EXO come through with another solid seasonal release in “Universe”

Carrying on a tradition that began with 2013’s still unbeatable Miracles In December, EXO is back with their fourth special winter album. Sometimes these releases end up being overtly tied to the holidays, and other times they’re simply an excuse to spotlight a good ballad. “Universe” falls into the latter category, delivering a wistful piano ballad with touches of rock.

Like the bulk of idol groups, EXO is most well-known for their upbeat material, but the group is home to an abundance of skilled, instantly recognizable vocalists. “Universe” gives them ample space to shine with its uncluttered arrangement. It would have worked fine as a typical piano and strings affair, but the electric guitar really takes it up a notch. Much of modern Korean balladry rests on a supremely overused OST (original soundtrack) formula, and “Universe” could have easily fallen into this mushy, maudlin category. But the rock ornamentation gives it a touch of an identity of its own.

Even so, I wish “Universe” would have built to a more striking climax. We get some beautiful power notes — highlighted by the Chen/Baekhyun/D.O. dream team — but I kept waiting for the guitar to come in full force. I guess I’m just a fan of the overly dramatic, even if the restraint shown will probably benefit it in the long run. Luckily, the melody is suitably dynamic, culminating in a chorus that swings for the rafters in the classic power ballad style. I’m not sure how much of a “winter” single it truly is, but it easily stands among the best of EXO’s seasonal output.

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