It’s been five long years since we last heard from Brian Joo and Hwanhee, or Fly to the Sky as they’re commonly known. The group’s been dancing around their comeback since January, but in April 13, Brian tweeted, “Guess who’s coming back next month?” and effectively got all of Fly High crying sky blue tears over their comeback. Then on Friday, they revealed the title of their ninth studio album—Continuum.
The title seems fitting. From their tenth anniversary album, 2009’s Decennium, the men of Fly to the Sky seem to be saying that even after five years of separation, they’ve not lost any of their momentum, haven’t lost that duality that made them popular throughout their career. However, it may be more that the duo wants to express the progression of who they are as artists and as a group.
The word “continuum” means a spectrum of subjects that range in degree, a “one to ten” scale meant to show the strength of a clearly defined aspect. In like fashion, the group started at one end of the spectrum when they were teenagers, and now that time has passed and they’ve grown into their craft and have moved toward something more on the other side. Perhaps this is even drawing a line in the sand. Maybe the group is making a statement—that there are two extremes to K-pop, them and everyone else.
Though we won’t stretch too far for the meaning behind the album’s title and the message they want to send, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that they’d want to make a clear distinction between them and every other K-pop group.
From their debut fifteen years ago, Fly to the Sky has walked a different path than predecessors H.O.T and every other group that began to crop up in the new burgeoning Korean pop scene. Theirs was less focused on the dance pop aspect and instead opted for smoother, seemingly more mature R&B fare. Day by Day skipped the coy playfulness of getting to know a girl on the dance floor and went straight for the romance—gutsy stuff when they were up against SM’s biggest group, who were very much on the bubblegum side of pop. Fans were more than happy to accept the stark difference, however, and the album sold 250,000 copies and garnered them the Best New Artist award at 2000’s SBS Gayo Daejun.
The group’s sophomore album, The Promise, was just that, a promise for varied musical styles to appeal to a wider audience. That meant SM also had them experimenting with a more homogenized (read lucrative) sound in bubblegum pop. It featured “I Want,” a collaboration with label-mates BoA and Kangta—in what was something of a callback to their debut when they worked with H.O.T on song “In My Dream.” Korean R&B singer Kim Jo-han also contributed tracks to the group’s sophomore effort.
While The Promise sold over 200,000 copies in its first week on the charts, it sort of fizzled after peaking at #2, an unfortunate bit of bad luck for an album that was incredibly solid musically. By 2002, the group settled into their R&B-focused sound. With album Sea of Love, Fly to the Sky forever shed the bubblegum image and moved away from the poppier side of R&B. They were even gifted a romantic ballad from American R&B singer-songwriter Brian McKnight, track “Condition of My Heart.”
Over the next few years and subsequent albums, the group drew a lot of criticism from those who simply saw them as another pretty-faced boy group with songs that were essentially given to them and had very little differentiation from any other pop group. Even as their image matured, their naysayers still found the group lacking in creativity and an established sound. However, that didn’t stop fans from flocking to stores to purchase the group’s next four albums.
2003’s Missing You signaled an even greater departure from the more “teenybopper” focused sound, continuing their trend toward vocal-heavy ballads that showcased Hwanhee’s rich low tenor and Brian’s sweet high tenor to falsetto. Again, fans ate up the group’s smoother R&B sound, and FTTS saw more commercial success, winning another Gayo Daejun and the Bonsang Award at the Golden Disk Awards and the Seoul Music Awards. They also won Most Popular R&B Artist at the Korea Music Awards.
2004 saw the end of Fly to the Sky’s relationship with SM Entertainment. Their final release for the label, Gravity, got very little promotion, resulting in the group’s lowest showing on the charts—selling just under 90,000 copies. Amid controversy and critical dissention, the men of Fly to the Sky won another Gayo Daejun for Best R&B Artist. Even with harsher criticism of the group’s seemingly “unfocused” sound, Gravity will go down in the K-pop annals as a solid album that simply suffered from lack of promotion.
After leaving SM and signing with PFull Entertainment, the group had greater critical success, claiming their new label allowed them to focus more on the music and less on commercial impact. They offered album Transition, an apt title, considering their transformation from SM’s pretty boy crooners to men with soul and competent R&B chops. As it turns out, they needn’t have worried about lack of commercial success. Transition sold over 160,000 copies and garnered them the Best R&B Artist at the MNET KM Music Festival. The group then embarked on their first national tour, dubbed “Fly to the Sky: 2006 The Twice Tour.”
Rumors of disbandment and a very public argument between Brian and Hwanhee spelled tough times for the group following the release of Transition. However, the duo released No Limitations, their seventh and most successful album to date. Single “My Angel” reached #1 on the music charts, a first for the group. They became a notable presence on variety shows, especially Brian, whose impressions and positive energy were always favorites for show hosts. And even in this arena, the pair fell prey to harsh criticism. Those same critics bemoaning their lack of creativity were now claiming the men were sacrificing their creative integrity by appearing on these variety shows.
After the success of No Limitations, the group released what seemed like their final studio album, Decennium. After its release, the group didn’t renew their contract with PFull and concentrated on solo projects. Brian and Hwanhee have both enjoyed success as solo artists. Brian released four solo albums—2006’s Volume 1: The Brian; 2009’s Volume 2: Manifold; 2011’s UNVEILED; and 2012’s Reborn Part 1. He’s also gone on to work as a DJ at TBSeFM 101.3 on the show “What’s Poppin’.” In 2013, he announced the launching of his own record label, BYOU Entertainment.
While Brian immediately set out to further his musical career, Hwanhee pursued a career in acting (though with mixed results). He released two mini-albums (2009’s H Soul and 2010’s H Hour) and one full-length album (2011’s Hwanhee), all of which he had a personal hand in creating, either through songwriting or producing. He also contributed to multiple OSTs, including Padam Padam, Beethoven Virus, and Over the Rainbow.
Despite controversy and tough criticism, Fly to the Sky still left an indelible mark on K-pop, their influence prominent in the music of some of K-pop’s most successful groups, such as DBSK whose discography includes music that leans heavily toward the R&B side of the K-pop continuum. It’s unfortunate Fly to the Sky was never as big as their SM label-mates and biggest rivals H.O.T; however, H.O.T’s failed attempt at a reunion and its members being in the news for things other than their scattered musical endeavors means Brian and Hwanhee have a better chance to surpass them the second time around.
With so many “old school” K-pop groups and artists making a comeback this year, on May 20, Brian and Hwanhee have one hell of a chance to make a powerful impact.