Here’s a road map to the lead-up of Pentagon’s new comeback, as seen through my jaded eyes:
1. The group releases teasers for a summertime single. Good! Fun summery songs have been almost nonexistent this year.
2. The title track is revealed to have been produced by hip-hop artist Giriboy.
Here’s the thing. So far, July has felt more like a month dedicated to K-r&b and K-rap than K-pop. The last thing we need is artists from those worlds producing material for idol groups. If I want an American-sounding, downbeat trap song I’ll turn to the U.S. charts, which are clogged with joyless, unimaginative material. K-pop has always been an oasis of musical invention and earnestness. A song like Humph! (접근금지) simply blends in with the crowd.
This track comes only months after March’s triumphant Sha La La — one of Pentagon’s most stirring comebacks. Humph‘s forced quirkiness seeks to replicate the success of last year’s Shine, but without the charm. After an embarrassing autotuned intro, the track lurches into a mid-tempo hip-hop beat that sounds like every other mid-tempo hip-hop beat you’ve ever heard. Cloying, skittery percussion forges together with lackadaisical keys meant to give the song character. Instead, the verses amount to nothing.
Humph’s pre-chorus shows potential, as the instrumental fills out and we get a brief focus on the guys’ always-effortless vocals. For a moment, it seems as if the track is really going to take off, but as expected from this kind of “chill” boy group style, Humph plays it safe with a repetitive, chant-like hook. The refrain gives us glimpses of the off-kilter appeal that made a song like Shine so enjoyable, but it feels like a dispirited, rehashed version. Without any sense of climax or momentum, Humph stays mired in its low-energy, sing-song mush. This has been an unfortunate hallmark for most boy group releases over the past month, and has led to the most underwhelming stretch of K-pop I can ever remember.
First of all, dammit, my best earbuds just broke. Not really related to this song, other than in time.
The song sounds like Shine II. Shine, the unreleased demo. Shine, the extra verses. Shine, the low down version. Shine, the weird brother we don’t talk about much. At least the spare arrangement shows the boys can generally sing, not hidden by production tricks. The harmonies also sound sung, which is a plus for me.
I don’t think kpop in general does spare arrangements very well. I don’t think lately that the hooks are strong enough for minimal instrumental lines. (There are handful of exceptions of course.)
Back in the day (oh no, here I go), back in the late 70’s early 80’s when all the synthesizers were hand-programmed, and a band could only afford to have a couple, plus a drum machine, and maybe someone who played a “real instrument”, the composers really had to work out what was being programmed, what was being played on bass or drum, what was being sung, etc. Since this came up on this blog (or I brought it up myself), I have been streaming a lot of OMD, who were the kings of layering using just 5 or 6 instrumental tracks total, and every one had a purpose.
I got a Casio CZ-101 for xmas in the mid-80’s, and I could barely program two tracks at a time. But I would play along trying to tweak the waveform to attempt to replicate this or that line, and boy would I try. Of course I was, like, 13. (wow, I looked it up on ebay, and it seems to be worth 300-500 bucks. … holy guacamole, the Roland TR606 drum kit I had is listed for $500-600 bucks I gotta find these in my parents basement …)
For sure agree about your arrangements point. There are definitely exceptions, but songs like this rarely utilize their space completely effectively. When done correctly, usage of empty space can be a song’s highlight, but you can’t just play some staccato piano chords and call it a day.
The ease of modern music tech has taken the magic away from a lot of songs for sure.
Also that very rarely does any real band have to play it live, it is nearly always a recorded backing track, so when they go plonk plonk plonk on the piano sound, no one has to replicate it ever.
I was listening to Pet Shop Boys “West End Girls” last night very closely., It hadn’t occurred to me until I did that 90% of the instrumentals is three lines: drum kit, bass, atmospheric synth. (The drum kit might be split into two lines: (hi hat) and (all else).) Three lines define a fantastic song.
Only when the instrumental break hits does it add two more: a low percussive woodwind sound, and a sound probably called “Medium Voice 2”. Trumpet snippet, probably real. And soulful ad lib vocal salted here and there. And that is it.
I picked on kpop, but my comment could be applicable to any other _pop, of which I don’t listen to much.
I cracked up out loud at the first paragraph, not gonna lie.
Another fun fact about me is that in early 2016 I was really into K-R&B/KHH because I had no taste (0) (none) (empty set) (error: taste not found). Anyways, Giriboy dropped “Mechanical Album” and I loved it, and looking back, it’s not bad at all. Actually most of his albums before then weren’t bad at all. There are varying textures, varying tones, varying usages of vocals – you know, things that aren’t boring. I used to get really hyped about a G.R.Boy producer tag at the beginning of a song. Now I groan. This rant is getting nonsensical but the point is – what happened to Giriboy? And every other popular KHH dude? As someone who followed the scene semi-closely and then dropped off after being hit with one too many single-color pastel backdrop MVs (you know the ones) – was my taste different or has there been a degradation of quality and increase in sameness mirroring the fast popularization of KHH as a genre?
This didn’t have much to do with our friends Pentagon here, but I really knew what “Humph!” would sound like before listening – and it speaks to that.
There’s been both a degradation of quality and an increase in sameness, as there’s bound to be whenever a certain style becomes popular.
Personally, I’ve never been a fan of these sub-genres, mostly because I feel like they spend more time trying to be cool than actually writing an interesting song. I can’t stand how they’ve infiltrated idol pop lately, plummeting the level of ambition and diversity in too many releases.
I agree. You have to dig pretty deep to find good KHH being released in 2019. Not to sound too much like a hipster, but the “mainstream” has really flattened the whole genre and there still aren’t enough KHH artists feeding in new ideas to keep things evolving. I can think of a few KHH artists that are going above and beyond, but no one seems to want to listen to it. It feels like what is being added is just a reiteration of a few well overplayed themes that seem to consistently succeed on the Korean charts in essentially every season for the past few years. As a result – it’s as you said – songs try to be cool instead of being ambitious. And if a bg is trying to get relevancy with the GP, releasing something like this is perhaps one way to go about it, which is unfortunate.
What are your thoughts on the b-side ‘Fantasystic’?
I personally believe it would have made a much much much better title track for the summer!
I think it’s decent, and would’ve made a far better title track. But, it’s not knocking my socks off either. The song feels like it needs focus. It’s a little all over the place.
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