Having tentatively returned last August after a hiatus with their EP Queendom, Red Velvet are back to their vibrant selves with a much more adventurous follow-up EP, The ReVe Festival 2022 – Feel My Rhythm, along with its stunning title track, “Feel My Rhythm”. The album continues 2019’s The ReVe Festival trilogy of releases, and so will most likely precede another EP and full-length album to be released later this year. 

Perhaps intentionally, in light of Irene’s 2020 controversy, Queendom and its eponymous title track were musically very cautious for the normally innovative group. However, ultimately the release was well-received, thanks to a large and loyal fandom spanning both domestic and international audiences – Queendom’s first week sales tripled that of their previous record, set with The ReVe Festival: Day 2, and The ReVe Festival 2022 — Feel My Rhythm continued that trajectory with over 500,000 pre-orders. 

This album brings us back to the vivacious Red Velvet of old, the girls who consistently challenged us to expand our musical horizons, while always making sure to put a smile on our faces. Their initial concept revolved around the dichotomy between their “red” and “velvet” sides, allowing them to make use of their impressive versatility in both upbeat, fun pop and sultry, sensual R&B and neo-soul. Over time, however, this evolved into a hybrid identity that was both bright and sophisticated, capitalising on the popularity of their more accessible “red” tracks, while also matching their maturation as a group and as individuals. 

Though the shift away from experimenting with their pure “velvet” side is lamentable (“Automatic” and “One of These Nights” remain some of SM’s all-time best songs), this hybrid sound is still very enjoyable and distinctive. Compromises between pop and R&B such as “Bad Boy” and “Psycho” were evidence that slower, more relaxed tracks from girl groups could still be very successful with the public, as long as they provided catchy hooks and satisfying choruses.

While “Feel My Rhythm” cannot be described as relaxed, it’s also far from the chatty, danceable style established by “red” songs such as “Happiness”. Sampling Bach’s classical piece, “Air on the G String”, the song is a glorious visualisation of a heart bursting with love, that moment of intense joy when you want nothing more than to express to the world how you feel. It’s a confession, but also a celebration – a “festival”:

Feel my rhythm, come with me
Imagine anything
Follow the music, dance to the moonlight
Right in this moment (Play my rhythm)
Follow, follow my heartbeat
Until the sun comes up
Feel my rhythm, never stop
Don’t miss this moment, baby

Bold verses with clanging percussion express anticipation for a new world, a new challenge. These then bloom into prechoruses that tentatively begin to express their feelings, suggested by strings that appear like vines reaching from the ground. Finally, those feelings build until they can no longer contain them; they declare, “I’m truly free right now”, before exploding into an ecstatic chorus, complete with galloping percussion, a full string arrangement, and layers of angelic vocal harmonies and countermelodies.

Notably, the chorus melody tells a full story, one of joy in its first half and yearning in its second, instead of sacrificing narrative for hook repetition. This makes it both satisfying and compelling, and it joins NCT 127’s “Favorite” as one of SM’s best melodic choruses in recent years as a result.

Stylistically, “Feel My Rhythm” is a clear continuation of “Psycho”, especially with the opening plucked strings. However, while the latter benefited from cleaner execution and a more cohesive structure, “Feel My Rhythm” tugs at your heartstrings in a way that “Psycho” simply does not. Elegant and bright, it’s perfect not only for Red Velvet, but for spring – it paints an exquisite picture of a newly germinated love and its desire to grow and bloom.

The vocalists pull more than their weight in creating this feeling of catharsis. The chorus’ high pitch is partly what makes it feel heavenly and euphoric, but this is only achieved because Red Velvet perform it with perfectly controlled, yet still expressive falsettos. This effect is multiplied when the song’s key shifts up – you are accordingly lifted to an even higher cloud.

More generally, Red Velvet’s vocals set them apart not just from their industry rivals, but SM’s entire legacy of girl groups. Aside from the company’s standard group choruses, always immaculately arranged and mixed, Red Velvet benefit from thick layers of jazz-influenced harmonies, as well as naturally gentle, almost motherly vocal styles. It’s a quality which firmly distinguishes them from Girls Generation (who are assertive and sassy), f(x) (who are chic and indifferent), and Aespa (who are cold or even aggressive). 

Perhaps this is unsurprising; after all, they are the only group to carry softness in their name, compared to their labelmates’ respective allusions to time, logic, and technology. To extend the metaphor further, you could even use textiles to describe each member’s character: versatile cotton for Seulgi, warm wool for Yeri, luxurious velvet for Joy, smooth satin for Wendy, and delicate silk for Irene.

This gentle, motherly quality is something that characterises not just their vocals, but the narrative of their entire discography. Of course, they can be playful and child-like, as they were on “Dumb Dumb” and “Rookie”, and they can also be sexy and sensual, as they were on “Automatic” and “Bad Boy”. These were explorations of their ample versatility, but the evolution of their concept across their eight-year career has revealed that Red Velvet are in fact a group who are at their most compelling and fulfilled when they are helping you, the listener, to be the best person you can be.

They are that older sister figure at school who is always looking after the younger children – motherly yet youthful, gentle yet strong, grounded in reality yet joyous for it. They understand that small, ordinary joys are valuable, despite the greater troubles that plague our world, and use this understanding to help others. They do this by harvesting the real and simple magic of our everyday lives and sharing it with us, just like florists make bouquets to brighten our day.

They make it their work not just to acknowledge, but to celebrate these joys; there’s a reason these albums represent a “festival”. In doing so, they offer us an embrace that feels both comforting and real, and this makes them extremely approachable. Their widespread popularity is thus unsurprising; among their contemporaries, Red Velvet may well be the group who remain most well-loved in the years to come.

In particular, songs like “Would U”, “Little Little”, “One of These Nights”, and even Seulgi’s solo, “Uncover”, give comfort to the listener in a way which could not be replicated simply by handing them to another group. “Would U” especially emanates a gentle encouragement which, even while the song is about their own love interest, equally cheers the listener on in their search for love.

“Feel My Rhythm” joins these as one of Red Velvet’s most comforting and empowering songs to date, and on the album it is similarly the most powerful and meaningful. While the rest of the EP covers quite a few genres and styles, most are ones Red Velvet have tried before, and so these more predictable numbers are less interesting. That said, every song on the project is enjoyable, and as always are performed well by the group.

“Rainbow Halo” offers the classic pop style Red Velvet have tried most often, with a sense of wonder captured on a hip-hop-influenced track with a catchy, repeated hook. The song benefits from a fun brass riff which adds some much needed mischief, but it is also handicapped by vocals which sound oddly muted and flat, as well as a lack of sparkle and ear candy on the overall finish.

“Beg For Me” brings back Red Velvet’s sexy alter ego, with a domineering femme fatale character who demands that you dance, work, and beg for her (and who wouldn’t?). The song is dynamic and edgy from start to finish, with a strong melodic chorus and satisfying post-hook, but it stumbles a little with Wendy’s questionable attempt at rap:

I’m, I’m, I’m bossing it real nasty
But still keeping it classy
The shining celebrate that has me
I don’t give it to you easily, nah

“Bamboleo” forms the album’s second highlight, with a decadent, dreamy chorus performed in flawless falsettos. The song is a retro-influenced number inspired by 80s disco and city pop, and while the revived style has been more successfully claimed by peers like Twice, “Bamboleo” makes an impressive contribution with excellent songwriting and classy vocals. In particular, the way the harmonisation on the bridge devilishly slides into dissonant tones is a classic example of Red Velvet pulling the rug from underneath you. 

Meanwhile, “Good, Bad, Ugly” suffers from being too generic an example of Red Velvet’s R&B style to contribute much, and it’s by far the most forgettable song as a result. It lacks any memorable melodies or instrumentation, and wears down a very well-used style further. Crucially, it also feels like it’s there to fulfil an archetype of an R&B B-side, rather than there to be itself – a common problem which leads to decent songs feeling instead like contrived additions.

Luckily, the EP ends on a high with the heartrending “In My Dreams”. Hi-hats tick out a clock-like waltz rhythm, over which Red Velvet sing plaintively of a love that exists only in their dreams: 

Should I go back?
Looking for you in my dreams, I’m going mad
A little further away
Not knowing the way back to reality, yeah
You promised to last forever
The petals that were flying all over me
It was like an illusion in that happy ending
I wake up as if I had been shattered
I dazed out for a long time
I close my eyes again and try to sleep
In my dreams, you love me back
In my dreams, you love me back

The slow, repeating refrain of “In my dreams, you love me back”, along with the strikingly simple yet sincere lyrics make this a heartbreaking song on which to end the EP, because it suggests that the earnest love confession of the first track was simply a dream. The “petals” appear to refer back to the “confetti” of “Feel My Rhythm”’s prechorus, and “Feel My Rhythm” also replaced the line “Never stop” with “This never-ending dream” in its final chorus, suggesting that even then, they were aware of the harsh reality that “In My Dreams” would bring.

Musically, “In My Dreams” is also closest to matching the beauty of “Feel My Rhythm”. Waltz rhythm is typically associated with romantic ballroom dancing, and accordingly Seulgi sings on the first verse: “As if we were dancing, the two of us go round and round in the air”. Their vocals on the verses are intentionally lifeless and numb – only noticeable because of how expressive and warm they normally are. 

The cymbals which repeatedly crash on the chorus express the desperate emotion of wishing that they were loved back, and the following “Oh, oh”’s that slide downwards remind them that they are not. Finally, the two-part vocal harmony which brings them out of their final climactic chorus also brings them out of their emotional fever; it is desperately sad and beautiful, and never fails to send shivers down the spine. It is followed by one last repeat of the refrain – one last small hope.

With “In My Dreams”, Red Velvet secure The ReVe Festival 2022 – Feel My Rhythm as one of their most mature and simply beautiful albums to date. There is a sophistication and emotional depth to its first and final tracks that they have not explored for years; they are still joyous, still grounded, but also no longer child-like in the way they used to let themselves be sometimes.

The brief fantasy and subsequent heartbreak of “Feel My Rhythm” and “In My Dreams” show us that even this girl, our role model who always took care of us and seemed so strong, was like anyone susceptible to dreams, to weakness, and to sadness, too. At the end of the day, even though she took care of everyone else, she was still just a child herself, after all – and like anyone else, she succumbed to a dream of a happy ending. As she wakes up, we will see her grow, and bloom.

(YouTube. Hanteo News, Voice of the People. Lyrics via SM Entertainment and Genius. Images via SM Entertainment.)