A.C.E returned last week with their fifth mini album Siren:Dawn. Since their debut in 2017, the K-pop quintet have built a fierce fan base through their formidable performance skills and fearless sense of gender-fluid style.

A.C.E first stepped on stage with the raw energy and heartfelt lyrics of debut track “Cactus” – and rocked every performance in hot pants. It was a move that sparked gossip column controversy in South Korea – but the members stood by their decision when questioned, affirming their collective desire to take a boundary-blurring approach to music and fashion.

For 2018’s bright summery bop “Take Me Higher”, A.C.E experimented with pink hair and fun flower earrings to complement the track’s playful vibe. A year later they were back with the hip-hop fuelled bombast of “Under Cover”, the confidence of the song matched only by their decision to rock crop tops on stage. 2020’s “Goblin (Favorite Boys)” took the dokkaebi (usually translated as “goblin”) of Korean folktales and turned the legend into the group’s own hype anthem. The boys paired jade rings and band T-shirts with butterfly tattoos and traditional hanboks to create a visual concept that showcased Korean culture in a distinctly modern style.

A.C.E have declared 2021 the year for Choice, their fans. In January, they dropped EDM-fuelled remix “Fav Boyz”, reimagined by Steve Aoki, with a lyrical assist from rapper Thutmose. Three months later, they teamed up with production duo Grey to release “Down”, a smooth slice of pure pop accompanied by a hilarious TikTok-inspired MV, complete with cheesy choreography and an abundance of finger hearts.

Now A.C.E are stepping up their creative game again. The comeback trailer for Siren:Dawn includes a poignant voiceover from rapper and main dancer Byeongkwan, aligning melancholy visuals with a message of strength and renewal. The intro “Miserere Mei Deus (We Fell Down)” takes its name from the Renaissance choral piece composed by Allegri. And the MV for title track “Higher” combines elemental imagery, doomed romance, and cosmic metaphors to form a bold, beautifully-realised narrative mythos.

The MV opens with a stark lunar landscape, backed by the silhouette of mountains and shrouded by shadows. An aerial shot captures the five members positioned in the choreography’s opening formation, before the scene shifts to focus on maknae Chan, who begins the first verse. He, leader Jun, and main vocal Donghun all perform their individual scenes on the same set, but the MV’s use of lighting creates dramatically different tones.

Chan is bathed in cool blue, while Jun dances surrounded by shades of deep red. Donghun is lost in shadows, but he holds a glass lantern, lit from within with a warm, milky glow. Behind the members, a screen plays clips of the elements in motion, swirling water and cascading snow giving the simple space a dynamic sense of depth.

The focal point of each scene is the moon – a prop positioned centre stage. This could be a jarring choice, but is made ethereal and elegant by the use of light and CGI. As water rises to obscure Chan’s scene, the moon turns glittering blue and rises out of shot, before the camera slides down to reveal Donghun reaching up for it, just a moment too late.

In the second verse, Chan and Byeongkwan toy with tiny moons. Byeongkwan stands before a backdrop banded with marbled swirls that evoke the surface of Jupiter, letting his blood-red orb swing back and forth from a string.

Meanwhile, Chan holds his small moon between his lips before breathing in its CGI double in a particularly striking shot. In this way, the moon becomes a metaphor for the dual pain of loss and longing that A.C.E sing of. The lyrics narrate a dramatic, doomed love story, aligning metaphors of waves and water with romantic angst.

Without you, tonight

Endless fall

Trying to breathe, but I can’t breathe

I’ve been wanting and longing for you

More and more, I’ll be more thirsty

“Higher” is a striking song that contrasts with its bittersweet storyline. The verses start slow and build an elegant momentum that highlights the members’ vocal skill, before the chorus drops in a potent shot of percussion and soaring synths. The song delivers on pure energy, but the compounded layers of production rob the track of the clarity it needs to truly fly. Repetitive hooks in the refrain walk the line between catchy and cloying. At its best, “Higher” delivers a lovely build-up and an addictive payoff, but it lacks the underlying cohesion that made “Goblin (Favourite Boys)” and “Under Cover” so brilliant.

A.C.E have always been a group that deliver in both bold performances and aesthetic brilliance. The visual ideas in the MV take “Higher” to new creative frontiers. While the moon is the main symbol that connects each scene, the way it’s coupled with water adds another layer of depth. During the chorus, the camera pans out to reveal the full extent of A.C.E’s deceptively simple set.

It’s lit by orbs that look a little like small moons, and the ceiling is decorated in rippling waves. For the first chorus, the walls are bathed with warm pink-blue light, like waves lapping across a pristine beach. During the second chorus, the storm strikes and the soft colours are replaced by darkness and eerie ripples of silver.  

This is far from the only instance of ocean imagery in the MV. During the first verse, Byeongkwan sits at a desk before an elaborate display of seashells. Rapper Wow lounges beside a mirror that doubles as a rock pool showing his reflection, the scene embellished with scattered sand and aquatic plants. Water is frequently evoked via CGI effects, with bursts of bubbles and graceful ripples washing across the screen.

The effect is mysterious and lovely, and echoes the way A.C.E’s dream is forever blurred and shifting, just out of reach. As the members sing of being trapped between loneliness and desire, these visuals suggest that their emotions move with the tide, pulled back and forth as they follow the moon that remains forever out of reach.

A.C.E made waves in 2020 with their daring, dazzling underwater photoshoot for their mini album HJZM: The Butterfly Phantasy. Jun and Chan stepped up last year, but this time, all five members take a dip in the concept photos for Siren:Dawn. The images align water with celestial symbolism as Beat Interactive take their creative strategy a step further through fashion.

In the photos shared via Twitter, the five boys shift between light, dark and dramatic visuals in sync with a trio of concepts that evoke the sun, moon and eclipse. The styling for the MV mirrors this idea. In the first verse, the members wear elegant white and pale blue clothes. Chan has a diamond lip ring, and Wow and Jun don pearls, to portray the simple clarity of daybreak. This look syncs in with the “Sun” album photos.

During the first chorus, A.C.E dress in vivid shades of dark pink to mirror the same colour scheme used for their “Eclipse” pictures. In the second, they wear black accented with silver, in a nod to their “Moon” theme. By the time the final chorus hits, the boys are back to wearing white, the three styling concepts echoing the cycle of a lunar eclipse.

The creative coherence of these looks is stunning. It’s a symbolic journey through drama and devastation, before A.C.E reach dawn. From the blue wig Wow wears in the concept pictures to the dewy make-up and sparkling highlighter used for the MV, A.C.E go beyond using fashion for the purpose of performance to demonstrate that style can be a universal mode of art and beauty – unrestricted by gender lines.

The eclipse cycle shown through the trio of concept photos also ties in to the album title. The alignment of the two words, Siren:Dawn, links the Greek myth of doomed sailors and ships wrecked by the sirens’ beautiful song to the hope inherent in daybreak. Through their use of elemental visuals and eclipse-inspired styling, A.C.E elevate a fairly standard love song to evoke Byeongkwan’s words from the album trailer.

It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light

There are more visual symbols scattered throughout the MV, from the white butterfly that dances out of Donghun’s reach, to the way Jun dances, caught and shrouded by a black lace veil. But this connection between the cycle of the eclipse and the push and pull of the tide turn “Higher” into something more than a love story. Take a closer look, and the pretty collection of images comes together to create a poignant message – that through doubt, it’s possible to find dawn.

A.C.E has a solid track record with this kind of conceptual thinking. Their first song used the idea of the cactus to symbolise the members’ struggle to debut. Their latest title track “Goblin (Favorite Boys)” turned an ancient legend into a sly nod to their group pride, showcased via an addictive anthem to prove their power as performers.

The MV for “Higher” takes that creativity, and channels it through a lens that’s softer, but no less striking. A.C.E have made it their mission to be a group that treats every comeback as a piece of art. Siren:Dawn is simply the next page in their story.

(YouTube [1][2][3][4][5][6]][7][8]. Lyrics via Genius. Images via Beat Interactive.)