Lee Chan-hyuk and Lee Su-hyun of AKMU (short for Akdong Musician) may still be at the cusp of their young adulthood, but they possess a creative ability, flair and wisdom well beyond their years. This is evident in the music they’ve put out since making their mark as teens in the 2012 reality TV competition K-Pop Star 2, in which they emerged as champions.
Now in their early- and mid-20s with three full-length albums and handful of other releases to their name, the talented sibling duo have returned with the retro-tinged ‘Next Episode’ – and in true AKMU fashion, it comes with a twist. Also known as their “collaboration album”, the seven-song EP – written and co-composed by older brother Chan-hyuk – features guest appearances from some of the industry’s best known voices.
“We’ve been planning this for a few years,” Chan-hyuk shared on YouTube talk show IU’s Palette, helmed by none other than the nation’s sweetheart IU herself, who coincidentally also contributes to the album. “Despite the fact that many musicians think positively about us, they aren’t very willing to work on a song with us… Thankfully, everyone [involved in ‘Next Episode’] had fun and gladly said yes to working with us.”
IU working with the siblings on ‘Next Episode’, marks their first proper collaboration after years of friendship. After Chan-hyuk had helped pen and compose IU’s song ‘Ah Puh’, on her comeback album ‘Lilac’ earlier this year, it seemed wise and timely for the latter to return the favour. The result is lead single ‘NAKKA’, with its Korean title ‘낙하’ meaning ‘falling down’. “Through ‘NAKKA’, we wanted to tell people there always is someone supporting them even if they fall from the top,” the duo said during an online press conference for the album, per The Korea Herald.
The song is very much the musical version of a trust fall, with Chan-hyuk and Su-hyun singing reassuringly, “I told you I’d never leave you / When such a day comes”, and IU joining in the vocal gymnastics of the chorus: “Trust me, close your eyes and fall / One, two, three, hold your breath and fall”. Credit should be given to how the parts in ‘NAKKA’ were divided – each singer gets ample air-time throughout to shine, with Su-hyun and IU’s voices blending well with its dark and moody ’80s synth-pop vibes.
Along with ‘NAKKA’, other songs on ‘Next Episode’ also ride on the ‘newtro’ trend that continues to sweep South Korea. A portmanteau of ‘new’ and ‘retro’, this term describes a resurgence in trends or elements from the past – typically from the ’70s to ’90s – that evoke a sense of nostalgia. Album opener ‘Hey Kid, Close Your Eyes’ (or ‘battleground’ in Korean) may initially bring to mind the opening chords of the Steve Miller Band’s 1982 hit ‘Abracadabra’ (sans its signature baseline), but it holds its own the moment Su-hyun creates a vivid depiction of a warzone with her measured words: “Look at the sky covered in ashes of gunpowder / Whoosh go the bomb and the bullet.” It’s particularly confronting when viewing its accompanying music video: monochrome scenes of children running about with guns in their hands, or strategising battles that go beyond a seemingly ‘harmless’ board game of Risk.
“The sad reality is that our childhood is built above piles of bones with nothing but the remains of war, and all we’re taught is how to conquer with guns and blades in our hands,” reads the music video’s description. Chan-hyuk does take a moment to humanise the lives that were lost, wondering: ”What kind of person were you / before you were covered in dust?” Pairing up with the siblings on this haunting track is veteran singer Lee Sun-hee, known for her hit song ‘Fate’, and whose voice would be familiar to those growing up in ’80s or ’90s Korea.
The late-2000s vibes of ‘Bench’, which features rapper and singer Zion.T, would not be out of place on the soundtrack of 2009 K-drama Boys Over Flowers. Its upbeat, electric guitar-filled melody – bearing sweet hints of ‘Chocolate’ by The 1975 – leads into a chorus with a toned-down tempo; a contrast that provides an aural insight of the musicality favoured during that time. AKMU then switch up the momentum with the onomatopoeic ‘Tictoc Tictoc Tictoc’, one of the more modern-sounding tracks on the album, with rapper Beenzino adding lyrical layers with his smooth verses.
The tempo winds down toward the latter part of the album, and this is where Chan-hyuk’s mastery in storytelling continues to shine. With his soulful vocals, indie rock band JANNABI frontman Choi Jung-hoon reveals a poignant anecdote on the title track ‘Next Episode’ (or ‘맞짱’, which means ‘a fight’ in Korean), through which a five-year-old tells his mother why he didn’t fight back when being hit: “Mum, I was sad that I fought my close friend / It hurts more than getting my mouth bruised.”
‘Stupid Love Song’, which Su-hyun sings with R&B vocalist Crush, provides a unique yet sombre insight to the thoughts of a singer-songwriter performing on stage; the misery that inspired a given song inadvertently becoming the audience’s source of enjoyment. “Memories I wouldn’t revisit / Make crowds roar / Pain I kept hidden as secrets / Are now sung by everyone,” they sing.
Rounding up this collaboration album is the lofty, inspirational closing track ‘Everest’, which would fit right in as part of a cinematic trailer for a blockbuster film. Singer-songwriter Sam Kim kicks it off with a folksy, acoustic introduction, with the music, along with his and Su-hyun’s vocals, gradually gaining momentum as they ascend towards the song’s climax – very much like a momentous climb up its namesake mountain. “Occasionally we see / The evidence that nothing is impossible in the world.”
Much like a mountainous expedition, there are always risks that come with collaborating with others, but those in ‘Next Episode’ work for the better: each track brings out the strengths of the collaborators, while still effective in showcasing Su-hyun’s flawless, pristine vocals and Chan-hyuk’s adept lyrical storytelling. Both siblings shared on IU’s Palette that they’re both confident and proud of this album – and frankly, they have every reason to be.
- Release date: July 26
- Record label: YG Entertainment