written by: drowningn00b
When I first heard of Korean indie music, my definition of the genre came into conflict with the Korean definition. Koreans see it not as something apart from pop music, but a genre that relies less on electronic and computer-generated gimmicks and more on instrumental sounds. But recent trends in indie are all about low-to mid-tempo, feel-good sounds. There are notable exceptions, but chances are high that at random, you’ll pick a band or a song that relies on a piano or acoustic guitar or both for a hit. There isn’t anything wrong with this approach, but it takes forward thinking to move the genre forward. Nell’s fifth album, “Slip Away” came out this week, sweeping various top spots on sales charts, and with good reason. Not only is Nell a popular k-indie band with a long career in the business, but “Slip Away” is that push forward the genre needs, but also for their own career.
“Slip Away” marks a turning point in Nell’s career. Their previous albums were louder and rougher sounding, with various vocal techniques, like shouting and falsetto. For instance, their 2004 release, “Walk Through Me,” had moments of anger, both lyrically-delivered-anger and instrumentally-delivered. Both types were loud and layered, adding a sense of disorder and chaos to that emotion. In their 2008 electronic-centered release, “Separation Anxiety,” Nell experimented with dance (see: “Tokyo”), and 2006’s double-disc “Healing Process” touched on vocal distortion (see: “Meaningless”). Both of these tracks, and others with similar tropes, repelled my understanding of the tracks on first listen. Much of their previous work is marred by negative factors, like the overuse of vocal layers, excessive instrumentation and a falsetto lead singer Kim Jong Wan couldn’t make pleasing to hear. But “Slip Away” does away with these gimmicks (for the most part).
There are moments in “Slip Away” that force you to listen to it. At its quieter moments the record holds you in its grips and doesn’t force you to feel the same; you can’t help but do so. On “The Ending” and “Go,” both go on a slow burn, slowly adding layers on top of repeating loops, guitar in the former and piano in the latter. There are a number of layers in the songs of “Slip Away”, but unlike Nell’s previous material, these layers are carefully thought through and placed. This way of applying the different elements creates a cohesive structure, whether the track is a quiet ballad or the mid-tempo nostalgic track, “In Days Gone By”. But their best track on this record is the melancholy piano ballad “그리고, 남겨진 것들 [The Day Before]”. The slow and measured pace enhances the mood, and the slow build paces the song very well. Every instrument has a purpose in “The Day Before”, and none feel wasted or useless; even the electric guitar that makes a short appearance conveys anguish. “The Day Before” is a great entry point to “Slip Away” and the many good things within.
Fortunately, the lead single is not the most interesting track of the bunch. Let’s face it, it’s a piano ballad. Great though it is, Nell’s more sonically adventurous tracks lie under the hood. The deceptively simple “Losing Control” has a metronome, a simple acoustic guitar riff and a triangle; talk about not an instrument wasted. Even Nell’s lyrics don’t fill up space, but pinpoint the loneliness and desperation in the song. The metronome ticks along relentlessly, but to what exactly is anyone’s guess. The answer may not be clear, but the lyrics points to anger as part of it.
I’m losing control.
It’s been way too long.
Stop f&^$ing with my brain.
Stop spitting on my pain.
I’ll burn you in flame.
Will you be the one?
I’m losing control.
-Nell (from “Losing Control”)
Not only is “Losing Control” a great song, but it’s the turning point in the record. Before it, the tracks were precise and measured, though long (with the exception of the stomping “Standing in the Rain”); nothing was out of place. After it, or post-LC, the tracks seem to unravel, with more layers than necessary in the composition, and they’re louder. “Cliff Parade” literally goes off the record’s deep end to bring in marching band-style snare drumming and loud synth notes, with the apt lyric “let it crash” repeated near the end. Losing musical control of the pre-LC structures is the haunting “Beautiful Stranger,” with a strong focus on electronic beats and distorted drones at the climax. At first listen, it seems out place in the track list, but the piano loop underneath the noise and Kim Jong Wan’s vocal delivery remains. Nell, in a tongue-in-cheek moment, admits to the noise of these post-LC tracks, even shouting them. “I know it sounds a little strange, but it’ll never be the same. It’s like I’m locked up in a cage. It will never be the same.”
What ultimately struck me about Nell’s “Slip Away” album was how uncharacteristically “indie” it sounded. When indie comes to mind in Korean music, bands with Standing Egg and Urban Zakapa, with their instrument-focused songs, stand on one side of the spectrum, and groups like Casker and Tete are on the other, with their emphasis on electronic sounds and drum beats. Nell, throughout their career, have forged their own path, taking aspects from both sides and creating a body of work that’s remarkably their own. “Slip Away” refines that sound to its basic elements, while also taking note of the Western indie scene. “Cliff Parade” and “Standing in the Rain” share aspects of indie mega-group Polyphonic Symphony and the Canadian group Of Montreal. Taking from the West is a common Korean music practice, but Nell’s use adds in elements of large chants and step dance sounds of clapping and stomps to a genre dependent on repeating its own success as an emerging sound.
As a record, “Slip Away” is a feat of Nell’s creation. They’ve paired down the songs to essential elements, keeping just enough complexity to make the tracks interesting but not overdone. The turn for the worse song “Losing Control” and the comes-full-circle album-ender title track use simplicity in beautifully anguishing ways. Not only that, but “Slip Away” refines and expands the notion of Korean indie, including orchestral arrangements [“The Day Before”], as well as loud marching band sounds [“Cliff Parade”] and echo-like vocal chants [“Standing in the Rain”]. It’s no wonder “Slip Away” swept the digital charts this week. Nell has set up the public to expect good to great stuff and the band consistently delivers on that promise. This album expands Nell’s approach to music, as well as moving indie music further. No small feat, but Nell was the one to do it.
support the artist, buy the music: YesAsia