I had such high hopes for this release. Irene & Seulgi is Red Velvet’s first subunit, consisting of… well, Irene and Seulgi. (Come on, SM, is that really the best name you could come up with?) If they were vocal- or rap-oriented, the duo likely would have been restricted to either ballads or hip-hop — instead, as a performance-focused unit, Irene & Seulgi had incredible potential. Additionally, Red Velvet is currently one of the industry’s best vocal groups, with a stellar discography to boot.

Musical promise, great talent, and a solid track record — what could go wrong? As it turns out, a lot.

Let’s first talk about Monster’s sole maybe-kinda-bright spot: the title track. “Monster” succeeds largely because of its stunner of a music video. Say what you want about that instantly grating synth loop–or perhaps it’s a sequence of distorted vocals–and those meandering, pointless verses. But there’s no denying the sheer power of that MV; it elevates a bland and forgettable song into something far more interesting and complex.

Yet without the MV, “Monster” barely holds up to a cursory listen. The production tries to be creative by incorporating a dash of dubstep — a trend last heard years ago in K-pop. It’s nice, I suppose, to hear a different production trick. But “Monster” just doesn’t do anything new with the dubstep genre. Why listen to this song when far more compelling dubstep-infused songs exist, like TVXQ’s brilliant “Catch Me?

Likewise, the lyrics fail to bring anything fresh to the table. Irene & Seulgi sing about a twisted power dynamic where they torment their lover:

I save you and tease you again
Oh I’m perfect and messed up again
I’m a little monster, be scared of me
I’m bothering you, making you dream only about me

Although this theme is comparatively rare in K-pop, it feels rather overdone when considering Red Velvet’s discography, which is rife with references to monstrous love. From pining for a “Bad Boy” to attempting to tame a “Really Bad Boy” to being driven “Psycho” over their love, Red Velvet have spun the monster concept so many times that they’ve crossed the line from consistency to stagnation. By now, “Monster” feels almost redundant — exactly what a new subunit should avoid at all costs.

Seulgi & Irene are very lucky, then, that the MV is so gorgeous and complex. Given that extra crutch, “Monster” barely — just barely! — pulls its weight. But the other songs on the album, with no accompanying videos, have no such luck.

“Feel Good” is an exercise in sleek simplicity (read: musically boring). This song consists of a repeated guitar line, unlayered vocals, and a pared-down beat. The song is as lyrically uninteresting as it is musically, as it slavishly sticks to the theme of being a monster. The girls sing:

I want to crush you red even more
It suits you, being hardened, dumfounded
I want to hurt you
My heart gets more twisted as if crazy

“Feel Good” takes the ideas in “Monster” a step further — now, Irene & Seulgi openly revel in their total power over their lover. Again, this angle isn’t anything new when it comes to Red Velvet. Well, at least the mini album has a consistent theme, right?

Wrong. Every other song in the album diverges from the monster motif.

“Diamond” and “Uncover” are both dark, sultry songs — squarely within the category of their “velvet” songs. “Diamond” feels almost jazz-inspired, and has a lovely hint of harmony during the prechorus. But the chorus is far too stripped-down, with a largely forgettable melody. It’s all pleasant enough, but far too bland for a song called “Diamond.” Even as Irene & Seulgi sing that they’re a “diamond in the rough,” nothing about this song shines.

Likewise, “Uncover” is restrained and sophisticated, but boring. As a slow burn, with subtle production, “Uncover” was never going to be my cup of tea. Songs like “Uncover” can still succeed, as long as their melodies are sufficiently complex. But this song’s melody is not. “Uncover” consists of formless hooks — repeated listens can’t tease out anything, since the song has so little substance.

It’s “Jelly,” however, that really takes the cake for being jarringly out of place. “Jelly” is a very perky piece, with a nimble melody and giddy, almost childlike lyrics. Irene & Seulgi spout syrupy lines like “That smile so bright, it makes me dizzy.” While their vocals are wonderful as usual, “Jelly” is ultimately ruined by its kitschy mess of an instrumental. Both lyrically and musically, “Jelly” doesn’t fit in.

So, Monster isn’t very monsterlike or velvety or even interesting. It’s not much of anything at all. The only thing that really holds Monster together is Irene & Seulgi’s charisma and voices. In fact, the duo’s talent makes the disappointment feel even more acute — Irene and Seulgi are both such talented women. If only Monster had matched that.

(Youtube. Images via SM Entertainment. Lyrics via Color Coded Lyrics.)