The summer comeback train rolled on with a vengeance in July with a jam-packed month of music. Amidst all the high-profile releases and unexpected hits, there were some stellar songs we didn’t manage to cover at Seoulbeats. Thus, this month’s edition of Unsung Artists highlights an eclectic group of summer treats — from breezy tunes perfect for a fun day by the ocean, to high-energy tracks guaranteed to raise the heat. Let’s dive in!

Chungha – “Sparkling”

After a long line of dramatic title tracks, Chungha deftly executes a 180-turn with the effervescent “Sparkling.” While not necessarily in line with her most recent discography, “Sparkling” does have precedent, primarily in Chungha’s early releases like “Love U” and “Rollercoaster.” Indeed, the feather-light, joyful vibe of “Sparkling” suits Chungha just as much as the more intense style she’s become famous for. Musically, it’s even arguably a better fit. Amidst the glittering pop-synth soundscape of “Sparkling,” dotted with adorable touches like an enthusiastic flute and the sound of a soda can crisply popping open, Chungha’s high and crystal-clear vocal tone shines.

The MV for the track is as refreshing as its musicality. A seemingly endless array of shimmering underwater sets make the MV an aesthetic feast. Amidst all the glamour, Chungha seems to be having a genuinely great time, her bubbly performance a delight to watch. Is “Sparkling” re-writing the wheel? No. Lyrically, the only thing that seems to be happening is that Chungha is sparkling, her love interest is sparkling, and the goal is to make the sparkling even more sparkly. But when a simple summer track is done this well, it’s a little dose of pure happiness to be thankful for.

SF9 – “Scream”

Like Chungha, SF9 are seeking to channel summer magic in “Scream,” though their version has a decidedly more sensual edge. “Scream” is SF9’s first comeback with a temporarily smaller 6-member lineup (members Youngbin and Inseong are currently enlisted, and Rowoon was unable to participate in the comeback because of schedule conflicts with a drama filming). Though Inseong’s power vocals are particularly missed, “Scream” largely escapes feeling like a half-measure. Indeed, as sometimes happens when a group shrinks short-term, unexpected members seize the chance to shine. Vocally, Jaeyoon and Dawon particularly standout, and Taeyang is an even more commanding center dancer than usual.

It probably doesn’t hurt that SF9 are firmly in their comfort zone with “Scream,” an unabashedly mature and flirtatious track. The group do convincingly ground the track in a summery place by bringing a light touch to the track’s club-derived beat; the bass line pings rather than blares. The subtler beat also fits with the song’s intriguing mix of sweetness and slight danger, pretty falsettos abounding even as SF9 declare they “wanna go play” and invite you to join them on an adventure that they themselves proclaim as “risky,” something that will “shock and shake the world.” “Scream” deftly threads a thin needle and emerges as a softly summery yet sultry track.

Unfortunately, SF9 are let down by their MV. Clearly made on a razor-thin budget, the childish basketball court and shoddy beach movie set locations clash with the song’s suave tone. Grown men should not be singing about grown men things in sad plastic sets that look like they were built with a glue gun and some cardstock. SF9 do get bonus points for pulling off violently lime green suits, a true miracle. But to see a strong track utterly failed by its visual representation is a bummer. Nevertheless, “Scream” is a worthwhile listen, and a testament to SF9’s successful nurturing of an appealing signature style.

P1Harmony – “Doom Du Doom”

P1Harmony’s “Doom Du Doom” could have been just another in a long line of do-it-my-way, don’t-care-what-you-say boy group songs: nothing offensive, but nothing special. Instead, the track’s creative MV and sufficiently intriguing musical choices make it stand out from the crowd.

A rebellious guitar riff welcomes you into the MV world of “Doom Du Doom.” It’s a place where bright pops of color and the members’ bold charisma contrast with otherwise drab sets, including an abandoned grassy expanse and a rundown boxing gym. As P1Harmony proclaim “I’m going my way” and dare their naysayers to “write whatever you want, however you want, fill the paper with your colors,” they engage in playful spoofs of sporting events. These are mostly Olympics-inspired, from comical takes on specific Olympic sports, to visual references to the torch-lighting and closing ceremonies, to the use of Olympics telecast-style banners declaring the name of the (often facetious) sport being showcased and the participants.

Besides being amusing, this sports theme brings an interesting anti-competition angle to P1Harmony’s self-confident message. Rather than taking any of the sports seriously, P1Harmony just do it their own quirky way, and even reject rankings by pulling off their medals and winner’s badges during the pre-final chorus bridge. The point of “Doom Du Doom” is thus a little more complicated than it first appears. P1Harmony aren’t just arguing for self-love, they are rejecting the entire idea of measuring worth in terms of conventional success. Their response to critics isn’t ‘watch me prove you wrong by winning’, it’s ‘we don’t care to play by your rules, period.’

The musicality of “Doom Du Doom” is similarly unexpected. For a song so lyrically brash, “Doom Du Doom” is surprisingly soft sonically. Despite little bursts of rock instrumentation, the track mostly remains mellow and melodic. This is true even in its anti-drop chorus, with the rhythmic “dum duru rum dum” refrain being vocal rather than beat driven. This musical energy contrast is also mirrored in the MV’s imagery, frenetic camerawork coexisting with downright dreamy sequences, like when tendrils of water curl around the P1Harmony members as they pose with flags in the song’s final chorus. Put together a cohesive concept, an engaging MV, a song that keeps you on your toes, and a familiar message with a clever spin and what do you get? An impressive comeback that raises anticipation for what this young group will bring to the table next.

Zico – “Seoul Drift”

Prior to his official post-military comeback with “Freak,” Zico quietly dropped a more introspective pre-release in “Seoul Drift.” Zooming around on a motorcycle through a potentially dystopian, potentially simulated city, Zico wanders aimlessly from his skyscraper apartment to a disorienting party, and then to a strangely proportioned city street with glowing technicolor billboards. The impression given is of intense, luxurious, and dangerous melancholia, unhappiness twinged with menace. It’s a spot-on visual representation of the song itself, an occasionally aggressive but mostly sad tune with production so smooth its sinful.

Lyrically, “Seoul Drift” initially seems like a straight-forward celebration of the return of some pre-pandemic norms. In the track’s verses, Zico reflects on the frustration and bitterness of living a restricted life for multiple years, before giving thanks for recently recovered freedoms. “Look at this party baby, no mask all naked, squirm freely” he sings at the start of the chorus.

A second look at “Seoul Drift,” however, reveals a more layered emotional landscape. Even as Zico invites everyone to come back into the wider world, he doesn’t say we should ‘seize the day’ or ‘go have fun.’ No, he tells us to “drift drift drift drift away.” Drifting doesn’t evoke empowerment or excitement, but instead a continued sense of loss and failure to find motivation. Is Zico saying that the mental effects of the pandemic are still with us? Is he saying that even with some pandemic restrictions lifted, we’re still left with all our original issues? Maybe he’s saying both, or something else entirely. No matter the case, the purposeful ambiguity of “Seoul Drift” makes Zico’s softly sung chorus-closing refrain of “I’m alive, alive” sound like both a triumphant declaration and a feeble thou-doth-protest-too-much moment. And that’s a feeling I think a lot of us can relate to at the moment.

Ateez – “Guerilla”

While Ateez boast a stellar discography and captivating performance skills, they haven’t always excelled in the MV department. That’s not to say their past MVs have been bad, more that they have been good but not great, and stuck to a very predictable K-pop format: pretty sets, nice outfits, performance sequences interspersed with glamour shots, and just the hint of an overall lore stretching between MVs. That started to change with “The Real,” their late 2021 comeback. “The Real” still had all the afore-mentioned elements, but it also had a more unique visual flair, not to mention a hefty and welcome dose of humor. Perhaps building off that MV growth, Ateez have returned with “Guerilla,” their absolute strongest MV to date.

To the blaring strains of a song somewhere between rock, EDM, heavy metal, and pop, Ateez execute a revolutionary scheme in a dystopian world. The MV cleverly evokes famous dystopian touchstones like George Orwell’s 1984 and the famous 1927 science-fiction film Metropolis through its dramatic color palette (a sea of black and gray broken up by spots of red, blue, and gold), which calls to mind famous book covers of years past, and through the use of utilitarian city landscapes dotted with futuristic technology. Memorably, one of Ateez’s MV performance sets brings to life a famous Metropolis poster, the word “Guerilla” splayed in distinctive typeface across a towering yet oddly flat cityscape. Long before Ateez explain their motivations lyrically, these visual references help audiences understand that the reason Ateez are seeking to “wake up the world” is because their world is currently repressive and cold.

Another dystopian theme in the MV is the idea of surveillance. Ateez are constantly being shown shot through grainy security camera footage, and the mixing of traditional MV footage with camera footage throughout allows “Guerilla” to do interesting things with light and color contrast, including playing with black and white film. This idea of surveillance also influences the MV’s plot, which unlike in previous Ateez MVs, is not simply an accent to the performance sequences. The revolutionary plan Ateez put into practice in “Guerilla” is to turn the state’s own surveillance tools against them, using the oppressor’s endless supply of speakers and cameras to send their message of liberation to the whole world. It’s a simple but satisfying narrative, and wrapped in a visual package as thoughtful and thrilling as this, it makes for a truly fantastic MV.  

It’s also worth noting that “Guerilla” is a particularly strong title track for Ateez musically. The song’s hard-rock, genre-blending intensity is a great fit for Ateez’s explosive performance style, and main vocalist Jongho’s intimidating pipes have never been better showcased. The distinctive musical style of “Guerilla” extends to the whole EP it comes from, particularly the deliciously dark b-side “Cyberpunk.” “Guerilla” marks the beginning of a brand-new album era for Ateez, which they are calling “The World.” With a start as strong as this, it looks like this world will be one very much worth exploring.

(Book Riot, Mubi, Naver, YouTube[1][2][3][4][5]. Lyrics via YouTube[1][2][3][4]. Images via FNC Entertainment, KQ Entertainment)