DBSK - "Tense"

10 years as a pop act is a big occasion, no matter where in the world you are -- from my experience the "international" shelf life of a girl group/boy band is 5 years, give or take. So while it was disappointing that "Tense" didn't come in time for DBSK's actual 10th anniversary, hearing the album now I'd say it was worth the extra two weeks' wait.

"Tense" proves a very important point and reinforces the DBSK identity, which is essentially going one step further with trends by mastering them. Trends are transient, yes, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be given the same attention and musicality that more "classic" styles are. This applies to other art forms as well -- can you imagine the fashion industry with just fast fashion retailers like Forever 21? Of course not, and it's the same thing with pop music, you need a whole range of qualities and executions of trends. DBSK takes the mold and makes the best possible product out of it, using the best possible material.

And so it's only right that a tenth year celebration of that identity entails showing off exactly what can be done with the pop mould at the present. While Younha showed what pop music could be last year, through "Tense", DBSK show what a pop act can do, and the vital role talent (of all kinds) plays in the making of good pop. That good material will take you places, yes, but paired with equally good execution a song will take you to the moon and back. You can have a good song or a good idea ruined by bad production, like "Twinkle," just like how you can have good execution ruined by a bad idea.

The album opens with "Ten (10 years)", with lyrics taken from a mix of past DBSK singles and prominent songs, and for comeback week was their intro number. It's half fan service, with the lyrics and all, but also builds anticipation for the rest of the album. "Ten" as a song doesn't really go anywhere by itself per se, but it's more about the means than it is about the destination. The melody is gentle but firm, and slowly builds up from beautiful, simmering verses to intense, belting Changmin at the bridges and shifts between the two for the entire three minutes. It's a song that focuses on Yunho and Changmin, and depends on them to bring it places -- the dynamics, the explosions and the build-up all come from the vocals, and the instrumental is just drones on, most evidently in the "one... two... three..."'s throughout.

When I first heard what "Something" was going to be, I was honestly dead scared. SM has a history of sucking all the life out of their "jazz" and "swing" attempts, TTS' "Twinkle" being the prime example, and they also have a history of not learning from their mistakes, so that was enough to make me worry. But thankfully, I worried for nothing, because "Something" is an outstanding song that fits Yunho and Changmin, and the DBSK identity, like a well-tailored glove. "Something" turned out to be the epitome of "Tense" -- a song that stresses the equal importance of a good song and good execution.

There's a lot happening on "Something," which means there's a lot I want to tackle, but I'll try to summarize everything into one (or two) points, and save the rest for another time.

Mainly, I want to talk about the reasons why there is so much life in "Something," as opposed to past SM attempts at this sound. One is Yunho and Changmin's vocals. This is a kind of sound that requires the effortless mastery I always look for -- an instrumental as packed and chaotic as the one on "Something" needs and melody that is executed with conviction, by vocalists who are confident in their abilities and who know what to do with them. There's no room for hesitation on this melody, which is perfectly fine because Yunho and Changmin are not the types to hesitate. That lack of hesitation on their part is the reason why there is such a wide range of technique on the melody. Yunho's staccato-like first verse, Changmin's smooth second verse, the quick shift from melodic to choppy by both of them at the chorus, all perfectly executed.

The other reason why "Something" works is because of the arrangement and the production. There is a push-pull action happening with the instrumentation throughout the entire song and while it is what makes this such a fun package, it does get quite technical. The bass line provides the beat and sets the tempo -- it's usually what gives a song its weight and fullness. On the other hand, the brass line, which is very prominent on the song, most often is what producers use to make a song playful -- it's that part of the song that's all over the place and that's free to experiment. But on "Something," both the bass and the brass do both, by taking turns. If you notice, the most important and most prominent parts of the brass line happen during the up beat, and the bass line, of course, occurs on the down beat. Adding the melody into this mix, all the end lines of the melodic lines end on an up beat as well. (As opposed to "Twinkle" whose melodic lines end on a down beat.) Both the depth and the playfulness are constant throughout. This not only allows you to hear everything that's happening to the song admits all the chaos, it also emphasizes the lows, and more importantly, the highs. It's a song you'd want to dance to because it actually gets its metaphoric "feet" off the ground, and encourages you to follow suit.

The rest of "Tense" was definitely not a disappointment. "Your Man" builds on the high "Somebody" brought us to. It's a striking song -- one that is just as unafraid as "Somebody" is. Beginning, middle, and end are all highs, but what gives the song dynamics is the how. The central elements of the first verse are the melody and the vocals -- gracefully urgent, and supported by an equally urgent instrumentation. By the chorus the melody relinquishes some of the attention to what's happening behind, the catchy trumpet line (that I can't get out of my head), and as a whole the slightly more chaotic instrumentation. The second verse sees the entrance of a gutsy electric guitar and later a more prominent drum line because of the variations, behind the constant (but still striking) melody. And the middle 8 simmers down but the chymes and all the sparkly instruments that build the song back up catch attention. All the elements of "Your Man" contribute to the intensity, they all give it different kinds of kick -- because they're proficient enough to do so.

I heard the preview of "Moonlight Fantasy" and I loved it, so when I heard the beginning of the full version I was a bit confused because it wasn't what I was expecting, but after hearing the rest of the song I understand why it was there. "Moonlight Fantasy" is all about the drama, and so that beginning was a forecast of what was to come. It's an anthemic song, beautiful and playful, but still dramatic. Everything about the song is magnified -- the dynamics are that much more striking, loud when it's loud, quiet when it's quiet, beautifully graceful when graceful, confidently firm when firm. And it works. It works so well, because it knows how to balance the extremes it uses. The firm but relatively quiet verses are made even firmer by the super smooth, graceful bridge, with the brass section in full-swing, and the chorus takes both the firmness and the grace -- the lines are short, but packed with as much smoothness as can be. The forceful drum line is balanced out by the playful brass line and electric guitars, and they find their common ground in the gracefully confident piano line. This is easily one of my favorites in an album that I would listen to again from beginning to end.

The focus of "Beside" really is the melody. There's quite a bit happening on the instrumental as well, with the presence of some bell-like loops and subtly (but not flat) dramatic brass, bass and string lines. They can very well stand on their own, but the presence of the melody makes them stand just that much better -- there is style in the melody as well, not only does it contribute the substance and technique of the vocals, it's also half of what makes the style successful. The melody is proof of that -- it's a beautiful melody to listen to, it's sung well, but its composition, where they put what note, the dynamics that went into it and how the words correspond to notes, are just as beautiful. This is a singer's melody in the sense that it's something you can sing without instrumentation and it will still carry majority of the motif of the original recording.

"Double Trouble"'s selling point is the style, that's obvious, but again unlike other songs, it doesn't forgo a melody or dynamics in favor of that style. The electric guitars are what make the song, they even go so far as to serve as the hook instead of the melody, but the melody and bass line are solid foundations. The melody creates some friction, adding grace to the rough, gutsy electric guitars, and the bass line which is in an almost one-to-one correspondence with the guitar look, gives it depth. You think that stomping beat you feel the guitar line, when actually what you're feeling is the bass line patterned after it. The addition of that dramatic horror movie-worthy piano line, like on "Moonlight Fantasy," is the middle ground -- it's the firm kind of graceful, but it's in keeping with the heavy, serious motif. "Double Trouble" sounds heavy and dark, but the movement and internal friction prevent it from being a drag.

"Off-Road" is dramatic in a different way -- it capitalizes on the emotions it draws for the drama it provides. It plays on the nonchalant, simple, dramatic nature of its focal points -- the piano line and the string section. The string section gives it intensity and urgency, and the piano line serves as the arrangement's grounding. It's a lone piano line that doesn't wander very far from the octave it's in, and it's the most obvious during the song's more quiet moments. The melody is similar, it's neither more nor less prominent than the rest of the arrangement -- in terms of focus it's equal. The harmonies and background vocals, and the falsetto more than anything, bring it closer to the instrumentation by making it sound more haunting. All in all, "Off-Road" is something that you can both take for face value and listen more into, and both approaches will be just as entertaining.

By this point I thought all the good songs had been exhausted, usually albums run out of steam even earlier than the eighth track, but I was proven wrong until the very end. "Smoky Heart" is a refreshing take on a Yoo Young Jin staple (at last that's how it sounds -- I'm not entirely sure if Yoo Young Jin did compose it), because Changmin's vocals make it a lot lighter. Songs like SM The Ballad's "Hot Times," or even "Good Night" off 2012's "Catch Me," were weighed down both by the nature of the vocals and the production -- but "Smoky Heart," contrary to its name, chose to go with a production that brought out the song's clarity. And not just the vocals are given that sharp treatment -- the piano line was treated similarly, as well as the choice of the snare drum as the focal point of the drum line, as well as the bass loop. And so even with the multi-tracked vocals at the chorus, the nature of the melody and its execution are both in agreement that it should sound very clean and sharp.

While the latter songs aren't as striking as the first half of the album, the gap isn't as wide as other SM and DBSK albums of recent.

The more upbeat songs, "Steppin'" and "항상 곁에 있을게" are strong filler tracks that I'd willingly listen to if they ever came up again. They're also the extreme of what I say on other songs that the execution makes the package. "Steppin'" is that mischievous, "young" (surprising for DBSK), boy band staple, complete with quaint synth loops and "doo doo doo"s -- if they ever staged this it would be with simple choreography, a colorful stage, and backup singers snapping and swaying in the background. "항상 곁에 있을게," on the other hand, sounds like something out of "To The Beautiful You"'s soundtrack, which is not an insult at all -- if anything, that soundtrack is my baseline because instead of trying so hard to be "more than an OST," it embraced the sound and did it well. "항상 곁에 있을게" is the same -- clean production, pretty elements with the right balance between saccharine sweet/cheesy synths and melodic lines and gutsy electric guitars, as well as unashamed execution. If you're going to do it, might as well do it well. "Love Again" is somewhere in between the fillers and the rest of the album -- it has the style, with the loops and the synths and all the little trinkets happening behind, but they're not as pronounced as the other songs. It's a pleasant melody and a pleasant listen, but slightly overpowered by the likes of "Off-Road" or "Ten."

"Rise..." is the first (and only!) "traditional"/"proper" ballad on the album, and it's track 11 of 12! That's such a relief. I think I said this a few years back as well about SHINee's "Lucifer," but really, the less ballads there are on an album the more I notice how pretty they are. You can't really do away with them, whether for "musical" reasons or otherwise, but they become that much more striking in moderation. That's how I feel about "Rise..." on the album -- in a sea of songs that throw around so many different elements and try to out-trendy each other (not that it's a bad thing, what with execution as good as DBSK's), it's a welcome break. And it's even more welcome because it doesn't make up half of the album. "Rise..." has all the required elements of a K-Pop ballad -- sad strings, an equally sad piano line, a slow, deliberate drum line -- underneath a stunningly simple melody. This song as classic-potential, it sounds like something that will be covered by rookie groups left and right in a few years (like "Love In The Ice" now), because it's not that difficult a melody to sing. But only in hearing those other versions will you realize how the original really is in a league of its own, and how DBSK ready do execute the mold, no matter how simple it may be, extremely well.

"Tense" is the extreme positive of the balance between style and substance. It's an album that oozes style and boasts of cutting-edge production techniques used on current pop trends, but at the same time it has solid musical foundations and consistently confident vocals from Yunho and Changmin. A fitting package for a group that embodies all the good possibilities K-Pop can open up.

4.8/5
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3 comments:

  1. i am very pleased with this album and it's a great testament to TVXQ's talent and experience. whereas their last Japanese album was a disappointment, this Korean release has a really effortless quality to it. the production is really tight and i feel that TVXQ as a duo has found their balance and sound.

    i've only gone through the whole album once and i'm really happy to say that there hasn't been a need to skip any tracks. there are a variety of styles to keep the album from sounding one-note, but nothing too experimental that would throw me off. although tracks 8 and 9 sound like parts of the same song... generally there's a good flow to the whole album. right now, Yunho and Changmin are like good, aged wine- smooth and supple without the sharpness. i can't wait to see what they come up with next!

    ReplyDelete
  2. First of all, love your new blog look especially the header! I need to work my blog's one a lot!

    I felt that the album was slacking a lot. The only girls I liked were Ten, Something and Love Again really :/

    ReplyDelete
  3. What do you think of their repackaged song Spellbound?? (:

    ReplyDelete

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