When I think about Korea’s most boundary-pushing solo artists, both in terms of music and visual, two names immediately stick out. For the guys, it’s gotta be Xia (Kim Junsu), who favors complex, avant garde concepts and continually shifting genre influences. For the girls, it’s most definitely Gain, who pushes boundaries so consistently that it’s hard to believe there’s anything left for her to explore.
Those artistic risks often have a sexually tinged concept connected to them, but Carnival is a completely different beast. It’s also the kind of song that plays much stronger when accompanied by its stunning music video. But even on its own, Carnival is a bold step into a baroque, theatrical realm that few k-pop artists choose to tackle. Jettisoning any sense of modern production tricks, the song is built on a full orchestra sound, complimented by a heavy brass section. This gives Carnival an undeniable warmth and unique flavor, but also shoehorns it into a very specific genre. Those who are not a fan of early 20th century musicals and film scores may find themselves scratching their heads and wondering when exactly they’d want to play a song of this nature.
There’s a brilliantly dramatic moment right as the song ends, where the orchestra brings one final crashing flourish to finish off the track. I wish that this vibe had been spread more generously through the song as a whole. While the melody is quite pleasant in a shuffling, throwback way, it tends to float by without landing any real punches. The dense orchestration is impressive, but so consistently present that Carnival lacks the kind of pauses and punctuations that might lend necessary time to digest just what Gain is attempting with this release. We get a bit of that in the middle eight, but it never amounts to much. Then again, it’s hard to be too critical when Gain continues to deliver one ambitiously unique title track after another. K-pop’s lucky to have her.