Starlights have been waiting for VIXX to deliver another album since 2013’s Voodoo, and with the release of a very tantalizing teaser for the lead single and murmurings about BDSM being the central concept, the fandom was all a-quiver with anticipation. Chained Up promised to take one of K-pop’s more intriguing concept groups a step further in their musical progression.
“Mistress” has a sinister curl to it. It’s a bit twisted, contrasting the higher tones with a dark underbelly. Think “This is Halloween”: deceptively playful composition draped in a heavy instrumentation in a minor key. Title track “Chained Up” continues what “Mistress” started, giving us music that wraps a bit of sweetness around a rougher, darker interior.[youtube https://youtu.be/vqzBrI76e4g]
The vocals are guttural, making use of very tight harmonies to add a heaviness to what could be considered a bit of typical R&B-infused pop. Lyrically, the song makes good on promises of exploring elements of BDSM, particularly the relationship between a sub and his Dom:
Beyond the whip that made me surrender
You gaze a hole into me
When you pet me my breath quickens
I’m hurting like this (it hurts so much) but I can’t turn away
Placing the album’s most musically interesting songs up front leaves high expectations for what follows. Sadly, “MAZE” sets an unfortunate trend of typical and uninspired pop that follows convention, leaving a lukewarm impression. The album’s dance tracks err more on the side of watered-down techno. The music tries to be both exciting and laid back, but instead we get an uninteresting combination of the two with tracks like “Spider” and “Eternity,” the latter being the most overtly club ready.
Lyrically, we get more vague smatterings of perceived BDSM themes. “MAZE” is more a song about one lover giving the other the runaround, trapping him in a maze he can never get out of, thus never reaching his love interest’s heart but inevitably never able to leave her. “Spider” gives us a bit of scene imagery (“My body touches you and your hands around my neck follow /
The moment I turn my head”), but the sub in this situation has completely given himself over to his Dom without question and proclaims even if she takes everything from him, he only wants to stay by her side:
I’ll give you everything
No matter where as long as I’m next to you
I close my two eyes
She’s a poison spider
At the touch of your tongue, my body fills with joy
This moment holding me back
Digging deeper, I’m trapped in your embrace forever
Even if you lose me like this it’s okay
“Stop It Girl” wraps a lovely vocal arrangement around an even lovelier melody. Though composition-wise it’s a bit simplistic, in that way in which most groups use the same construction for their pop ballads, there’s still something a bit unconventional in the track. Perhaps it’s the minor chord progression in the chorus or just the way the group’s vocals envelope the music, but “Stop It Girl” definitely endears itself to the listener.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JlbaKD043c]
This is where the play on opposites is highlighted best. We have what appears to be a soft love song when, in fact, it’s a tune of absolute obsession. The protagonist is determined that no other man should ever get close to his love interest, and he becomes crazed at the thought of her even so much as looking at any other man — to the point of being on the edge of madness, begging her to look only at him:
Will you believe me
My girl, my girl, just for you
I want to risk everything
Love me, love me, just for me
Can’t you smile
You please just look at me
You please be mine
Stop it now, Stop it girl
“Heaven” and “Can’t Say” stick to K-pop conventions that manifest themselves on most group albums, particularly of the rookies, who are given basic songs to work with and establish themselves in the genre. They’re either blindingly bright or dreadfully sappy (“Us Now”), a very stark departure from Chained Up’s darker intro. It’s tracks like these that convince me the producers were conflicted on exactly how to approach this album.
The midtempo tracks fare better. “Hot Enough” is unapologetically sexy. It’s unshy, both beautifully melodic and overtly sensual. We get more of the protagonist’s obsession with his lover; however unlike “Stop It Girl,” we get a man very much in control of what he wants. Instead of begging for attention for the sake of isolating his lover, he’s begging for the heated touches and tastes lovers share when they’re wanting to fully explore each other. The sexual tension inherent in a BDSM relationship finally delivers an unfiltered taste of the album’s supposed concept: “Trail your fingertips on my body / Shh- It’s not as easy as words / I think I’m going to melt.”
Musically, Chained Up demonstrates the dichotomy between aggression and softness. Naturally the dance tracks have a more belligerent slant than their ballad and midtempo counterparts, but there’s an undercurrent of something smoother. Even the dance tracks, with their grittier sounds that hearken back to the more techno-based K-pop of the late ’90s and early 2000s, aren’t abrasive. Rather each song on the album is seemingly constructed to appeal to every listener (throwing in some “la-la-la’s” for good measure). As a result we get an album that attempts to be thematically interesting but doesn’t quite get there.
Though admittedly I have reservations about using BDSM as a “concept” I’m not 100 percent against the idea. However, if you’re going to do a thing, then do the damn thing. A bit of actual research into the play between Dom and sub would’ve served the album well. Chained Up more or less takes common (mis)conceptions of BDSM—the Dom having utter and complete control over the submissive party, who is essentially a slave to his Master’s whims, no questions asked and a complete abdication of autonomy—and sallies forth with little direction. Really the album only vaguely delves into BDSM, being rather a portrayal of a man trapped in a mental game of obsession and control.
Chances are none of the members of VIXX are involved in the scene, nor are their songwriters. It’s more likely that those coming up with the album’s concept wanted something edgy, something that’s become all the rage for all the wrong reasons. However, the lengths they went to with the packaging suggests VIXX’s team were at least superficially attempting to push the BDSM angle as far as it could. Though I take issue with misguided attempts at using an actual lifestyle as a cool gimmick, I’m even more put off they didn’t even commit to it. Most of the songs on the album are either sadly uninformed or your average K-pop love song fare. As an actual concept album, it flounders in its conviction, halfway exploring the superficial elements of BDSM, then trying to pander to a wider audience with fluff and filler. They would’ve been better served making a mini-album and committing to the concept. What some of the songs lack in interesting composition they at least make up for with lyrics that attempt to push the envelope.
I applaud the album for some of its highlights and even its attempt at doing something daring. When it hits, it hits right on the money and manages to be both interesting and musically fantastic. But that’s what’s so frustrating about it. I want so desperately for Chained Up to get me excited about VIXX, a group I’m still on the fence about, but just when it starts to really get me going, it hits me with something more “meh” than amazing and leaves me cold. While it may be enough to keep me at least tangentially interested in the group, it won’t make me seek out anything they do.
Album Rating: 3/5