seo Taiji’s childhood in the martial law of mid-80s Seoul, “Sogyeokdong” is also one of the most moving meditations on that dark time ever to reach the Korean mainstream — another in Seo Taiji’s career-long commitment to social critique.

But there’s one song here that only Seo Taiji could’ve written, and it’s also the best: “Christmalo.win.” Syncretizing the mythologies of Halloween and Christmas (for the sake of another political opprobrium, no less), the Korean number one hit takes everything lame — polka rhythms, nursery rhymes, nu metal angst, holiday music, laserstep breaks, rap breakdowns — and finds, in their sum, something incredible. As one of the few Korean masterpieces in 2014, it’s pure K-pop: madness on paper, superlative in execution, and utterly unencumbered by Western hangups concerning cool, currency, and style. Even by Korean standards, though, “Christmalo” is an ambitious act of genre synthesis as genre transcendence, and in its realization, Seo Taiji at long last claims the aesthetic crown he first tried to grasp in 1992.

Granted, not all of Quiet Night is as vividly imaginative or irreverent. K-pop’s historic potential remains the possibility that someday some genius might sustain the kaleidoscopic ecstasy of something like “Christmalo.win” — or f(x)’s “Rum Pum Pum Pum,” or Ga-In’s “Tinkerbell” — for the entire length of a long-player. Until then, Quiet Night has redefined the album standard not simply for one 42-year-old legend, but for the entire pop industry he accidentally sired.

Links: Seo Taiji - Seotaiji Company

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