In an effort to reboot our music coverage, In Review Online has launched some monthly features devoted to reviewing new album releases. One such feature is Foreign Correspondent — a survey of new releases from the international music world. In this issue, we cover releases from Chilean pop sensation Mon Laferte; two South Korean releases, from girl group Red Velvet and composer/multi-instrumentalist Park Jiha; and two Japanese albums, from singer-songwriter Yoshizawa Kayoko and idol group Maison Book Girl. The issue also features a selection for InRO‘s Kicking the Canon: Brazilian heavy-metal icons Sepultura’s 1993 album Chaos A.D.
Norma, the fifth album from Chilean pop artist Mon Laferte, opens with a chance encounter in a dancehall between two soon-to-be-sweethearts, and concludes with their eventual separation. While 2018 has brought a wealth of pop records for lovers on-the-outs (see: Ariana Grande’s Sweetener and Robyn’s Honey), what Laferte’s has over the others is a pronounced progression through each stage of emotional fallout. Recorded in one continuous, hour-long session at Capital Records, Norma contains the bustling energy of a live concert, while still possessing enough variety to make the end results feel like an affectionate tribute to the history of Latin music (the Selena-esque cover already pays respect to past idols) with some new spins on classical melodies. The initial flirtation takes place on “Ronroneo,” expressed with a sultry, slow-paced mambo, as Laferte rolls each “r” with such intensity it sounds like an engine revving; “Por Qué Me Fui a Enamorar de Ti,” then, is a call for companionship, a traditional salsa outing that ends on the bold, passionately performed proclamation that “In the end, our love is real.” The mood worsens on the album’s second half, with the lovers’ first fight, on the slick “El Mambo,” performed with a swaggering, Latin trap-inspired gusto, and a reclamation of agency (“I am not your pretty little girl/I do not want your holy water”) that bleeds over into “El Beso,” a beg for forgiveness in the form of “a slow kiss, a tender kiss/A violent kiss on the pavement” across sped-up, Caribbean-inspired percussion. The demise of this volatile romance finally comes with the heartbreaking (and appropriately named), guitar-led bolero, “Funeral,” as Laferte hangs on each high note like past memories she refuses to forget. The album’s closer (“Si Alguna Vez”) serves as epilogue: Laferte and Mexican folk-singer David Aguilar reflect on past actions and learn to accept mistakes because, as Laferte sings, “even in the pain that I saw, I can understand.” Norma celebrates the wisdom that heartbreak can produce during the healing process. Paul Attard
Kayoko Yoshizawa has approached songwriting as a process somewhat akin to writing a storybook since her 2013 mini-album, Majo Zukan, building her elaborate pop songs around the narratives of various fictional protagonists. But while her previous full-length, Yaneura Ju, heavily indulged in the world of make-believe — both through its string-laden sound and fantasy-derived details — the singer-songwriter’s Jyoyuu Shimai grounds the music closer to reality. Yoshizawa still spins dreamy pop songs rich in sound and lyrical detail, though her subjects are inspired by rather ordinary people, in comparison to the imaginary beast in the attic that spawned the title of her last album. “Getsuyobi Senso” (‘Monday Wars’) is a cheery theme song that transforms 9-to-5 office ladies into weekday warriors. “Muse” is another shining anthem for the common people that aims broader, highlighting human perseverance as an act of magic. Yoshizawa’s admiration for the strength she finds in everyday women comes out through the music, as the singer-songwriter aspires to capture the many different identities of one woman throughout Jyoyuu Shimai. The album’s poignant moments, however, confront the limits of understanding an individual in her entirety; Yoshizawa tries her best in “Jyoyuu” (‘Actress’) to console another who masks her pain, and the climactic “Nokkoteru” (‘It Remains’) struggles to let go of a precious memory attached to a specific person. The best Yoshizawa can offer is a kind of snapshot in the form of pop — but on Jyoyuu Shimai, this is quite an image, capturing her favorite qualities with love and care. Ryo Miyauchi
With the reissue of Park Jiha’s 2016 debut, Communion, the South Korean composer and multi-instrumentalist has gained considerable notice for her positioning of traditional Korean instrumentation in contemporary contexts. Park has drawn on jazz, minimalism, and ambient music to hypnotizing effect, and Philos, her sophomore album under her own name, is no different. What separates this new work from previous ones is that Park composed and played virtually all of it herself. Communion found Park collaborating with John Bell, Kim Oki, and Kang Tekhyun; the duo [su:m] paired her with gayageum player Seo Jungmin; and Park has also performed as part of the contemporary classical ensemble Geori with Jared Redmond, Lee Dong-uk, and Baek Dasom. Philos, in contrast, primarily consists of Park’s trusty trio of Korean instruments: piri (double reed bamboo flute), yanggeum (hammered dulcimer), and saenghwang (mouth organ). The tracks here are anything but limited in scope, however. Opener “Arrival” thoughtfully pans the pulsating strikes of the yanggeum to create an uneasy tension, as sounds of the piri fill-out the haunting atmosphere. On some tracks, Park incorporates field recordings to conjure up evocative imagery. “Thunder Shower,” for example, pits a thunderstorm against the cascading melodies of a yanggeum, which oscillates between providing meditative accompaniment and embodying the accumulated force of heavy rain. On “Walker: In Seoul,” the same instrument illuminates the calming beauty of city life, intermingling the music with sounds of rustling leaves, passing automobiles, and the opening of bus doors. Elsewhere, “Philos” captures the spirit of a deep and rich love; “When I Think of Her” finds Park singing, which imbues the track with a near-mythical quality; and “Easy” features dissonant instrumentation as a potent backdrop to a poem read by the album’s one featured artist, Dima El Sayed. Prettiest of all is closer “On Water”: the delicate sounds of yanggeum and glockenspiel ripple softly as the piri takes center stage for an achingly romantic solo. Regardless of the approach Park takes, every track on Philos showcases her ear for composition and the honing of her craft. Through her traversal of various genres, the collapsing of past and present, and the juxtaposing of nature recordings with studio-recorded sound, she carves out liminal spaces that are seductively dreamlike. Joshua Minsoo Kim
Red Velvet rose to prominence just as girl groups like Miss A, Sistar, and 2NE1 were disbanding, with a string of projects that showcased K-pop at its virtual best: consistent and cohesive, eclectic and eccentric, and packed with bright, bold hooks. There was a time when even their “summer comeback,” traditionally a throwaway release, could rank with the best singles of the year (in particular the relentlessly catchy “Red Flavor”). But those standards have diminished lately: Recent summer comeback “Power Up” has the energy of their best stuff, but lacks the passion and the wit (the chorus is, of course, punctuated by that ‘one-up’ sound effect from Super Mario). Thankfully, Red Velvet have learned an important lesson from their forebears: When the well of great singles starts to run dry, sneak gems further down the tracklist. That’s the saving grace of RBB, which leads with almost-title track “RBB (Really Bad Boy),” a blatant call-back to January’s (much better) “Bad Boy.” The song’s breakbeat production and Mariah Carey-simulation whistle falsetto are indelible, but 4Minute wore these faux-jazzy horn bleats better, and the English-sung chorus (“reallyreallyreally bad boy”) just comes off as cloying. Better is the pulsating trance-pop of “Butterflies” (its oscillating rhythm resonating with romantic anticipation) and the swaggering electro funk of “Sassy Me,” which Jason Derulo would love. It may be unfair to expect another Russian Roulette or Rookie from a group working at this pace (this is their third or fourth release so far this year, depending on whether you count the ‘repackage’ of Perfect Velvet). But as Red Velvet continue to switch-up their formula, trying out different styles, they still usually find enough that sticks. Sam C. Mac
Maison Book Girl don’t craft full-fledged songs so much as attempt to make sense out of cacophonous noise. Toy flutes, jagged guitars, and pensive pianos sound-off at once, but don’t fully communicate with each other, providing a slightly out-of-sync feel to the idol group’s unique pop style. Producer Sakurai Kenta constructs the song’s lyrics in a similar way as the music, with the idols’ verses comprised of oblique yet evocative imagery — and he leaves most of the narratives to be pieced together through these fragments of suggestive detail. Maison Book Girl put more focus on cohesion, however, for their third album, Yume. Experimental sounds and song sketches act not only as interludes but also mood pieces to build an intimate world around the music. The songs are also tied together by a few lyrical motifs, as distilled in the album’s brooding cover image. An empty room, a lonely bed, and a desperate need to crawl back into one’s dreams — these recurring details intensify the melancholy in Maison Book Girl’s introverted tracks. The title track half-resides in reality, and half-refuses to leave the world of a much preferable dream, while the sulking chorus of “Semai Monogatari” (‘A Narrow Story’) hones in on the deep misery born out of spending extensive time alone, in the confines of one’s bedroom. Which is to say that Maison Book Girl’s noise-pop sound is no longer just for show; from the bleak comedown-choruses, to the overwhelmingly kitchen-sink production, Yume defines the whole emotional experience of being highly sensitive to the world around you. RM
Brazil in the early ’90s, seen in popular imaginaries of the West and as a rich cultural oasis of bustling urbanity and golden, suntanned sexual expression, loses its luster when looked at through the lens of its imperial history. Riddled with almost 400 years of direct colonialist rule, since its independence, the country has witnessed the trademark political volatility of a state haunted by a violent past. During the end of the last century, and well into the aughts, Brazil fell to the vagaries of international finance, and found itself beholden to debt, and subsequently pillaged by the World Bank and the IMF. Counter to the iconic imagery of exotic fauna, Samba, and Latin American zest popularized by Disney’s 2011 technicolor vomitorium Rio, Brazil’s twentieth century history is a tableau of indigenous battles over land and water, political unrest, rampant poverty, and moribund urban slum life. And it is within this context that Sepultura, Brazil’s premiere thrash and death metal troubadours, released their fifth studio album, Chaos A.D. The album was their third release for Roadrunner Records, and it marked a fresh sonic direction for the metal stalwarts, a space for breaking new ground in production, arrangement, and experimentation. It also brought Sepultura into the realm of intensely political punk, with an album reminiscent of, and clearly influenced by, two of their punk and d-beat idols: Discharge and Dead Kennedys (Jello Biafra even wrote one of its tracks, “Biotech Is Godzilla”).
Sepultura clearly pined for crossover, hardcore-punk-meets-metal appeal, but Chaos A.D. still makes strange bedfellows with the now burgeoning groove sounds of North American, mall-friendly heavy music. The album bears little sonic similarity to the ’80s west coast punk and European crust pioneers — who lead singer and rhythm guitarist Max Cavalera had frequently tipped his hat to in the past. Producer Andy Wallace’s polished, compressed engineering ensures this much, and beyond the overtly politicized lyrical imagery, the album loses all rawness in a digital wash of delays, wahs, and vocal processing. Nevertheless, Chaos A.D. does exist on the same continuum as the band’s first four records — and their unrelenting, aggressive, and underground sound. Opening banger and single, “Refuse/Resist,” makes haste to introduce the fancy new tribal-tom chops of the band’s drummer (Max’s younger brother, Igor) before embarking on decidedly groove-metal phrasings and laying into a catchy New York Hardcore 1-2-3 beat. Cavalera bellows frustrated lines against the absurdity of state-led violence, delivering “I’m seeeck of theees” with particularly angsty panache. And the album’s other two singles, “Territory” and “Slave New World,” explore similar rhythmic dimensions, as co-writers Cavelera and Andreas Kisser mount further Discharge-esque chants. The all-acoustic “Kaiowsa” brings together cavernous harmonies and percussion as a memoriam to the almost extinct Guarani-Kaiowá tribe. And Biafra contributes searing and true-to-form paranoiac elements to “Biotech Is Godzilla.” Other songs regurgitate flirtations with mid-tempo, proto nü-metal breakdowns, and the album closes with the acrid “Clenched Fist,” on which Cavalera seems to defend his mode of expression: “Don’t get me wrong, you don’t know where I’m from / Don’t get me wrong, you don’t know where I’ve been”. Overall, Chaos A.D. is an interesting and sometimes arresting full-length from these Brazilian rebels, leaving one to decide on their own whether it should be judged as an incursion from the underground into the mainstream — from the political regions of the global South to the global North — or from long-haired thrash metal to more mohawk-friendly punk. Hassan Abbas