Even for SM Entertainment’s first new boy group in seven years, Riize have generated unusual excitement pre-debut. There’s a number of factors at play. It certainly doesn’t hurt that members Shotaro and Sungchan come with built-in popularity due to their previous affiliation with NCT. Riize indeed come from a big company, and are entering into a K-pop landscape that is swinging its attention from girl groups, who have dominated the zeitgeist in recent years, to boy groups.

The biggest reason Riize are so anticipated, though, is that their roll out has been extremely artful. A steady stream of eye-catching social media content, performance snippets, and concept photos have painted a cohesive, compelling picture. In particular, performance clip “Siren” and pre-release “Memories” are slam dunks, as was the group’s debut live performance at Los Angeles Kcon in mid-August. No PR campaign is perfect: Riize have been dogged by invasive, yet unfortunately not atypical for K-pop, speculations into members’ personal lives. But overall, Riize have been convincingly presented as a confident yet fresh-faced rookie group with exceptional stage skills. What’s not to love?

It’s the strategic triumph of Riize’s introduction so-far which makes their actual debut, “Get a Guitar,” so puzzling. “Get a Guitar” is the simplest, weakest link in Riize’s trio of releases. It also confuses the previously clear group concept by swapping the youthful yet theatrical flair of “Siren” and “Memories” for a blander go-getter spirit. Creatively and commercially, it’s hard to believe “Get a Guitar” came from the same team that have shepherded Riize’s entrance into K-pop so cleverly, raising concerns about the group’s future consistency.

One thing you can’t accuse “Get a Guitar” of is false advertising. The song is indeed guitar-centric, lyrically and musically. Using a loose guitar metaphor, Riize sing about turning (romantic) dreams into reality:

If you want something to play with, get a guitar

What you feel, what I feel

Stop playing that, make it real

Production-wise, “Get a Guitar” relies almost entirely on its titular instrument, vocals, and bass. It’s a bold move to go for such stark simplicity, and a refreshing contrast from the piles of recent K-pop comebacks that have used the guitar in a more punk-leaning way. Unfortunately, the song’s cleanness often veers into boredom. Simple lyrics, simple sound, simple visuals: Too much of a good thing is bad, and in this case, forgettable.

The blandness of the MV is especially odd. It’s one thing to streamline sets and styling due to budget constraints, but there’s no way that’s an issue here. With SM’s coffers full, the MV’s mere handful of nondescript sets and outfits must be a purposeful choice, but if you’re going to ask your audience to focus on a small set of visuals for the whole MV runtime, you need to do better than a youthful group of musicians hanging out on a bridge, a rooftop, and in a rundown theater. These elements are familiar individually, and they are mixed here in a recognizable way too. When your most creative visual touch is guitar-shaped skateboards, that’s a bad sign.

Perhaps SM’s intention was to clear out all clutter so that Riize’s members take the full spotlight, and technically, they’ve succeeded. The MV’s individual closeups and group dance shots are the star of the show, admittedly helped by some decent camerawork and a fun choreographic point move accentuating the refrain’s “dun dun dun” beats. It’s Riize though, with their immediately distinctive personas (ranging from Wonbin’s languid confidence to Anton’s bashful sweetness), razor-sharp dance skills, and palpable charisma who are keeping this oversimplified ship afloat.

That begs the question as to why SM didn’t choose to accentuate the explosively charming group they’ve put together with a little flash, especially since they’ve done just that prior to “Get a Guitar.” A single look at the exquisitely produced “Siren” proves that Riize’s magnetism is only elevated when it’s presented with some theatricality. Even if SM ultimately wanted to go for a fresh, pared-back concept, there’s still more creative ways to do it than “Get a Guitar,” as they themselves demonstrated with pre-release “Memories.”

 “Memories” and “Get a Guitar” have many similarities, from their youthful tone, to their chasing-a-dream lyrics, to even their clean MV aesthetics. The major difference is that “Memories” is better. As the only b-side on the “Get a Guitar” single album (because SM, in another confusing choice, didn’t include “Siren” on the EP), comparison is almost inevitable, and “Get a Guitar” doesn’t fare well. While the title track has a certain bouncy catchiness, “Memories” runs it over with a soaring earworm refrain and lush production. The MVs are fairly equal in quality, with “Memories” wholesome summer aesthetic also being more comforting than innovative. The slight edge still goes to “Memories” though, given the prettiness of its outdoor panoramas and sunbaked hues. Where it truly dominates, however, is tonally.

It’s a thin line between the exhilarating, nostalgic mood of ‘youth’ and the patronizing, sickly sweet, and often downright creepy mood of ‘juvenile.’ As a youth-obsessed industry (but what entertainment juggernaut isn’t?), K-pop dances precariously on that line all the time. Riize came out of the gate with an advantage in favor of ‘youth’ because, unlike so many rookie groups, they have no minor members. “Siren” and especially “Memories” solidified their seeming mastery of youth as a concept, buoyant enthusiasm ever so slightly tempered by realism. Compare the opening lines of “Get a Guitar,” playful but shallow, with “Memories” first lyrics:

Me as a kid would declare, I’m a star

Lonely as Mars

Heart and soul went into our memories

That smile in those snapshots, it’s all you

I was all in, fall in I’m fallin’

Where “Get a Guitar” is a cute but sanitized take on young love, “Memories” is a joyful, earnest, yet grounded take on the ups and downs of being young and pursuing your dreams full-throttle. It’s dash of complexity elevates the material to relatable gold, and its eschewing of complete simplicity also shows up musically in an amusingly SM-style switch-up bridge, likely thanks to stalwart SM producer Kenzie. Riize shine in this context, fresh and flashy, youthful yet world wise, and bringing something unique to the current K-pop scene.

As the title track to “Memories” pre-release, the supposed grand finale, “Get a Guitar” is a disappointing regression. It feels inauthentic in its squeaky cleanness, and its childishness is ill-suited to the relative maturity of the members singing it. Perhaps most concerningly, it indicates a SM approach that can build the foundations of greatness but not capitalize on them. The company put together a dynamite group, found them two standout songs that played to their strengths…and then flipped at the last minute to an aggressively mediocre approach that at minimum does Riize’s potential no favors, and at worse actively quashes it.

All that said, even the anticlimactic nature of “Get a Guitar” won’t stop Riize from being rookies to watch. They were that long before the first plucked guitar notes of their underwhelming title track. Still, it’s worth clocking SM’s late-stage fumble. If the magic of SM’s better angels is exemplified by Riize’s impressive talents and (almost) perfect rollout, than the destructive power of SM’s worst tendencies is shown by the fact that Riize’s future is in question at all.

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