By: Claudia Siregar |
When someone (who isn’t a K-fan) mentions Korean rock, those outside of Korea automatically think of two names: CNBLUE (for the slightly older generation) and Day6 (for the slightly younger generation). Sometimes FTISLAND would get in the mix, if you’re lucky. What if I told you these bands aren’t the only players in the Korean rock music scene – that K-rock is indeed richer than you can imagine?
Starting with the classics, K-rock has Boohwal, formed in 1985. With an eclectic musical style that ranges from pop rock and melodic rock ballads to heavy metal, Boohwal alongside a few other bands such as Sinawe and Baekdoosan led the Korean metal movement, releasing rock hits such as “Never Ending Story”. Then there were bands such as Sanulrim that focused on poppier, simpler yet also melodic musical styles (if you’re an avid K-pop fan you might recognise their rendition of “The Meaning of You”, which IU covered). Similar to J-rock at that time, inspired by bands such as X Japan and L’Arc En Ciel, K-bands at that time adopted a guitar and piano-heavy, melodic sound design, which would later be adopted by a couple of bands in the 2000’s such as FTISLAND, BUZZ, and Izi (which we’ll get to later).
K-bands in the 90’s headed into a more experimental direction, with bands such as No Brain entering the scene with a sound that could be described as slightly Green Day-inspired early pop punk. However, this energetic musical style was soon replaced by emotional rock ballads (if you don’t count CNBLUE coming in, that is). BUZZ debuted in 2003 and skyrocketed to fame in 2005 with their legendary hit “Thorn”. The song has been covered by countless Korean singers since then, becoming one of the go-to K-rock songs of all time. Another “emo” band called Izi came into the mix, yet they died down after 2005. But if you think the emos stopped there, you’re wrong.
FTISLAND debuted with “Love Sick” a couple of years later – a national emo anthem along with their 2012 single “Severely”. The band is known for their emotional rock ballads, classic rock influences (as heard on their hit single “Madly”), and their hard rock Japanese tracks. (P.S. fun fact: both FTISLAND and BUZZ are known for their vocalists Lee Hongki and Min Kyunghoon’s powerful, raw vocals). However, if you guessed the emos stopped with FTISLAND, you’re probably right. FNC Entertainment debuted CNBLUE just a few years later, introducing a fun, Britpop-inspired, funky musical style to the scene, while at the same time “dumping” FTISLAND in Japan to promote their music.
The upbeat, Western rock-influenced musical style didn’t stop with CNBLUE as bands such as Royal Pirates came into the scene with their funk-rock music style and FNC debuted N.Flying in 2013. N.Flying is known for their vocalist Yoo Hweseung’s exceptional ability to hit insanely high notes (check out this collab he did with FTISLAND’s Hongki) and their funk-infused rap rock sound (you can definitely hear the Red Hot Chili Peppers influence in their EP YAHO and their single Hot Potato). Rapping in rock music has been occasionally done by other bands such as FTISLAND’s ex-member Won Bin in “Love Sick” and CNBLUE, yet N.Flying was the first to adopt “rap rock” as a genre.
Pop rock continued to soar among idol bands in mid 2010s, with The Rose and Day6 joining N.Flying in the mix. Glam rock band IZ also joined the bandwagon, aiming to break the stereotype of “idol bands” with self composed and self written songs, following in FTISLAND and CNBLUE’s steps. Among these bands, Day6 was the one who escalated to international fame.
You heard that right. International fame. As for what’s big in the national charts, the ever-so-diverse genre of K-indie rock has prominently risen in recent times, winning the favour of the Korean general public. The most interesting case would be Jannabi, a band known for their 60’s rock-influenced sound that recently rose to fame. With sold out shows and their critically acclaimed 2019 single “for lovers who hesitate”, Jannabi is one of the bands you should look out for in 2020. Other interesting K-indie rock acts include Hyukoh, Guckkasten, The Black Skirts, South Club, and NELL. South Club, the brain child of ex-WINNER member Nam Taehyun, leans towards an easy listening, slightly blues-influenced style, similar to The Black Skirts and NELL, though NELL is not blues-influenced and leans more towards light pop rock ballads. Both Hyukoh and Guckkasten are known for their visual aesthetics, with the former adopting a blues-influenced pop rock style and Dadaist visuals and the latter leaning towards psychedelic rock and psychedelic visuals.
One downfall of the K-rock industry, however, is the lack of female players in it. Enter senior singer Seomoon Tak and SM Entertainment’s J-Min, both known for having powerful voices. Girls in bands are also as rare as it gets, yet they exist. Cherry Filter and Loveholic are some of the most prominent names when it comes to second generation female-fronted rock bands in Korea. Third generation bands include J-rock inspired melodic rock unit Fishingirls. It’s also fair to include girlgroup Dreamcatcher in the mix as their musical style is heavily J-rock-inspired. Girlgroup AOA’s subunit AOA Black could have been a part of the pop rock ecosystem if it weren’t for their early termination.
As for soloists, soloists are not very prominent in the rock music scene with the exception of the legendary Seo Taiji and band/boygroup vocalists going solo such as Lee Hongki and Jung Yonghwa. One interesting soloist would be Kang Seungyoon, a WINNER member who previously debuted as a rock singer prior to the forming of WINNER.