Wednesday, October 17, 2012

BTOB - "Press Play"

I didn't really have a good first impression of BTOB, and I know a few other people felt the same way, so I wasn't really following this comeback. That also explains the fact that this review is a month late. I had the album sitting in iTunes and my phone since it was released, but I was so busy finishing up the first semester that I never got around to listening to it until tonight.

And boy was I in for a major surprise.

Cube has never really been that high-up in my books because they're not very consistent with the quality of their releases, usually focusing only on BEAST and Hyun A who are the "more popular" ones in the agency. The problem with that approach is that the reason why BEAST (and maybe Hyun A, but just a maybe) became popular in the first place is because they got good material. If the rookies or the lesser acts never put something strong out, they'll never be successful. So you can see why BTOB, and Cube, surprised me so much with this EP.

The stylistic direction they've taken really hits a sore spot. I mean, how can it not when it's overflowing with elements of Swedish production and Backstreet Boys in the late 90's/early 2000's? But what's especially noteworthy with their direction is the fact that the material takes influence from very strong sounds, but still manages to still sound like K-Pop.

To say this in the simplest way possible, "Press Play" is a very, very strong EP from start to finish. There really isn't a single weak song on it. The songs aren't only all on the same level of proficiency, they also work extremely well with each other -- the songs stand firmly on their own, but when you hear them all one after the other they take on a life of their own. Really, it's crazy how good this EP is.

"Press Play" sounds so much like a cross between Craig David and S Club (7) (Who happen to be two of my favorite British acts.), especially with some of the vocal treatments and instruments they used. It's a breeze to listen to and it's a lot of fun, but I'd think twice about wanting to break out in dance and song to this. It's not overflowing with groove, and I would've liked it even more if it had gone all-out, but at the same time it's that slight hesitance and stiffness in the delivery that puts the K-Pop into the song and separates it from the influence. Otherwise it would be just another boring Craig David imitation.

If "WOW" isn't a homage BSB, I don't know what is. This sounds so much like the music of my childhood (because I'm not a child anymore!), it's scary. And I guess I'm also freaked out because it's such a good interpretation of the BSB sound. It's also melodic in the chorus/near-shouting kind of way, It's an intense song with all these very full, rounded instruments and those heavily padded vocals, but the guitar line that reminds me a bit of and those screams in the background give it that sense of playfulness and make it a bit tongue-in-cheek, actually. The treatment of the guitar line reminds me a lot of a more mischievous version of MBLAQ's "Mona Lisa". The vocals are spot on -- some near-shouting at the choruses, those groan/whisper verses, and countless layers of voices, even for solos.

After two very Western-sounding tracks, "I Know Nothing But Love" sounds very K-Pop at first glance, like something BEAST would do, or maybe even Teen Top. I love how they took it a step further, not with the elements on the surface like the vocals or the melody or the production, but with what's happening under that. That drum line, though most of the time drowned out, is gorgeous. The use of that snare in particular at the verses makes me want to curl up and cry because it gives the song so much class. But what I like more is how the drum line and the piano line work with each other. Usually (if the songwriter is uninspired or lazy) the drums give a song kick because most people assume that they're loud, and the piano gives the song grace and sophistication because piano lines are graceful. It's the other way around on this song, and it's done so well that you don't notice it until the two actually come in together and work their magic.

"U & I" just makes me melt into a puddle of goo. With a smile on my face. While the previous songs have been very dependent on style and things other than the melody and the basic chords, "U & I" literally puts that beautiful melody on a pedestal. With the instrumental that does exactly what it has to do as a pedestal, nothing more, nothing less, the goosebumps just keep coming. And surprisingly, it fits their vocals like a glove. That slight nasal quality pulls the melody together because otherwise it would just be a puddle of goo (much like me!). This is kind of like meringue -- sugar is sugar, it's sweet which is great and all since we all love sweets, but when you add in the egg whites they hold the sugar together and make it into this heavenly creation.

Honestly, the generic and slightly cheap beginning of "Stand Up" made me think that maybe this was where this album would fall. I mean, after such strong songs, they're bound to have a moment of weakness, right? But then that stunning bridge popped out of nowhere with all that epic and my jaw literally dropped. The melody reminds me of a sped-up version of this stunning song, with the elements of this masterpiece, but with so much more intensity. Which are both examples of brilliant Swedish pop.

The instrumental sounds so effortless even if there are a million things happening all at once -- because the elements work together instead of fighting for dominance. The piano line that runs around the chorus along with the synths is beautiful, and basically everything during that epic verse too. The instrumental and the arrangement are very ambitious and they take that ambition one step further with the confidence, which is then driven home by the brevity of the vocals. As if all that wasn't good enough, the middle 8 is probably the most beautiful middle 8 I've heard this year -- you have all the qualities of the rest of the song, with that much more grandiose to it. It's an overwhelming song, but it's the good kind of overwhelming because it makes you want to listen over and over again because you hear something new every time.

"My Girl" rounds up the EP, and it's a good cool-down from "Stand Up". But that doesn't mean it's inferior. While the other songs put up very strong fronts in whatever qualities they put across, "My Girl" takes a step back and lets you bask in everything. It's a simple song, yes but it's packed with enough moments to sustain your attention, but at the same time it does shove things into your face one after the other. The elements themselves are actually pretty generic and standard to pop songs, but like a lot of the other songs, the success lies in the execution. The arrangement is very bare for majority of the song, like part of the verses where the elements that stand out are basically just vocals, a guitar and percussion, or how it's extremely easy to make that electric guitar at the chorus stand out like a sore thumb, instead it lays low. The build-ups and transitions are very natural and follow them melody, but the song also becomes urgent where it needs to be, like during the stunning middle 8. I'll have this on repeat for the next few weeks. At least.

As you can see, I'm still overwhelmed at how strong this EP is, all things considered. But what's clear though is that if BTOB keep this up, they'll go a very long way -- a far cry from how I thought they'd end up earlier this year.


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