K-Poppin’ Off – Episode 2: LOONA!

We’re going on a musical journey. In this series, I’ll be exploring the world of K-pop, reviewing artists, bands, and albums as we go! Along the way, I’ll offer my unfiltered opinions – so if I criticize your favorite song, I apologize in advance. Let’s start “K-poppin’ Off!”

“Girl of the Month” sounds like one of those calendars you might buy and never show your parents, or a shady section of a rock radio station’s website, but on this particular Sunday, it meant something very different for me. I was finally going to sit down and get acquainted with the music of the superstar girl-group, LOONA, whose name in Korean (이달의 소녀) literally translates to “girl of the month.”

From that, we can assume a few things, and all of them are true. The group consists of 12 members – one for each month of the year – although one of them, Haseul, is currently on leave, taking care of her mental health. Also, just like the months are divided into seasons, the group is divided into a few sub-units:

  • First, there’s LOONA 1/3, made up by the members Heejin, Hyunjin, the aforementioned Haseul, YeoJin, and ViVi, whose viral dance moves have recently caught fire on TikTok, winning LOONA even more fans.

  • The second sub-unit is LOONA ODD EYE CIRCLE, comprised of Kim Lip, JinSoul, and Choerry. I’ve seen that in their music videos, these members are frequently shown with effects added to their eyes, hence the name.

  • Last, but certainly not least, is LOONA yyxy, made up of Yves, Chuu, Go Won, and Olivia Hye, who was the final member of the group to be introduced before their first concert on August 19th, 2018.

Despite their recent arrival on the K-pop scene, the girls have already made an impact! Boasting over 600,000 Twitter followers and 1.5 million on Instagram, their supporters (nicknamed “Orbits,” or “Oh-bits” as it’s pronounced in Korean) are a force to be reckoned with. If you were on Twitter a year or two ago, you probably saw a few comments sections flooded with the “Stan Loona” meme that made the band more well-known across the internet.

But on this lazy Sunday morning, I wasn’t here to just do a K-pop history report. With the snow melting outside my Norfolk, Virginia apartment and the thermostat turned up to a crispy temperature, I was going to warm my soul and hopefully my eardrums by checking out LOONA’s latest release, the mini album [12:00], said as “Midnight.”

Released on October 19th, 2020, and clocking in at 24 minutes, 10 seconds, this record already had an advantage that not many K-pop artists I review have: airplay on the radio station I work for! We’ve got the English-language single, “Star,” in late-night rotation, as it steadily climbs the pop radio charts – #38 at the time of writing!

Because of that, I also got to interview a few LOONA members last week, and I’m hoping their management company, Blockberry Creative, sends me that Zoom video soon, because I was nervous to meet them, and I’ll have a lot of self-editing to do.

Anyways, I took my headphones out and got settled in to listen and review the latest from LOONA.

Track one, “12:00” started by living up to the group’s space-themed name, with audio drops that sounded like they were taken from NASA mission control. Coupled with an aggressive EDM-inspired, bass-heavy sound, it didn’t last long. Just about 30 seconds later, I realized that it was an instrumental opening, because it was over without a word from the girls.

In “Why Not?” I loved the mixing choices. Each girl sounded unique, and their vocal processing was (unsurprisingly) excellent. Instead of a chorus, I heard more of an EDM drop, with chopped vocals that sounded kind of cute. As LOONA continued to sing, I noticed smooth transitions between words I recognized and words I didn’t. The whole song felt good, although the bridge went in a drastic major-chord direction I didn’t expect and could have lived without.

“Voice” – this is the Korean-language version of the song we’re playing on the radio these days, “Star.” It was my first time listening to the original rendition and admittedly, they sounded more comfortable in their native language. Overall, this song worked as a brighter, female version of “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd, which as we all know, has been inescapable since its release in 2019. Hitting all the notes, without the obvious auto-tuning that some K-pop bands incorporate heavily into their sound, the girls impressed me on this one.

“Fall Again” had its turn next, kicking things off with classy, lounge-y piano licks and a real bass guitar. During the verses, delicate suitcase keys surrounded the vocals tastefully, and it was a very different style of music that the first three tracks – but still a style that I like. Do they have speak-easy style nightclubs in Seoul? If so, that’s where this song belongs. Later on, it almost gave me Luther Vandross vibes. My only critique is that the chorus felt overproduced with too many instruments, when the voice could’ve carried the melody and made it sing, literally and figuratively.

“Universe” struck me immediately with its similar EQ’ing and mixing techniques to Dua Lipa’s 2020 hit “Break My Heart.” Featuring a slow, tasteful build up to the first chorus, LOONA stayed conservative in their note choices and song structure. I know I’ve heard the melody somewhere before, but couldn’t remember where. It felt familiar, and avoided any overproduction issues, even as it added violins and additional layers.

This album was flying by, and the video game-inspired instrumental of “Hide & Seek” picked up the pace even further. This song could be used in a gaming-highlights video, or maybe even an extreme BMX stunts compilation. The massive, stacked synths in the pre-chorus were delightful, and the breathy tones in the chorus kept things refreshing. I’ve found that if there’s one part of most K-pop songs I dislike, it’s the bridge, but this one didn’t disappoint me. Near the end, adding “okay, game over” to the lyrics made it feel like they were really enjoying themselves on this track.

Moving on to “OOPS!” which isn’t to be confused with the viral Yung Gravy song with a similar name, LOONA debuted a loud-n-proud trap sound. Sprinkling self-affirmations into the chorus, they dropped contemporary rap flows over a thumping beat. Noticeably absent were the stop-start “Scotch snaps” rhythm patterns that too many Western artists use a crutch. The percussion was distractingly busy at times, but this song felt like it would bring the house down at a stadium show.

To cap off [12:00], “Star” came last. Technically I had already listened to it earlier in the album, but the English version of “Voice” sounded just as tight and slick as its Korean counterpart. I actually know one of this track’s songwriters personally, so I sent her a DM a few days ago to let her know that we had added it to our playlist, and of course, she was excited to hear the news. Just doing our part to get her those royalties!

I didn’t mind the fact that the same song showed up twice in the album, because its 80s-fusion style had a nice sense of finality to it. So “Voice/Star” functioned well as both a strong anchor song early on, and a closer at the end.

My overall thoughts about this record were pretty positive, 24 minutes later. At times, the music and vocal tones reminded me of the anime/cosplay conventions that I frequented in a pre-Covid world (mostly thanks to my girlfriend’s interest in fandoms and shows). And when a song evokes a memory of a specific place, like for example the Marriott Hotel at DragonCon in Atlanta, then it’s done a good job.

Normally, I might take a second here to use my expertise and recommend something that the band could do in order to achieve mainstream American success. But I don’t think they need my advice, since “Star” is making headway on the US pop radio chart and collecting attention with each spin. So instead, I’ll just say that in my interview (which, again, I’m hoping you’ll be able to see soon), the girls told me that more English-language singles might be on the way soon. So I know I haven’t heard the last of LOONA!

Between now and then, there’s plenty of band lore that I could dive into, if I wanted to learn more. And maybe I do! The so-called “Loonaverse” is an incredibly complex backstory, told through music videos and lyrics alike. Each member has certain attributes given to her, including shapes, colors, and even countries that represent them. But it’s also an intimidating world to an outsider like me, full of theories and uncertainty that I haven’t even fully begun to understand yet. Maybe someone will read this paragraph and agree that indeed, I have no idea what I’m talking about when it comes to the LOONA story. At least there are plenty of resources out there to help me grasp it a little better.

Now let’s put some numbers on my experience and come up with a grade:

Persona: 11/10

Vocals: 9.5/10

Production quality: 7.5/10

Musical variety: 8/10

Replay value: 8.5/10

My final score for LOONA is 8.9/10. Most of my complaints could be directed to their producers, not the girls themselves, who are charming, musically talented, and poised for greatness here in the USA. Can’t wait to hear more from them!

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