Monsta X made their name on hyper-aggressive EDM/hip-hop, embracing the “bad boy” concept with a violent ferocity unmatched by their peers. Yet in recent years, as the group began targeting Western audiences, Monsta X has shifted towards more smooth pop characterized by pulsing basslines.

With Fatal Love, Monsta X’s third and most recent Korean album, the group slides effortlessly between the growling bombast of their earlier work and the relative restraint of their English-language singles. The effect: Fatal Love makes a compelling case for Monsta X’s growing maturity as artists, while also nodding to their hip-hop past.

Title track “Love Killa” falls squarely in the “new Monsta X” category — the song thrives on a subdued groove of electro bass, hearkening back to their recent hit “Who Do You Love?”. Lyrically, however, “Love Killa” fits in seamlessly with Monsta X’s more aggressive works. During the title track, the members sing:

It’s a plot twist from now on
Pull the trigger ya, pull the trigger pull the trigger
We’re all like a psycho, I’m going half-crazy

With the imagery of guns, as well as lines like “I’m a sava-savage” and “Imma slay, imma chill, imma kill,” Monsta X’s lyrics remain as violent as ever. The disconnect between the subtle production and brash lyrics of “Love Killa” is rather jarring at first. But the contrast embodies Fatal Love as a whole: in this album, Monsta X fuses together the two core aspects of their identity. The resulting songs may sometimes polarize, but they still paint a vivid vision of Monsta X’s unique duality.

Luckily, in “Gasoline,” Monsta X continue expanding their new sound with none of the confusion present in “Love Killa.” This b-side, first heard in Monsta X’s Fantasia teasers, features thumping bass guitar, a hallmark of Monsta X’s more recent style. “Gasoline” also pulls from trendier influences like tropical synths — which fit well, given lyrics like “You are the only paradise” and “Let’s go to Hawaii, aloha.” This song is far more musically streamlined than “Love Killa,” and all the stronger for it. With its catchy melody, “Gasoline” is one of the most memorable songs in Fatal Love.

In contrast, b-sides “Night View” and “Last Carnival” are less successful forays into Monsta X’s new style. These two tracks are too subdued for their own good, with bland melodies made even more forgettable by the limp production.

Luckily, as Fatal Love shifts from Monsta X’s new style to their older, far more violent style (henceforward, I’ll call it “classic”), things pick up immediately. Two songs in particular stand out: “Stand Together” and “Beastmode.”

“Stand Together” is one of Fatal Love’s best songs in this “classic” style. It throws down the gauntlet from the very start, with an immediately arresting (and rather intimidating) rap from Jooheon. Although “Stand Together” sticks to a pretty typical palette of hip-hop sounds, its persistent ambition is particularly notable. Every time the rap-heavy chorus sweeps in, “Stand Together” regains its focus. The chorus, similar to the one in MCND’s “Ice Age,” succeeds by the sheer strength of its energy alone — a descriptor that applies to much of Monsta X’s older songs, too.

“Stand Together” also features an interesting mix of generic and more unique lyrics. Some lines are typical K-pop fare: “we the best best” and “I want to be with you until I reach the stars” could be taken from nearly any boy group’s songs. But “Stand Together” also includes lyrics that are perfectly tailored to Monsta X. “Hyung’s stock going up (Kihyun Kihyun)”, for example, is a fun reference to Kihyun’s many investments.

“Beastmode,” even more so than “Stand Together,” is a great distillation of Monsta X’s uniquely abrasive sound. Opening with a dramatic chant, “Beastmode” consists of three minutes and 15 seconds of pure aggression. The drop chorus, although initially jarring, keeps the energy high with booming percussion. “Beastmode” is quite a lot to take in; it’s an acquired taste, but certainly succeeds at conveying the classic Monsta X sound. Since Jooheon helped write “Stand Together” and “Beastmode,” I’m excited to see future displays of his songwriting skills.

Fatal Love’s other “old”-style b-sides also exhibit plenty of promise; this is the sound of Monsta X doing what they do best. Despite the musical familiarity of these tracks, though, Fatal Love represents a creative breakthrough in other ways. Most notably, Hyungwon co-wrote his first song, “Nobody Else,” a b-side that perfectly channels Monsta X’s musical roots.

“Nobody Else” is a dark midtempo that makes liberal use of hi-hats and sinister synths — one of Monsta X’s musical hallmarks. Bursts of strings help differentiate “Nobody Else” from the more typical hip-hop and EDM found elsewhere in Fatal Love. Although this b-side is quite musically cohesive, its lyrics make less sense — “I just wanna show you off” and “I don’t wanna kiss and tell” are directly contradictory!

Ignoring the strange lyrics, though, “Nobody Else” is a solid addition to Fatal Love, and marks an exciting breakthrough for Hyungwon. He also shines in “Thriller” — Hyungwon’s husky, slightly strained vocals are perfectly suited to the song’s dramatic tone and towering melody. His pre-chorus lines in “Thriller” are perhaps Fatal Love’s single best moment.

Or perhaps not. Minhyuk’s ethereal performance in “Guess Who” is just as satisfying as Hyungwon’s part in “Thriller” — it’s truly hard to pick one.

Fatal Love closes with “Sorry I’m Not Sorry,” which doesn’t quite fit into either the “new” or “classic” categories. Instead, “Sorry I’m Not Sorry” is the slow, expected end-of-album ballad. Using guitar and rock percussion instead of a more typical strings-and-piano arrangement, “Sorry I’m Not Sorry” manages to be far more interesting than most album closers. The crisp vocal processing and instantly accessible melody certainly don’t hurt.

In sum, Fatal Love pulls equally from Monsta X’s characteristic aggression, and from the sleeker, bass-heavy style they’ve adopted for English-language releases. Although Monsta X draws from two very different concepts, Fatal Love never sounds messy or disjointed. The album takes us on a whirlwind journey through smooth dance grooves, sneering rap choruses, summery tropical synths, blaring synth assaults, and so much more. At only 32 minutes, Fatal Love is a succinct distillation of every core aspect of Monsta X’s identity.

(YouTube. Images via Starship Entertainment. Lyrics via AZlyrics.)