Thirteen-member boy group Seventeen (don’t worry about it) debuted on the K-pop scene in 2015 with a progression of singles that brimmed with youthful optimism, earnest melodies, and unstoppable energy. In the years following, they’ve continued to push their sound into new areas while remaining true to the sense of sincerity that distinguishes their work. Successfully juggling thirteen voices within a single song can be a Herculean task, but time and again Seventeen has made it work, aided by their impressive vocal diversity and years of experience managing their own creative direction. (In particular, member Woozi has co-written almost every one of their songs since the group’s first EP.)
Face the Sun is Seventeen’s first full-length album in two and a half years (the time in between being filled by shorter mini-albums) and was released one day after their seven-year debut anniversary. The standard K-pop idol contract is seven years long, so this anniversary is often a time when groups disband or lose members as they go through contract renewals, but all thirteen members of Seventeen renewed their contracts ten months ahead of schedule in 2021. Rather than marking the closing of a chapter, Face the Sun is bursting with renewed self-assurance, fresh ideas, and the sense that Seventeen isn’t even close to being done.
The bad news first: “Hot,” Face the Sun’s “title track” — i.e. its big release-day single — is also the album’s worst song by a long shot. Seventeen has done dark concepts before and made them stand out (the melancholy of “Fear,” the minimalism of “Getting Closer”), but there’s nothing particularly distinctive about “Hot.” The vocals and melodies, which usually elevate a Seventeen title track to the next level, have no space to breathe, and the production sounds like a dozen other generic boy group singles that try to look cool and macho and make a lot of noise without having much to say beneath the surface. “Hot” isn’t terrible, but it doesn’t feel much like Seventeen at all.
Now, onto the good news: the b-sides on Face the Sun are fantastic. The first, “Don Quixote,” whose production is blissfully vocal-forward, has a sense of grandeur that will wipe any memory of “Hot” from your mind within the first few seconds. “I just wanna feel the vibes” may look bad as a hook on paper, but its melody is so undeniable that by the end of the first chorus, it’ll have you thinking that hey, maybe this Don Quixote guy was onto something after all. “March” is a rolling pop-rock track begging to be shouted back by a crowd; “Bout You” and English-language single “Darling” are bouncy, lighthearted pop cuts that show Seventeen have not lost touch with the brightness of their earlier work.
Most Seventeen albums have a handful of tracks sung by smaller sub-units within the group (the vocal, hip-hop, and performance teams). Face the Sun consists entirely of full-group tracks, but it’s easy to point out what the unit songs would have been. “Domino,” for instance, is a classic performance unit track expanded to make room for everyone. Its groovy production is packed with crisp synth squiggles, snappy melodies, flourishes of electric guitar, piano, and techno, silky pre-choruses, a tasteful rap verse, and an anti-drop that may cause you to react audibly. Yet even though that description sounds very kitchen-sink, the production and mixing make such clever use of negative space that the song feels somehow minimalist despite pulsing with barely-contained energy. In another world, “If You Leave Me” would have belonged to the vocal unit, but as realized here it’s a lovely piano-and-vocal ballad that allows all thirteen members’ voices to shine. And “Ash” is an obvious hip-hop team effort: drenched in defamiliarizing autotune and ominous melodies, it’s similar to “Don Quixote” in its feeling of epic-fantasy grandeur, but this time more conflicted rather than triumphant. (Add it to the playlist for your Mistborn fanfic.) The lyrical themes of phoenix-esque rebirth and self-determination of identity that run through “Ash” make it a fitting closing track.
But the heart of Face the Sun isn’t “Ash” or “Hot” or any of the previously mentioned b-sides. Halfway through the tracklist sits “Shadow,” one of the best and most moving songs Seventeen has ever released. Its shuffling verses, which invoke UK garage, build up to a chorus that’s heartfelt melody explodes out of an acoustic anti-drop to vault straight over the language barrier. The members sing tenderly about trying to escape their shadows by hiding in a place without light, but the choruses carry them to the realization that our shadows are an inseparable part of us. Standing in the light may reveal our fears and flaws, but it also represents happiness: even if the heat of the sun hurts at first, accepting ourselves means understanding every part of who we are. The message is equally applicable to listeners on a personal level as it is to the members of Seventeen grappling with how to live under the spotlight.
At turns playful and serious, exploring both familiar and brand new musical frontiers, acknowledging their worries as artists but asserting that they’re here to stay for years to come, Face the Sun is a wonderful addition to Seventeen’s discography. Everywhere we go, our shadows follow: this album stands between the light and dark to establish itself as some of their best work yet.
Writer: Kayla Beardslee Section: Foreign Correspondent
Five years removed from a flop so massive that it would kill most bands, Canadian rockers Arcade Fire are back with We, a shockingly straightforward record, and the band’s sixth overall. Produced by frequent Radiohead collaborator Nigel Godrich, the band leans back into their more traditionally rock-oriented roots, retaining only touches of the synth-heavy texture of their Everything Now era. For a band that has tapped so much of their accrued goodwill over the past decade, it has to be considered something of a surprise that this latest record feels so rooted in the sounds that originally made them so beloved in the aughts.
In early 2011, Arcade Fire seemed unstoppable. They had achieved the rare indie rock feat of winning Album of the Year at the Grammys, their arena tour was sold out across the globe, and nobody seemed to be able to get enough of them. Looking back now, it seems impossible that anyone would have been able to imagine just how much of that energy would be utterly burned out less than a decade later. With mixed reviews dominating the narrative around Reflektor in 2013, and a collective critical pan of Everything Now in 2017 that led to a low-selling arena tour immediately thereafter, it seemed unlikely that they — like so many other indie rock successes of the mid-to-late 2000s, flames that burned hot but fast — would ever find their footing as a band again.
But here we are in 2022, and it seems as if they made the correct move in dropping the majority of their aggrieving gimmick. For too long, Arcade Fire and its members gave off the distinctly self-serious vibe of prestige art rock, and stuck with weird marketing campaigns that didn’t feature the requisite music culture cache to back them up (the unlucky will remember the Everything Now fidget spinners). We finds the group in a more modest mode, and the result is a pleasantly listenable rock/dance-pop record, one that doesn’t hit the highs of their early career, but which mercifully avoids the major pitfalls of the last decade, riding their musician bona fides to more temperate results. The lyrics are still a tad goofy — no one was begging to hear about unsubscribing or “the algorithm,” Win — but the instrumentation is rich and varied, and the album’s high points are plenty high indeed. Tracks like “The Lightning I+II” soar across their space on the record, reminiscent of the looseness that so distinguished The Suburbs. That’s not to call We a return to form necessarily, but to observe that there are moments on the album that do suggest that Arcade Fire is back.
Despite the recentering that takes place here, the future of Arcade Fire remains murky with the departure of Will Butler, brother of lead singer Win and one of the main creative forces behind the band. Still, such strewn uncertainties don’t diminish the fact that with We, Arcade Fire has put together their best album in a decade, a work that’s worth celebrating for its modest, measured successes. If the group is never again to reclaim the distinctive jangly rock vibes of Funeral or mine the same kind of penetrating lyricism that permeated Neon Bible, so be it. But as has been the band’s forte across their career, what comes next will always be surprising, and We suggests that their trajectory isn’t as bothered by gravity as it recently seemed.
Writer: Andrew Bosma Section: Pop Rocks
Liam Gallagher decided some time ago — one could roughly pin this date to somewhere around the fallout of his Oasis-adjacent band’s dissolution, but that would be a conservative estimate — that he didn’t really seem to care about a few things that his brother and former bandmate, Noel Gallagher, seemed deeply concerned with: writing his own songs, artistic integrity, good taste, human decency, and maybe most importantly, aging gracefully. The first on that list was never an issue with Liam (he had gotten pretty far in life never penning a tune, so why start now?), and the second felt like the wrong line of questioning to ask a musician who could/still does only know how to play the tambourine. The last three on that list though? Well, he was obviously never going to acquire those features in time to properly resurrect his struggling career, so that became part of the grand joke that was becoming easier to identify when Liam was “in” on it. Yes, he’s a pompous neanderthal who’s partially responsible for some of the worst fashion trends from the mid-’90s, but he embraced the role of the court jester rather well once he realized always taking the piss was a bankable-enough persona to fashion a solo career off of. So here we are, some ten-plus years since Oasis last played together, and Liam continues to act like not a day has gone by since 1995; unlike most acts his age, he’s so cocksure about his immortality that he can actually get away with it too.
Besides, C’mon You Know, Liam’s third solo album since Beady Eye’s breakup, is proof enough that he continues to possess enough bumptious charisma in order to pedal the exact same act he’s been performing for almost three decades now. It’s stylistically varied, if also derivative as hell — mix in some Arctic Monkeys (“Diamond In The Dark”), throw in a dash of Tame Impala’s genre-bending, the persistent Lennon worship continuing to rear its ugly head with occasional delusions of grandeur (“Too Good For Giving Up”) — and there are plenty of dubious creative choices to delegitimize the album’s many delights (the inclusion of an apolitical song titled “Moscow Rules” released now of all times; the unwavering and equally tone-deaf conviction that “everything’s just gonna be alright” that permeates the album). But Gallagher’s enough of an entertaining presence that one’s seldom required to buy wholesale into the ridiculousness of the product’s more baroque components: the vocal melodies are so crisp and compact that you start to stop caring about how presentable any of these songs would sound to the general public when taken at face value. The songwriting of the music itself — not the lyrics, which are generally dodgy at best, but absurdist enough for Liam to vocally dig into and contort to his liking (the hook on “Everything’s Electric”) — is symmetrically structured to the utmost degree: not a second is wasted, not one chorus is out of place; an over-produced, synthetic experience to be sure — is it still “real” rock if it barely grooves? — but undeniably (and almost deceptively) arresting whenever the right elements are brought into place. So perhaps it’s best to call what Liam Gallagher does on C’mon You Know less the act of making rockstar music and more the work of a rockstar simply being a rockstar, with some appropriate backing accompaniment. Either way, it’s all part of a formula he’s spent most of his life refining, and now, the fruits of his (non-)labor are beginning to slowly pay off.
Writer: Paul Attard Section: Pop Rocks
After a decade of playing together as a band, whacked-out Japanese punk rock quartet Otoboke Beaver finally released their first proper LP Itekoma Hits in 2019. It was a full-on, all-out noise punk assault, full of zany musical ideas, frequent rhythm changes, and jagged riffs. Each song was a short burst of frenetic energy, taking cues from Melt-Banana’s grindcore experimentalism and Sleater-Kinney’s angular guitar lines, as well as the savage powerviolence that marked Ceremony’s early releases.
Super Champon, their second full-length, sees the Kyoto band crank up the intensity even further, to louder, crazier, and catchier results. Beneath all the blistering servings of spazzy noisecore, Otoboke Beaver have consistently found ways to sprinkle in some legitimately ear-catching pop hooks, brief as they may have been. Super Champon is chock-full of those memorable moments, be it the cheerleader chants on “YAKITORI,” the constant refrain of “I don’t know what you mean!” on “PARDON?”, or the stop-start rhythm of “I don’t want to die alone.” Even the back and forth between sticky sludge rock, carnivalesque double-time polka, and a ferocious harsh noise blur on “Dirty old fart is waiting for my reaction” will likely claw itself into the long-term memory of any receptive listener, before culminating in a crushing double bass finale that rivals The Locust in its sheer batshit energy. But what really sets Super Champon apart from its predecessor is its increased assuredness. There was always a sense of controlled chaos to their music, constantly teetering on the edge while never quite falling off, but the band has never felt as in command as they do here. The manic energy that made Itekoma Hits so exhilarating becomes even more effective with sharper songwriting, tighter performances, and a more consistent production — subtleties that, admittedly, might not reveal themselves on a first listen, given the overwhelming nature of their sound.
The off-the-wall song titles stand out immediately, however. Highlights include the aforementioned “Dirty old fart,” “You’re no hero shut up f*ck you man-whore,” and the 26-second stutter groove “Where did you buy such a nice watch you are wearing now.” Far from being purely abstract, dadaist ramblings — not that there’s anything wrong with those — the band actually revisits a lot of the themes from their first record. Conformity, having kids, sexism, and capitalist, work-till-you-drop culture are all skewered through deceptively wholesome harmonies, screeched gang vocals, and spitfire hardcore punk barks. Vocalist Accorinrin’s affected yelps also lament frustrating relationship dynamics on tracks like “Leave me alone! No, stay with me!”, spending the entirety of the track unable to make up her mind, as bassist Hiro-chan’s fingers frantically work the fretboard, shooting off ultra-dense microfills between the song’s Nomeansno-esque staccato pulse.
Super Champon is an incredibly infectious effort, overflowing with ideas, twisted humor, and thrillingly loud noise rock blasts. It perhaps ends up being a touch less accessible than Itekoma Hits, since the band really leans into their chaotic impulses on their latest release, stripping away some of the straightforward garage influences in favor of a more unhinged and unpredictable potpourri of styles. But whatever minuscule amount of approachability the band may have given up on, they more than make up for with an added dose of aggression — and gems like the “California Über Alles” tribute on “I won’t dish out salads” don’t hurt either. With two incredible albums under their belt so far — as well as numerous quality EPs and singles — it’s safe to say that Otoboke Beaver have grown to become one of Japan’s best and fiercest contemporary punk bands. Super Champon is an absolutely incredible LP.
Writer: Fred Barrett Section: Foreign Correspondent
mxmtoon (the stage name of singer-songwriter Maia, last name private) got her start in 2018 as a YouTuber making ukulele-based, Gen-Z indie pop. Her most popular song to date, 2019’s “Prom Dress,” is full of exactly the kind of bashful ukulele strums and twee, xylophone-esque chimes you would expect from that description. “Prom Dress” is cute, catchy, and compositionally decent, but doesn’t cast its gaze much further than the walls of high school, and though other songs on her first album The Masquerade tackle topics like mental health and relationships, the project is fairly limited musically. Her 2020 release Dawn & Dusk, a compilation of two EPs, was slow and reflective with a slightly expanded instrumental palette and more varied vocal processing. (Maia started from literal bedroom pop, after all.) Rising is mxmtoon’s second studio album, and it continues her artistic progression: the lyrical perspective is a little wider, the production is a little more diverse in its mix of synth and acoustic sounds, and more songs stand out from the hashtag-relatable indie-pop crowd.
One of the best tracks on Rising is “Sad Disco,” a bright dance-pop festival of synth strings complete with an ABBA reference. Plenty of other tracks lean toward upbeat fun as well: lead single “Mona Lisa,” about how the narrator wants to know what it’s like to be someone’s muse, puts Maia’s familiar ukulele and chipper melodies front and center (along with a winking art history reference to “the way that Van Gogh uses yellow / or the self in Frida Kahlo”), and “Frown” and “Learn to Love You” are cute (maybe cutesy?) reminders to keep your head up. Often the lighter arrangements merge with serious singer-songwriter topics, like how “Scales” balances conflicted emotions with bright, stuttering synths. When Maia sings “And if the whole world’s burning, hold on closer to me” on “Sad Disco”’s climate-anxious sister “Dance (End of the World),” it’s not a rhetorical statement, and neither is her question, “Will the world still be around when I turn sixty-three?” on “Victim of Nostalgia.”
Some of the songs on Rising are nothing but contemplative, such as the ballad “Florida” (“Hard to believe you’re turning eighty-one / Mourning memories with you / There is nothing left to do”). But regardless of production choices, every track is caught up in its own dilemma. Growing up and grappling with what you want out of the world is a recurring theme — “spinning around the sun twenty-one times got me dizzy,” she sings in “Dizzy,” and closing track “Coming of Age” doesn’t so much close the curtains as shred them as Maia declares, “This ain’t a coming of age anymore.” Some of her insights are vague or overly familiar (“Everyone calls them growing pains because we know the hurt”), but there are enough fresh moments to help the project cohere into a solid statement. Take “Victim of Nostalgia,” which makes a refreshing rhetorical move by refusing to rely on sappy nostalgia for easy emotional points: “And if life ain’t what you want / It don’t come back around.”
On Rising, mxmtoon continues to expand her musical style and develop her perspective as a songwriter, taking a closer look at not just the immediate moment, but the future of her career, doubts over her past choices, and questions of aging and understanding of self. While still leaving plenty of room for future growth, if you’re looking to stay up-to-date with the world of Gen-Z pop, this is a project worth picking up.
Writer: Kayla Beardslee Section:Obscure Object