The boys of FT Island have been pretty busy recently. Their new Japanese album Five Treasure Island has been tearing up the charts and setting records along the way. Keeping up with the Japanese promotions, Lead singer, Lee Hong Ki, is staring in the Japanese drama Muscle Girl. And as if that wasn’t enough the band provided “Haruka,” the drama’s theme song.
Somewhere in the middle of all that they have found time to squeeze in a round of Korean promotions with their new mini album aptly titled Return. In the past, FT Island has struggled to find balance between their rock style of music and their idol band image and now with pop rock band CNBLUE firmly entrenched in the K-pop scene staying relevant might be harder than ever.
Rising to the challenge, the album starts things off with “Hello Hello.” Deceptively, the song begins with a standard FT Island hard-hitting chorus but almost instantly pulls back and acoustic guitar off-beats take over. Before anyone gets too used to that, the rest of the band cuts in and bassist, Jaejin, raps a few lines before the song dives back into the dramatic chorus. That’s where the strength of this song is: the transitions. Trying to mix the folk elements of the verses with the emotional rock chorus is a train wreck waiting to happen but FT Island pulls it off quite nicely.
Another thing the band has struggled with is blending the voices of all three vocalists. Hong Ki’s voice is heavy which contrasts with Jaejin’s airy tone and Seunghyun, the newest member, lacks history and experience with the band. However, since the days of their Cross & Change promotions that particular barrier seems to have dissipated and the awkward, unsure trade-offs are a thing of the past. The transitions between Seunghyun and Hong Ki in the second verse are particularly well executed and show extreme improvement.
It’s also worth noting that this song boasts a tempo of 200 BPM. Why? Because that is really fast. Instead of sounding manic and out of control, though, the drilling off-beats and simple melody keep everything (and everyone) in check.
The middle eight marks a dark spot in the song as it borrows heavily from FT Island’s label mate CNBLUE. Hong Ki takes a moment to indulge in Yonghwa’s signature chant singing with nonsensical “la la las” and “ha ha has”. Unfortunately, the CNBLUE influences don’t stop there and continue throughout the rest of the album.
After “Hello Hello” the album cools down with “Oh” and not the Girls’ Generation variety. If nothing else, this song is an experiment in harmonizing Jaejin with Hong Ki because hey, if CNBLUE can do it so can they. To pull this off, Jaejin delivers a smooth, pleasant vocal and for his part, Hong Ki tones down his usual effervescence to match. Although they are not Yonghwa and Jonghyun this duet shows improvement and limited success. The two sing with, around and next to each other without one taking the spotlight off the other.
Just in case anyone was getting lost in the CNBLUE references, FT Island reminds us that they can still rock with the next track, “I’m Going to Have You.” Like the title suggests, it’s an intense, slightly creepy number with cutting guitar chords, pounding bass lines and Hong Ki back with a vengeance. Songs like this allow FT Island to remain believable as a rock band while they waver to the pop side of things. It almost sounds like this song belongs on their recent Japanese album Five Treasure Island but alas, it’s here instead.
Now, don’t get too comfortable with that sound because as I warned, CNBLUE quickly returns to haunt the album with the next track, “I Confess.” With a relaxed melody, minimalist instrumentation and unassuming vocal, it’s nothing more than FT Island’s version of their label mate’s “Love Light.” It isn’t all bad, as both Minhwan and Jonghun step out of the background to lend their voices to the track, but it still lacks any style or innovation whatsoever. Sure, the song is pretty enough, but it is a bit irksome that where a beautiful, heartbreaking FT Island ballad should be we get yet another CNBLUE knockoff.
Return does end on a bit of a high note with “Sunshine Girl.” This song reestablishes an inkling of originality by taking an unexpected turn for the pop punk. It greets listeners with a guitar solo that wouldn’t sound out of place on, say, Blink 182’s album Enema of State. What is glaringly un-punk, however, are the lyrics. Because this is K-pop, FT Island can hardly sing about destruction or general agitation with right-wing causes. Instead the lyrics drill “you are beautiful, you are wonderful,” into our heads repeatedly and teach us how to count to four. All aboard the self-esteem express. The song itself is very cool but like I said, this is K-pop and FT Island is just an idol band so we must be placated with Hong Ki belting out another happy-go-lucky love song.
Like “Hello Hello” this album runs at 200 BPM and changes direction every few seconds. Sure, it’s missing the dramatic string sections from albums past but it also lacks the vocal processing other pop rock bands in K-pop are experiencing these days, so all things in balance. If anything, it could have done without the blatant CNBLUE gimmicks because they really weren’t necessary. It’s getting old with CNBLUE and I didn’t need it with FT Island.
As a whole this album won’t reduce you to tears or encourage any unlawful destruction of property because FT Island is now more commercial than ever before. For fear of being brushed to the side by the glitz and glamor of the top Korean idols they have reserved their heavy rock anthems and swooping ballads for their new Japanese material. It’s proven that CNBLUE’s brand of watered down rock sells in Korea and Return emulates that almost exactly. As such, there is nothing on the album that stands out as bad, per se, but there is also very little that stands out as new or exciting.