Last Words: EXO - "Mama" EP
And we come to the last EXO post I will write until they drop a full album. I am definitely a victim of SM's beat-you-over-the-head marketing tactics, but I think I've come out on the other side not completely obsessed. Which is more than I can say for the rabid fanbase that has already formed. I'll be focusing on the music here, since their live performances weren't much better than their videos - though I did see some more confidence from a few of them (and adorable nervousness from others). This'll be my final assessment of whether this band passes muster or not. Shall we?
The lead single (finally!) of this EP, "Mama," is an epic track - in tone, however, not necessarily in impact. The weird chanting at the beginning tells you that they're aiming for grandeur with this one, but there's only so far they can go with that - this is still a pop song. It's obviously derivative of "Keep Your Head Down", but chooses strings instead of brass for the orchestral element, and it's little more melodic. I could see DB5K killing - and I mean KILLING - this track. I love the call-backs to "Don't Don" in the middle eight (more like middle sixteen - oy), though they simultaneously picked the best (electric guitars) and worst parts (intense scream-rapping) of the song to replicate. The chorus is catchy, and the production pretty clean considering the huge array of elements it contains; but the song ends on a "meh" note for me - the track loses some of its punch around that extended middle bit.
I can't say enough how much I love the extraterrestrial theme they've stuck with - it pleases my nerd soul so much. The idea that they're all physical gods coming out of hiding on earth to save the universe just gets me excited. I might have to start/find a fanfic that takes that concept and expands on it. The lyrics are consistent with this theme as well - the world's gone to shit, someone needs to do something about it - again a callback to "Don't Don", which had a similar theme of societal decay. It's definitely the most interesting thing concept-wise to happen in k-pop in a while - and it's not just because SM has the money to pay for it. There's a smart creative mind behind this all, and I just want to meet whoever it is and say "Damn, you're good".
Moving on: I was so thrown when "Angel" started - I thought the music and vocals were out of sync, and actually started the song again to make sure that it wasn't weirdly skipping. I like that a lot - it unsettled my stomach (in a good way - gave me butterflies) and my expectations. I'm so glad the endless teasers and the showcase didn't spoil this song for me - I expected this to be my favorite track, and it hasn't let me down. It's mellow, melodic and almost dreamy. "History" and "Mama" are all about the power vocals, but it's in the calmer moments that EXO's vocalists really shine - they know how to use their vocals to maximum effect. Amazing for rookies, really. My only gripe would be that I would have loved that weird staggered bit to be repeated towards the end.
EXO-K - Angel
EXO-M - Angel
"Two Moons" starts with a chorus of AYs... always a sign that there isn't much going on in the track itself. Not much to say here - ultimately I was unimpressed. Then again, this is SM - their songwriters wouldn't know real rapping if they got slapped in the face with it. The best part of the song was in the teaser, so I might just cut that bit out and play that instead of the full track.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that "Machine" wasn't the dubstep track we heard in the teaser. It has that SHINee R&B groove to it, much like "History" - on repeated listens, it's actually really similar to "Sherlock" (proving that SM wasn't really doing anything new with their "two tracks mixed as one" thing). A fun track, but definitely filler. I wouldn't mind it coming up on shuffle on my iPod, but it would likely go by unnoticed more often than not.
Comparing the two groups is kind of unnecessary since they're set up to be exact analogues of one another, but I do think the vocal repertoire of EXO-M is a tad more interesting than EXO-K's. They have more variance in terms of tone, while D.O. and Baek-hyun are virtually indistinguishable from each other. Also, the Korean singers are more about force and skill (just like YYJ, natch) and can be kind of grating after a while, whereas the Chinese singers overall have a smoother sound.*
Taken as a whole, the Mama EP is very showy, as expected - EXO has a lot to prove, being the most talked about rookies in the last year apart from BAP, and Block B after their Thailand fiasco. It ends up being more of a musical showcase for Yoo Young-jin than a showcase of these boys as their own entity, and that's a bit of a letdown for me, as I was hoping for something radically different from past SM fare. Their concept is "alien," but when it comes down to it, they're more human than anything else - familiar, recognizable, and edging towards being stock. Also, they don't seem prepared to perform live. The showcase is one thing, but you can't lip-synch your entire debut performance when your competition is dropping workable live performances from the get-go. After four months of teasing this group, I expected live greatness, and SM simply dropped the ball there.
I wanted to be wowed by this group, and even though ultimately I wasn't, I'm not disappointed. Once you get over the clone-likeness of the package, and past the flash and bang of the lead single, you start to see some of EXO's own colors shining through. This group has got talent and a clear direction, which is more than we can say for a number of k-pop artists. And they put out a CD that's actually pretty good: it's listenable, and all the songs fit together in a cohesive EP that isn't too overwhelming, in stark contrast to the marketing of the group. If EXO keep doing interesting new things like they did with the concept and on "Angel," and show me more of their own personality as opposed to their mentor's, I'm totally on board.
*Random bit of conspiracy theory: I still maintain that it's Jino from SM The Ballad singing at the beginning of "My Lady" in the first teaser with Kai. They used a different version at the first showcase which sounds more like Baek-hyun. Probably Jino was going to be in EXO, but dropped out for some reason. Not that I mind all that much - as much as I love the kid, we have enough mini-YYJs running around. I would have liked it, though, if they put him in instead and took out Baek-hyun or D.O. - his voice is much smoother, and would take the edge off EXO-K's vocals.