Seo Tai Ji - "Ultramania"
(Gui Soo Dae Baek
Gua So Jeon Records)
I am a firm believer that the realm of
heavy metal will never cease to splinter into its countless yet inbred offshoots
- ours is a family tree that grows tall yet forks little. But look who's
talking: the compulsion to classify all branches of our beloved genre writhes
within me as well.
I must admit, however, that I never could
have predicted the label "Korean Pimprock" that has of late ingratiated itself
into my vocabulary. Yet that is precisely what Seo Tai Ji performs on his sixth
album, Ultramania. And a more perfect label could not be crafted, I suppose.
If asked to define Korean Pimprock, the
critic in me would churn out some pretentious and pedantic answer: Korean
Pimprock is a catchy yet challenging amalgamation of heavy metal's rage and
guitar fury injected with a hip-hop sense of order and flow. But the music fan
in me says it sounds a hell of a lot like Korn.
Certainly fans exist who salivate at the
advent of yet another Korn clone. But this is a tarnished trend, showing signs
of losing its luster. As a result, the majority of folks will dismiss Tai Ji
outright while mourning the loss of his country's musical innocence and chalking
one up for good ol' American Imperialism.
Yet premature dismissal would be a
mistake. Tai Ji is one of Korea's most respected musicians, an entertainer who
has in many ways dictated the flow of Korean popular culture for the past 10
years by repeatedly challenging the censorious dictates of the Korean
government. This is one reason why he is held in a high degree of reverence
among his rabid, international fan base. Another reason for the adoration is his
sheer talent, a musician who handled every aspect of Ultramania, from tweaking
the knobs on the production end on down to writing each song, playing each
instrument and providing all vocals.
Of greatest importance, however, Tai Ji
is an innovator in the truest sense of the word, a prodigy who has effortlessly
flowed between and among disparate genres for the better part of a decade. A
close listen to Ultramania reveals that it does indeed sound awfully derivative,
chock full of dizzying vocal dynamics and down-tuned guitar dexterity. Yet it
abounds with subtle flourishes that succeed in deviating from the
angst-by-numbers approach of the Korns of the world, thus securing an identity
of its own while injecting a degree of freshness into a stale trend.
How does he do it? Quite simply, by
infusing a pop sensibility into a style of music that seems bent on taking
itself too seriously. He sprinkles the tune "Do You Remember?" with
uncharacteristic keyboard noodling and impressive vocal harmonies, supplementing
the tune with an almost carnivalesque vibe. He mimics the keyboard lead on
"Tank" with a talk box. And he even churns out a 30-second dash of sticky-sweet,
Casio-keyboard synth-pop on the interlude "Pyo-Jeol."
But these adornments are not introduced
for the sake of novelty. Tai Ji makes them belong in the mix, regardless of how
odd their inclusion may sound in theory. The title track is probably the most
exemplary example of this. (In addition, it is the only song with English
lyrics. At least I think it does. Maybe I'm aurally delusional after hearing
more Korean in half an hour than I have in my whole life.) And in this regard I
must not overlook "To You," a hidden track which resembles a three-car pile up
involving a Cantonese pop band, an upbeat Carpenters and, of course, Korn.
Whether "Korean Pimprock" will carve a
niche for itself in the annals of heavy metal hybrids remains to be seen. I must
admit, though, that this is one branch of the family tree that I'm not quite
ready to saw off just yet, unlike its American "Pimp Rock" counterparts.
Reviewed by: Shawn
(I was introduced to Seo Tai Ji
through the proactive efforts of his international fan club, Seo Sa Hei. In
fact, I even had a member phone me at 2:30 in the morning to make sure I
received the CD. If you would like to obtain a copy of Ultramania or learn more
about the artist, check out his website. Yes, it is written in English:
http://taiji.crezio.com/html/engtj.htm. Rest assured - visiting the website does
not automatically mandate an early morning phone call, so expand your musical
palate and get a good night's rest.)