There are very few sophomore efforts* that I can commend for being both better than the first album and able to embody a sound that is only different enough as to keep things interesting without losing the identity of the singer. Word is Ha Dong-kyun (Ha Dong Qn) at his most honest; it is an album that is represents Ha Dong-kyun’s best vocal colors, an album that doesn’t lose continuity with his story as an artist, and most of all, it’s an album that never becomes pretentious about its artistry. I think that many artists can write exceptional albums that sound brilliant, but rarely do I find myself thinking that I spent an evening in the singer’s presence. Ha Dong-kyun may not develop the record you want to hear, but it’s by and far a record that will garner respect.
“Run” is the unsurprising title track that fits right along the lines of “From Mark”–their stylistic similarities even merge into melodic parallels that initially got me very worried that Word would become a Mark redux with no soul of its own. However, Ha Dong-kyun is truly one of the most prolific balladeers in Korean music and those fears would be appeased within “Run” itself. While I often stay away from ballads, Ha Dong-kyun will make me listen to a six minute song and cherish every note, every vocal inflection, and every pause that he sings because he conveys a story to me even though I’m unable to understand the words used to tell it. For crying out loud, “Run” boils down to just piano and Ha Dong-kyun and the piano line isn’t even interesting. Actually, let me rephrase that so the gravity of the statement is totally clear: Ha Dong Kyun makes a 2 note loop the best thing you’ve heard in forever.
“틈 (Gap)” merges the warmth and depth of Ha Dong Kyun’s voice with modern rock in a marriage that would make many a singer jealous. The verses of the song have a gorgeous melody that blends perfectly with the guitar chords, and I love how understated the song is and how gracefully assertive the piano is. However, the beauty of the versus and the chorus cannot overshadow the fact that the song banks on its success of the voice carrying it. Unsurprisingly “틈 (Gap)” succeeds in Ha Dong Kyun’s hands, and it’s once again because of his attention to phrasing and how grounded he is while singing. The earthiness is simply phenomenal.
The second ballad of the album, “매듭 (Knots),” is the weaker of the two and quite significantly so. I promise my disappointment is neither because of my general dislike for ballads, nor because I have no heart (okay, there’s a possibly a chance that I have no heart). The first problem is that Ha Dong-kyun comes off strained to the point that it’s not hard to hear the dryness of the throat come through the vocals. Moreover, unlike “Run,” there’s something hollow about the soul “매듭 (Knots)” puts forward. Maybe it’s the orchestra and how much it reminds me of those poorly written OST tracks or the cheesy ending that leaves a bitter aftertaste, but given everything I still have to commend Ha for bringing the best out of what he sings, no matter how mediocre the underlying product is.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PW6ZfkNWymg]
“Freak” is my favorite rock track on the album, and I’m not going to lie and say that it’s some revolutionary track that we must all bow to. Rather, I’m going to tell you that I fell in love with the opening lines and bridge and those are the parts that stayed with me, and whatever else that brings life to this track is secondary in my heart even if it objectively comes first. The first in a line of such objectively important reasoning behind “Freak”‘s success is that it’s a song that has enough aggression and dynamic components within its repeating motifs that its stagnant underlying drum line and melody come to life. Intelligent contrast is the bane of musical success–capturing novel sounds in a net of consistency will rarely fail to attract listeners–and “Freak” is certainly not a freak in that crowd.
In addition to the compositional balance, “Freak” finds production-based balance between the voice and instrumentation that doesn’t leave one or the other failing alone. Instrument brings out voice, and voice brings out instrumentation on relatively equal ground. I find that this fact (this structure, I should say) is the single quality of Ha Dong Kyun that will never fail me even in the worst of his songs. Case in point: the same sort of balance can be found in the edgy “What,” a song that has excellent vision but has so many cracks and dents that it gets sidelined for easier listening in “Freak.”
I’m not sure if Ha Dong Kyun wanted to pull in Visual Kei or Metal into his rock repertoire but I have to give props to the guy for making what could easily sound contrived and meaningless (ehem, Jaejoong, don’t think I didn’t notice) have color. However, I’m not going to support what “What” contains blindly because in the whole, “What” is a weak track that indeed takes faux-screamo a millimeter too far and alienates me after the 3 minute mark or so. The screams in the first chorus (and even second) were powerful, graveling, and maintained a sense of melodic competency, but it wasn’t hard to see each subsequent verse becoming less and less controlled. Sadly, the very end deteriorated into a mess of dissonant, overworked glottal sounds that probably have given Ha Dong Kyun a sore throat much like in “매듭 (Knots).” But if we forget about the screaming and the “Shut up”s for a second, the track has a lot of style going for it that makes “What” quite addicting.
The last track on the album is actually a radio edit of “Run” but I want to point you all towards a stunning guitar version of the song I found instead. The guitar is certainly more vibrant instrumentation for the song, and I think it complements the voice far better than the piano does. Piano also carries a somber connotative experience that I don’t think guitar has acquired on the same level and lets “Run” breathe a lot more than it does when paired with piano. Between the original and the modified version, I would listen to the guitar version more.
All in all, Word leaves me thoroughly satisfied with what Ha Dong Kyun has to offer. It’s an album I will (and have) certainly replay(ed), both on the days I need a little emotional comfort and the ones where I just want invigorate myself. Beyond that, all I really can say is that I hope that the next release will be just as solid.
*Disclaimer: Word is NOT Ha Dong Kyun’s sophomore album. I think it’s his third or fourth album as a soloist, but second among the albums that take on his current musical identity.
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