The assembly of heavy editing and compression present in EXO‘s debut mini-album ‘MAMA‘ was a all-too-claustrophobic, pressurized listening experience that found a far more pleasant way of getting appreciated through moderation. That’s how it grew to become one of last year’s top ranked albums (by my account). And while the exact design has armed EXO again in their first LP, ‘XOXO (Kiss & Hug)‘, the breadth in room and pace alone has allowed for all of this album’s dynamics to soar and every slither of silence to crest.
In many ways, the sensational lead single “Wolf“, which opens ‘XOXO’, portrays the shifts in acceleration at play throughout this album quite well. ‘XOXO’ is reminiscent of the links in style and strong production value of f(x)‘s ‘Electric Shock‘ EP (2012); moreso than, say, the ‘I Got a Boy‘ LP by Girls’ Generation (2013), which had all the potential to do the same, with its ferocious lead single, but didn’t really get there in the end as a collective.
In all actuality, “Wolf” resembles the unconventionality of “I Got a Boy” (the single), in that it sinks its claws into one style of music one second without thinking twice to pursue another the next. The distinction here though is that there’s one theme present and a set of interlocking routes taken to bring it to life, whereas Girls’ Generation’s hit single, while balls-y and magnetic, pompously topples over itself from musical disconnect. The atmosphere is strong here and there’s a fierce blend of climactic technicality – major drops, a family of gritty synths, precise timing – and vocal acrobatics (Dear TVXQ‘s Changmin, Baekhyun‘s after your high C notes) that the rapid shifts in rhythm feel at least a lot more purposeful.
Kenzie, a long-time SM Entertainment producer/composer who’s had her hands dipped in SM’s discography just as deeply as Yoo Young-Jin (her contributions stretch back as early as BoA‘s “My Name” single and beyond) co-penned “Wolf”. Listening back to her most recent contributions, like f(x)’s “Jet” and “One More Chance” by The Grace-Dana & Sunday (2011), there’s a certain atmospheric grandeur in these songs evoked by clusters of noise being restrained and let loose in tightly gripped fashion. This effect overwhelmed in “MAMA”, partly for its haphazard arrangement, but is far more provocative and alluring here.
Still, “Wolf” is a lot to take in. There are times when the song becomes heavy and overly shouted, to where it disrupts that very delicate level in compression keeping it afloat. As operatic as it is, it does its duty in piquing the ears interest and an even better job of setting the tone for the rest of ‘XOXO’. Not only do we revisit elements introduced in “Wolf”, but do so in such precise fashion that we’re able to pick up completely new ones while maintaining a unity in the listening experience along the way.
“Baby Don’t Cry“, one of many points of anxiety for EXO fans, finally makes its debut as a full track on ‘XOXO’. Sung over a subdued piano riff and slick R&B arrangement, EXO present one of their strongest vocal performances to date. They may have recorded this years ago, but it’s only a testament to their talents and that of their production team by how immensely impacting it is, both aurally and emotionally. And even if we already had the knowledge of EXO’s vocal strengths (at least in the studio), the way EXO’s vocal leads in both subsidiaries is near breathtaking here. EXO-K’s D.O., Suho and Chanyeol are particularly moving in their performances.
It comes as a genuine surprise, actually, how emotionally mesmerizing this album is, especially coming from a group that is relatively new to the game, even moreso from a group under SM Entertainment – the juggernaut least cohesive in their LP deliverables. Although, it’s to SM Entertainment’s credit how well-rounded they’ve become in the last year (i.e., TVXQ, BoA, and SHINee‘s recent records). “Black Pearl“, the next track on this album, is just as spellbinding as the last. Carrying the dubstep undertones of the lead single and layered with crisp House details, this song is one of the strongest on ‘XOXO’. EXO-M shines beautifully on this one, as their version is incredibly smooth and overflowing with glimmering high tonalities, something their counterpart seems to lack in comparison. Though, the fact that there are two separate and very different halves serving the same material under one name gives the ear an interesting take on how each is able to handle and deliver.
“Don’t Go“, a generally basic pop mid-tempo, benefits from EXO-K’s melismas while remaining rather still under EXO-M’s care. On the other hand, EXO-M’s bright harmonies cause the light “Peter Pan” to ascend to sheer brilliance, where EXO-K weigh it down (ever slightly) with a far bolder set of vocals. There’s something to look forward to from both groups and it’s a treat when the songs themselves are as powerful as the ones chosen to appear on ‘XOXO’.
“Let Out The Beast” is a thundering up-tempo riddled with rapid off-the-tongue verses that sounds incredibly strong under both EXO’s. It possesses the perfect amount of kick and breathing room to land its emphasis in all the right places, and both EXO’s nail it. The same goes for “My Lady“, another fan favorite on this album; although this particular song speaks more about a song’s composition being so insanely stunning that EXO’s only job was to make it sound perfect: they do.
Explosions and expletives are as much a part of this album as its muted moments and you hear these two key elements bleed together in nearly every track with more purpose here than before. It’s for this reason why full length albums still hold an important, albeit diminishing place in the music industry. The art is in the vision, and to hear it realized in one mighty package is worth every spare second allowed to see it through.
McRoth is a whore for Korean music and is best known for writing Korean music reviews on his site McRoth’s Residence. You can e-mail this gay at firstname.lastname@example.org or stalk him on Twitter @rothsresidence and Facebook.