Nearly two years after their previous record Kick Back, NCT’s China-based unit WayV have finally made their much-anticipated return to the stage with their latest EP, Phantom. While the members did not leave the spotlight completely, with different subunit releases and individual activities, the wait for another group single was quite agonizing. With as much talent and star potential as the members have, their comeback feels long overdue.

Though, despite the lengthy break, their new album sounds like WayV simply continuing where they left off. There is a more mature and refined air, but the EP still retains the group’s most notable traits with an abundance of theatrical and extravagant flourishes. It is the same WayV we all know, just with the drama turned up a notch.

As the title suggests, Phantom takes inspiration from the classic novel The Phantom of the Opera, with its lead single of the same name containing several references to the iconic 1986 musical adaptation.

Lyrically, the phantom that the group sings about represents their difficulties and suffering. Here, the members play a role similar to Christine Daaé, one of the story’s protagonists who eventually leaves the Phantom’s obsessed control. With that, WayV refuse to let their hardships restrict them and express determination to break free:

Like a phantom that be pulling my strings

Hey-yo, hey-yo, the puppeteer tugs, and

In darkness, the world loses its way

Dream is a trickster hiding what’s real

See through it all from behind the mask

Through the chaos feeding on fear

This chilling dance-pop song exhibits the group’s perseverance well, incorporating various trap and hip hop elements to convey breaking away from the Phantom. Considering this, the Phantom’s control is best portrayed during the hollow verses where the haunting percussion and low-register vocals sound constrained. As the members face their troubles, tension surges in the pre-chorus with eerie synths joining the mix. When the group succeeds in overcoming adversity, the chorus erupts magnificently with imposing strings and a lush vocal arrangement. “Phantom” is WayV’s most grandiose title track yet and the members perform the entire piece with posh and style.

The rest of the album largely follows through with the lavish and alluring atmosphere that “Phantom” sets. Though, the b-side that reflects the lead single the most musically is pop-R&B-dance track “Try My Luck” with a similar use of orchestral strings and low-register vocal lines.

Right from the start, the intro is epic and captivating with a sample of “Dies Irae” from Mozart’s Requiem. The instrumental is menacing, and the melody is absolutely spellbinding. With their sophisticated vocals, WayV sing about their strong aspiration to stand on top as winners as they compare life to a game:

Say no game, no pain

Turn around and set foot on the summit

The whole world is waiting for me and you

Hit the jackpot

In a way, it feels almost cinematic and manages to be even more majestic than “Phantom.” Furthermore, while a number of WayV tunes are great at highlighting the vocals, the members sound especially remarkable here.

Similarly, “Broken Love” also gives prominence to the vocals but in a more traditional sense, being an emotional pop ballad. Its Chinese title “时间拼图” (shi jian ping tu) translates to “time puzzle” and correlates with regretful lyrics that compare a past relationship to a puzzle that cannot be completed. With a graceful string and piano arrangement, the group’s smooth vocal colors really shine.

“Good Life” is another slower-paced song but offers a bit more cheeriness and R&B groove. Its dreamy ambiance makes this a nice spiritual sequel to Kick Back’s “Good Time,” albeit having this kind of soothing sound as a first for WayV. Despite the track’s light tone, there is a slight melancholic undertone to the beat and lyrics:

I’m not surprised by how helpless this city is

Living in my dreams of paradise

If reality falls like dominoes

I won’t panic because you’re still here

Seeking a better, more beautiful life, WayV depart from their crowded city and embark on a spontaneous journey without any specific destinations. With its adventure-themed lyrics and fresh, breezy sound, “Good Life” is a great addition to a road trip playlist.

On the flip side, “Diamonds Only” and “Bounce Back” raise the energy with their hip and more aggressive styles. The former makes use of a strong bassline that helps create a dark aura. However, the vocal melody is significantly less engaging than the other tracks on the EP. It’s not exactly displeasing but with how engrossing the rest of the EP is, “Diamonds Only” is one of Phantom’s weaker numbers.

But while “Diamonds Only” feels a bit dull, “Bounce Back” seemingly has a surprise in every corner. This tune also utilizes an attractive bassline, but the melody is more dynamic with the instrumental constantly switching things up. The second verse is particularly interesting, starting with a brief silence to bring all the focus to the vocals and then suddenly bringing in intense synths just before the second pre-chorus. Moreover, the vocal harmonies during the bridge and subsequent ad-libs are gorgeous, amping up the energy even more.

Ending the EP are two bonus tracks that were previously released by two of the group’s subunits in 2021. They both sound great on their own with Kun and Xiaojun displaying their vocal skills in “Back To You,” and Ten and Yangyang delivering a fun, summer tune with “Low Low.” Even so, they don’t quite fit the album’s majestic and mysterious theme and feel out of place on the track listing.

Phantom does not suffer much from this, though, as the six new numbers together are enough to leave a lasting impression on listeners. WayV have been steadily forming their own musical color with the past releases, and Phantom is another striking record that naturally develops their style. Like the lyrics from “Try My Luck” depict, WayV are at the top of their game and will hopefully rise even further where the whole world awaits them.

(YouTube [1][2]. Lyrics via Genius [1][2][3]. Images via SM Entertainment)