There’s no place on Earth where the Sun’s light doesn’t touch at least once a day, noted SEVENTEEN member Mingyu in a press conference ahead of the release of the group’s fourth studio album ‘Face the Sun’. That, the rapper explained, is the level of influence K-pop supernovas SEVENTEEN have their sights set on.
Burning that bright is no small feat, but the band have never been closer. Just last week, they celebrated their seven-year anniversary as a complete, 13-member group (itself irregular in the K-pop landscape) by cruising over two million pre-orders for ‘Face the Sun’, quadrupling their previous LP’s numbers.
With global reach within grasp, it made sense to usher in a new era with an English-language single, primed to bring Western listeners into the fold. In April, that pre-release single arrived: ‘Darl+ing’, a syrupy love song doubling as a message to fans. It was a tad too muted to strike a chord; there’s a moment near the end of the song where electric guitars rev up, signaling a shift into higher gear – then, it stalls, burning itself out.
But whereas ‘Darl+ing’ is anti-climactic, subsequent title track ‘Hot’ is jam packed with layers of western guitar riffs, bass, drums and polarising car alarm-esque electronic chirps. AutoTune garbles lines; others are overly repetitive (“Yeah, I’m runnin’ too hot, hot, hot, hot,” goes the refrain). The8 beatboxes briefly. In this case, too many ideas is better than too few, but there are clear-eyed moments – say, Hoshi barreling full speed into that post-chorus or Jeonghan’s delicate bridge – that highlight the track’s squandered potential.
By far eclipsing the singles, however, is the slate of B-sides. The first two play on archetypes of adventurers, a choice Woozi has said was an intentional nod to the project’s aspirations of growth and experimentation. They rove the city at dawn “like a cowboy” on the powerful, rock-tinged ‘March’, later taking on the role of the Spanish knight errant in the anthemic ‘Don Quixote’, riding off into the sunset and brushing aside naysayers. Yet here an uncertainty churns below the surface as verses chafe between chest-puffed bravado and declarations of inner angst. “I know me,” Wonwoo all but shouts. “I’m born of fear.” Cracks show, though determination ultimately wins out: “Inside my boiling heart / Ice and motivation.”
Because if the sun spawns light, it also casts shadows. Warm and wistful in equal measure, ‘Shadow’ sees them embracing their dark side with tender lyricality. “Oh, now I know you are a part of me / Don’t wanna hide, I want to hold your hand,” Seungkwan belts with conviction, before DK continues: “Even my darkness will shine brightly.” Stripped back guitar and a twinkle of chimes wedge themselves between ’80s-style synths and manic breakbeats, a euphoric push and pull. Faring just as well is the elastic, funky ‘Domino’, which glides seamlessly into its anti-drop chorus – one of co-composer Woozi’s trademarks.
Fingerprints of Woozi’s production style are to be found elsewhere, as well. ‘‘Bout You’ fidgets over organ chords like an anxious mind – or, a heartbeat sent racing. “Boom boom boom boom,” Dino chants. “To me it’s like the alphabet or numbers, H-I-J-K L-O-V-E.” Onomatopoeic pew pews and staccato raps call back to the band’s earlier works, couching young love in flustered metaphors – the song would fit right in on SEVENTEEN’s 2018 mini-albums ‘You Make My Day’, one of their absolute best – while gospel runs skyrocket the song to new heights.
Closing the album is ‘Ash’, a trap banger with heavy vocal processing à la prior cuts from the band’s hip-hop unit: the AutoTune on ‘Chili’ and whirring sirens of ‘Back It Up’ come to mind. Here, however, all thirteen members feature on the track, allowing even the vocalists of the group to flex their rap skills. Evoking the image of a phoenix shedding its past self (“Born in fire then I fly away,” raps Vernon), ‘Ash’ is the antidote to fears of complacency, pushing beyond their comfort zone. Done are the days of following in the footsteps of others. “That one desert star that shined every night,” comes Joshua’s digital warble over the bridge. “Now it’s my turn to become it.”
Now entering their eighth year, SEVENTEEN’s expressed interest is straying off that beaten path. This close to the “pop star” stratosphere (however cringe they might find that notion), stagnation isn’t an option. “New things, new form,” they drone on ‘Ash’. ‘Hot’ blazes forward into new territory with its brazen sensuality – but, proven by ‘Face the Sun’’s familiar yet sublimely inventive B-sides, SEVENTEEN needn’t start from scratch.
- Release date: May 31
- Record label: Pledis Entertainment / HYBE