Friday, March 23, 2012

Shinhwa - "THE RETURN"

The (other, older) gods are back, and I don't think we mere mortals are ready, but in true god fashion, they don't care.

Not that I'm complaining, because I had such a hard time staying sane while listening to it. The thought of them finally coming back, paired with the gorgeous songs, is a lethal combination. But more than anything, this album proves something that a lot of acts completely forget. If you're really a good musician/performer and you really know what you're doing, it doesn't matter if you're in 2000 or 2012, you will still be good, and you will still sound like yourself.

There are two sides to "THE RETURN", as this is Shinhwa in 2012. The "now" aspect is very clear -- they make use of a lot of modern technology, trendy chord progressions and sophisticated vocal treatment -- but the Shinhwa aspect is just as clear, there is no denying that this is a Shinhwa album. There's a certain regality to the way they went about producing and executing the album, and from the first song all the way down to the last, regardless of everything else, it finds a way to sound superior.

"THE RETURN" isn't some haphazardly album thrown together just for the sake of a reunion, complete with "new versions" of old hits in a desperate attempt to relive the past (none of that on this album!), it's sure of what it is, and what it has to be. They made all the right decisions with the direction, the packaging, and the all-important lead single. "Venus" is not the only good song on the album, but it most definitely isn't horrible. But it's not only in what songs were put in, it's also in how they were put in, and how going through the entire album in one sweep is so natural.

Put the musicality, the good decisions and the crisp production together and you get the closest thing to perfection. Sorry Big Bang, "ALIVE" was great, but "THE RETURN" is now the best release of the year.

But they don't completely forget the fact that fans will be crying over this album, and so adding a few tear-jerking songs in between all that regality won't hurt, right? Right. Because that's exactly what "On The Road" is. We're greeted with soft drum rolls laced with a pretty piano line and some cymbals here and there, before a very low-key verse that just spirals into this tear-jerkingly stunning chorus, that's light enough to match the song, but intense enough to hear over fangirl sobs. It's simple, and we don't get any of those fancy instruments yet, but it's simplicity makes you curious -- what's the rest of the album going to sound like?

Amazing, I believe, because they just keep it coming with the brilliance. "Hurts" is just that much darker than "On The Road", with that whole late '90s/early 2000's R&B thing going on, and their vocals are really something, but once you get to the chorus, it's literally a chorus of all their voices -- no jumping through hoops and fire needed, that's the explosion. "Hurts" is the epitome of effortless -- it has so much conviction, but it's also very natural.

It turns out that those two tracks were just the beginning, and a sort of "flashback" musically, because the next two songs are nothing but current. They're like hybrids of everyone from BEAST to EXO to U-Kiss and even that new NU'EST song -- it's trendy, upbeat, and fresh. To be honest with you, so many things could have gone wrong with the two songs, they could've ended up sounding cheap, the melodies could've gotten lost under all the autotune, but again, the difference is that this is Shinhwa we're talking about, they know exactly what they're doing -- these new groups don't hold a candle to Shinhwa, and everyone knows that. It's like the difference between cheap chocolate and the really good kind. Essentially they're both chocolate and they have almost the same ingredients, but it's in the quality of the ingredients and how they were put together that the two kinds differ.

Unlike other similar songs, what "Venus" has is musicality -- you can tell that the composer really put effort into it. The dynamics work seamlessly and effortlessly with each other, literally gliding from verse to chorus to middle-8, the verses are stunning, but they don't hit you over the head, the bridge builds-up in the smoothest possible way, and while half of the chorus monotonous, they actually picked the right note to sing this time around. The song literally sounds like eggs on a well-oiled pan, and how they slide off once cooked, and taste heavenly.

Continuing with the trendy suite of "THE RETURN", "Red Carpet" is not as epic as "Venus", but it's an amazing song in it's own right. I'm honestly having such a hard time believing that the guys singing this are in their 30's, but then I remember whose album this is. The main thing to pay attention to on "Red Carpet" is the presence of a melody, and how the vocals deliver it in relation to the rest of the song. If SHINee sang this it would sound flimsy, and if other bands sang it they'd sound cheap -- what Shinhwa have is maturity with the right mix of youth, and not the other way around.

And we're back to boyband bootcamp with "Move With Me". It's SO early 2000's k-pop, ala-early BoA, S.E.S., a bit of Rain here and there, and Shinhwa of course. Rather than saying it has conviction, the better word to describe "Move With Me" would be that it has spunk. The drum line, the short and sharp guitar parts, the harmonies all throughout, the chord progressions they used, and everything all together equals a package that's funky, slightly mischievous, but still light and modern.

"Let It Go" is in the vain of "Insomnia"-era Craig David during the verses, with the sharp, but slightly soggy/full beats and that eerie piano line. You think it's going to be like that for the entire song and just explode into a loud chorus, but when the chorus actually arrives this guitar part just swoops in out of nowhere, steering the song away from what you originally thought it was going to be, and you're left speechless. It's the guitar part that gives the song the conviction, but it's the vocals that give it groove. Everything rolled together is really a feast to your ears. I don't know if you guys have tasted it, but "Let It Go" reminds me of those Marks&Spencer Dark Chocolate Jaffa cakes. When you bite in to it all you taste is the chocolate, but chew it a bit more and BAM this amazing orange jam comes out of nowhere and takes over your mouth.

I was actually pretty iffy about "Stay", because it starts off like some novelty song, and pretty much keeps at it throughout, with the cheap synths and novelty song-worthy, melody executed with light vocals and thrown together with rather flimsy production. The same goes for "Welcome", it sounds like a cross between "Bonamana" with thin production and something Haha would rap/"sing" to, what with the "conga" instrumental. I guess the redeeming factor of the two songs is that they're not pretentious. They're not cheap songs masquerading as something sophisticated -- they're cheap songs that sound like cheap songs. They are what they are, and they're very consistent in that.

I never really understood K-Pop's fixation with all things retro (and even J-Pop, if you count DBSK's "Choosey Lover"), but it's being done, so I really can't do anything about it. "Be My Love" doesn't sound cheap like the previous two songs, but it is pretty cheesy. Like, cringe-worthy cheesy. I can imagine them in those all-silver/metallic blue (ala-Westlife's "What Makes A Man")/OR GOLD suits doing repetitive sways and snaps, complete with spirit fingers at the "youuuuuu" parts. Yeah.

"Re-Love" is epic and stunning and brilliant and everything rolled in. Swoon-worthy harmonies throughout a stunning melody, a bass line you feel instead of feel underneath the epicly gorgeous, but pretty basic, instrumental -- it's the mandatory boyband slow song done flawlessly. This plays up the band part of boyband, with all the gorgeous harmonies and the high note parades, and this is one of the main reasons why fangirls start dropping like flies. That pause towards the end killed me, and the harmony right after killed me again.

We start with epic, go through a couple of different songs, and we're back to epicly gorgeous with "Breathin'". Putting aside the fact that it sounds like "breeding" instead of "breathing" (I bet you won't be able to unhear it anymore after this LOL), the best way to describe it would be that it's glorious. Not gorgeous, not stunning -- glorious. Glorious in the pop sense, of course, but glorious nonetheless. The beautiful melody, the harmonies and background vocals, the strings in the background that literally lift the song up to the heavens, and the percussion that makes sure it's a smooth ride -- glorious.

My favorite: "Venus" and "Breathin'" are tied
Song(s) I'd listen to again: "On The Road", "Re-Love", "Let It Go", "Red Carpet", "Hurts"
My least favorite: it's between "Welcome" and "Be My Love"
Last words: Best release of the year so far.
The final verdict: 5/5

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