There’s no better challenge for a K-pop group to take than a comeback following a member shake-up. And now after six years with the same lineup, BEAST returns for the first time without Hyunseung. According to Cube Entertainment and the remaining members of BEAST, our hero tossed up the deuces and left the group because of creative differences. While it’s unclear where Hyunseung plans to sow his musical seeds following the split (likely some G-Dragon-esque mindfuckary), BEAST are back this summer with their 2016 full-length album, ‘Highlight,’ a release which indubitably provides insight into what kind of K-pop group the quintet plans to be moving forward.
Looking back, perhaps 2014’s “12:30” was a turning point for BEAST. Their comeback single, “Ribbon“, is a shout out to that waltz-y number. It sways in and out to the same tempo as “12:30”, similar choreography and all. On its own, “Ribbon” is a well composed single amplified by BEAST’s performance. While the instrumental sits comfortably behind a violin lead, it’s the passionate vocals throughout the verses and second half of “Ribbon” that lifts it off the ground. Yoseob sounds amazing here (as he does everywhere, all the time), with Doojoon busting out the pipes a little more than usual.
But as a comeback single, it’s a bit of a disappointment. One would think BEAST would aim to re-establish themselves as a strong united front in light of Hyunseung’s absence, that they would come back to prove their music can still pack a punch without him, but “Ribbon” falls short of igniting any excitement for that. With its familiar design to “12:30”, it’s an unremarkable effort from BEAST.
On the upside, “Ribbon” is one of just a few hiccups in ‘Highlight’, thankfully, and the song isn’t even bad. Out of 11 tracks, maybe two are legit uptempos, while the bulk of this album is made up of ballads and mid-tempo tracks. To some, that’s a recipe for disaster, especially in today’s super urban and high energy landscape in K-pop, but there’s still something about most of these songs that stick. Regardless of what BEAST want to sound like, their synergy is pretty set in stone by now. In ‘Highlight’, there’s at least a sense of identity to hold onto, and BEAST capitalize on that ten fold.
“When I…” is a passionate mid-tempo that digs deep into its melancholy feels. The verses build up to a gorgeous chorus sung by Dongwoon and Yoseob, with an overall feeling highly reminiscent of their “Fiction And Fact” era. I would love to see this one live. “Butterfly” is a refreshing number, landing high in the ranks of one of BEAST’s best ballads to date. It’s the dreamy type of lullaby over an acoustic guitar that works incredibly well for the Korean demographic, who just eat up these coffee shop songs like candy. The music video is really fucking pretty as well, and Dongwoon needs to just marry me already.
If you’re looking for a bit more kick in your drink, title track “Highlight” is the closest you’ll get to an extra shot of espresso in this album. It’s an urban-pop standard for BEAST; it’s not groundbreaking by any means, but the vocals are on point. Within a smooth album like this one, “Highlight” feels a bit out of place, though.
The second half of the album is a set of solos by Junhyung, Yoseob, and Dongwoon, with a Kikwang, Doojoon duet for good measure. The most noteworthy of them is Junhyung’s “Found You“, which showcases the dude’s singing over a peppy upbeat instrumental, while Kikwang and Doojoon’s “Baby It’s You” comes across outdated as hell with all the autotune vocal treatment. They’re not the worst singers in the world, but doing this to them makes it seem like there’s something to hide.
If you told me a couple years ago the BEAST that released “Shock“, “Fiction“, and “Good Luck” were going to end up a tame group pressed on churning out flowerboy, coffee shop singles, I don’t think I would have believed you. Or at least I wouldn’t want to. But after giving ‘Highlight’ a few thorough spins, the theme of this album is undoubtedly “mature”, and next to their hefty discography, is calmer than anything BEAST have released in a while.
Surprisingly, Hyunseung’s absence isn’t as omnipresent as expected, but a part of me thinks he was the strongest force pushing BEAST into more current styles of music. While this album doesn’t explode or wow like I wanted it to, especially for it being a significant comeback for BEAST, going back to their old style would also be stepping out of their comfort zone and into territory that they’re clearly not about anymore.
In the end, ‘Highlight’ delivers a handful of ballads you’ll want to listen to, with a few outdated throwaways; Hyunseung is gone and he’s taken all the electronic and urban influences with him, leaving BEAST to quietly evolve into the ballad singers most boy bands eventually turn into in Korea.