K-Poppin’ Off: Episode 7 – Ateez!
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!”
Imagine being so good at your job that the local government holds a ceremony to proclaim you as a reason people would want to visit your country. For Ateez, they don’t have to imagine.
Named as cultural ambassadors for the Republic of Korea in 2020, the 8-piece boy band held the honor previously given to K-pop’s biggest names, like BTS and EXO. Ironically, 2020 was a year without tourism, for the most part, but the band members still pitched in by helping create social distancing PSAs and other helpful materials.
I had never listened to Ateez before, but if they were good enough for South Korea’s government, I decided this weekend to find out if they were good enough for me. So my research began…
Consisting of Hongjoong, Seonghwa, Yunho, Yeosang, San, Mingi, Wooyoung, and Jongho, they’re relatively new on the scene. Their first EP came out in October 2018, but since then, they’ve pretty much lived at the top of Korea’s music charts. Ateez have hit #1 on the Gaon charts with four different releases, including their only full-length album, over the past three years, and that’s hardly an easy thing to do.
But much of the group’s success has come from overseas, including Japan, Europe, and even the USA – where they toured with five shows back in 2019. So these boys find themselves on the vanguard of what’s called hallyu (literally, “Korean Wave,” or the rising popularity of Korean-based entertainment in the rest of the world).
Many listeners have been swept up in that wave and now count themselves as Atiny, the fandom name that mixes Ateez with the word “destiny.” I pulled up their latest EP, ZERO: FEVER Part.2, and prepared to see what all the hype was about.
Starting with “Fireworks (I’m the One),” I heard strong hip hop & R&B influences at first. A thick and squiggling bassline, topped with clean vocal effects, set an energetic tone. That led to the massive chorus, and it was clear that they wasted no time to getting to the good stuff. Four-on-the-floor kick drums kept it moving, channeling some Pitbull-styled flavor along the way. The dynamics were incredibly varied, and each voice stood out as unique. Sometimes the best song in an album happens later, but I was pretty sure I’d already heard their best offering in the first 3 minutes.
“The Leaders” with its dramatic pianos and aggressive rap section, came next. If you told me this was produced by Skrillex, I’d believe you – I was literally headbanging to a K-pop song. Dark and varied, Part.2 felt like a classic EDM album, but I was only two songs in. The whispered vocals and weapon sound effects kept my eyes open and ears peeled for even more sonic development as the song progressed. It made me want to break things, in the best possible way.
“Time of Love” was third, featuring a brighter tonality and happier lyrical melody than the first two tracks. I found it almost impossible to believe that 30 seconds prior, I was hearing machine gun fire, but Ateez was now singing that “nobody’s perfect” and that we should “talk about love.” Talk about a transition! Even though this song was pleasant, it didn’t lose the hyper production value or exciting vocal deliveries.
“Take Me Home” almost sounded like something The Weeknd would put on his After Hours album. Disco drums and pretty vocals brought me into the chorus, which was essentially a wall of 80s nostalgia. It feels like every band these days is trying to recapture the flame of “Blinding Lights,” but thankfully “Take Me Home” didn’t sound like a carbon copy. Breathing with its own life, this was the most commercially viable selection on the EP, in my opinion. The saxophone solo near the end brought a genuine smile to my face… Kenny G remix when??
Making my way into “Celebrate” and its sweet Moog synthesizers, this song straddled the line between praise and elevator music at first. A very lounge-y verse and prechorus, combined with a choir in the background and a subtle horn section, meant that this was unlike anything else on the mini-album. I’m pretty sure I recognized the keyboard in the second verse from the Wii Sports games, but it didn’t feel corny. It just felt happy.
The 24-minute EP was moving far too fast for my liking, but time stops for nobody and soon I was listening to “Take Me Home – (English Version).” The title pretty much says it all: Ateez re-recorded their most 80s-infused song in English, presumably so that more international fans could enjoy singing along. Considering the boys are signed to RCA, I’m surprised they didn’t attempt to impact this record to US pop radio! It probably would’ve got some spins, especially at those West Coast stations that love playing K-pop records late at night. And truthfully, that’s where this song belonged: on a neon-lit street corner, surrounded by pouring rain, in the middle of an emotional heartbreak, way past midnight.
Finally, “I’m The One – HEAT-TOPPING Version” wrapped up the experience. This remix stripped away a lot of the busy elements and let the boys’ voices breathe in the mix, accented by pounding percussion and a crackling string section. Remember when I said they sounded like Skrillex earlier? The hardcore EDM sound was even more obvious here, and while I didn’t like this version as much as the original, I could see how this would literally bring the roof down in a club.
So, what to say about Ateez? Well now I understand why they were cultural ambassadors for South Korea – I would totally fly 14 hours to see this performed live in front of thousands of screaming fans. Switching from soft to savage as if it were nothing, the one thing that ZERO: FEVER Part.2 made me want to do was check out ZERO: FEVER Part.1. But that will have to be another review.
To put it all simply: I think this was the best K-pop record I’ve ever heard.
Like I mentioned above, “Take Me Home” would have the most mainstream potential in America. After all, it’s got all the ingredients that previous K-pop crossovers have used: mostly English lyrics, relevant genre, and an easily accessible hook. That’s a hit, and even though Ateez might be a few years away from becoming a household name here, songs like that could make it possible sooner.
Lastly, it was cool to see that the guys aren’t just sexy faces without a connection to the real world. Hongjoong, the band’s leader, has been involved in raising awareness for some serious issues, and all eight members have a good sense of humor about interacting with their fans.
My final scores for Ateez look like this:
Production quality: 10/10
Musical variety: 10/10
Replay value: 9/10
The final grade for Ateez: 9.4/10. That’s the highest rating I’ve ever given a group in this series, and something tells me that Ateez will stay on top for a while. I was blown away by the album, and in this tricky world of pop music, they’ve got the range to last through multiple trends and movements on the charts. At least I can say that I had heard of them before everyone’s heard of Ateez.
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