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!”
When InSomnia, the fandom for South Korea’s seven-piece musical outfit Dreamcatcher, found me on Twitter, they promised something that was too good to pass up. If I reviewed their latest mini album [Dystopia : Road to Utopia], I would uncover a world of sound that fuses K-pop with EDM and metal.
Yeah, I know. K-pop… with metal!
That excited me, because while I’ve found that I enjoy some K-pop groups quite a bit, I grew up loving metal and hard rock. So when the fans, nicknamed Somnias for short, told me about that fusion of genres, I didn’t know what to expect. After all, “metal” could mean anything from Three Days Grace to Thy Art is Murder.
Before finding out for sure what kind of musical combination awaited me in Road to Utopia, I did some research. Turns out, this record is the third part in a series dealing with the ways people use language to hurt each other. As they say in metalhead Facebook groups, “br00tal \m/.”
Comprised of JiU, SuA, Siyeon, Handong, Yoohyeon, Dami, and Gahyeon, they originally debuted as a five-part girl group called MINX. After their rebranding and recruitment of two more members, Dreamcatcher embraced much darker themes. Fan-made guides list the personal nightmares of the girls – for example, JiU is afraid of dreams where a stranger chases her. Not the typical info that a band’s management would provide to supporters, but I suppose their company, Happy Face Entertainment, out of Seoul, understands that they’ve got something distinctive here.
With a better picture of what to expect, I stared down the mini album of seven songs, totaling 21 minutes, and got ready to dive in. Road to Utopia promised to be something I’ve never heard before.
I began my Dreamcatcher experience with track one, an instrumental appropriately just called “Intro.” A sparse, cinematic opening greeted me, but quickly gave way to chaotic percussion and what sounded like a real (i.e. not programmed by a computer) ride cymbal. I could hear some hard-hitting influences, even without a single guitar in the mix, thanks to the minor tonality and massive buzzsaw synths. This song, without a doubt, belonged in the most intense parts of a futuristic Call of Duty campaign mission.
That led right into “Odd Eye,” which began similarly. The first vocals I heard were clean and immaculately produced, which came as no surprise. This song, which served as the lead single from Road to Utopia, featured a busy chorus, rock-inspired voices in unison, and almost gave me Fast & Furious vibes. I could hear a distorted guitar deep in the background, and structurally, everything happened right on cue. Hard to critique a song that gives you everything you asked for.
“Wind Blows” came third, and immediately reminded me of a Skrillex drop in the first verse. A melodic, floating pre-chorus found its way into the chorus, which skipped a beat halfway through – another trademark sign of modern rock inspiration. The girls flirted with a punk sound, chanting “wind blows” over an almost-breakdown-like beat, and the fuzzy, mid-EQ’d rap break also channeled a nu-metal approach. I wasn’t a fan of the piano in this track though, because it slowed the momentum in an otherwise breakneck-speed song.
A minty-fresh, fluttery EDM soundscape met me during “Poison Love,” and the Dreamcatcher girls delivered the smoothest vocals I’d heard so far. Their producers must have had them do a lot of takes, because each voice had a rich fullness that comes from panning multiple vocal tracks in the left and right channels. As the longest song on the record, at nearly 4 minutes, this one would be a comfortable fit in an underground nightclub at 3am. I personally felt like the chorus melody was one octave lower than it needed to be, though.
At track five, I heard “4 Memory.” If Ed Sheeran wrote a K-pop song, and someone remixed it, this what that would sound like. A straightforward pop delivery, supported by acoustic guitars and finger snaps, made this a snappy little tune that was pleasant, mainstream, and over too soon.
Launching into “New days” with a soaring electric guitar line, Dreamcatcher might have been auditioning for the theme song to an upcoming anime show. The drumming patterns seemed to draw from Blink-182’s Travis Barker, and the song structure (half-time feel in the pre-chorus, vocal interplay, call-and-response techniques) all screamed “made for TV.” The chord choices were beautiful, and this was my favorite song on the record.
The final track was just the instrumental for “Odd Eye,” which allowed me to appreciate its depth and layering, but the song definitely felt empty without the girls’ voices. It was like a Polyphia song, without the huge and virtuosic lead guitar.
I came away feeling like I wasn’t sure what I had just listened to. Sometimes it can be a good thing when an artist isn’t confined to one genre, but seven songs isn’t a lot of time to flesh out so many diverse influences – especially when the first and last songs are both instrumentals. I could’ve easily stuck around for another 3 or 4 songs.
Every song on the record was written and produced by a team called LEEZ and Ollounder, with occasional help from band members and other industry names. I was fascinated with their creativity, combining different sounds to make something loud and one-of-a-kind. Personally, I came away thinking that Road to Utopia could have benefitted from a more focused sound, but maybe if I listened to the first two mini albums in the series, a pattern of consistency would emerge.
Another positive mark for Dreamcatcher: their music isn’t a gimmick. Unlike some of their eastern pop-rock contemporaries (hi, Babymetal) the appeal of their sound isn’t the bizarre contrast between the instrumental and vocal tracks. At times, it reminded me of the music from video games series like Super Smash Bros., or various blue-tinted Hollywood action movies. But it never drew attention to itself just for the sake of doing so.
My main complaint about this mini album is the lack of incredible, soaring, singalong-ready hooks. That must be Dreamcatcher’s rock influence showing, since most K-pop bands are nothing without their sugary chorus lines. While each song is genuinely good and sonically varied, I found myself going back and listening to “New days” again because it was the most repeatable offering.
If I were to give some unsolicited advice to Happy Face Entertainment, it would be complicated. I want to say that this music isn’t meant for the radio – which is legitimate; many of my favorite groups haven’t been heard on the airwaves ever – but I think there’s some mainstream potential here. I might make the bold suggestion that Dreamcatcher could record a Western-focused single that embraces the pop-punk leanings of “New days” and keeps the chord progressions simple. Add in English lyrics, and it might have a chance on some progressive Triple A or Alternative stations.
But since pop music is my business, I would suggest shipping new Dreamcatcher music to dance radio and mixshows instead. Provided that the song carried a strong beat (which they all did) and dropped that beat from time to time, like in “Wind Blows,” it would fit pretty nicely between artists like NOTD, Deadmau5, and Tiësto.
My scores for Dreamcatcher look like this:
Production quality: 10/10
Musical variety: 10/10
Replay value: 7/10
The final grade for Dreamcatcher: 8.2/10. These girls come together to create a deep and intriguing sound. Even though they’re not a straight-up K-pop band, it’s hard not to compare them to the industry as a whole, and that puts them in a tricky position. Road to Utopia is one of the most interesting albums I’ve listened to in a while, and I hope that they’ll continue to adapt and surprise listeners with releases in the future.