Since the release of “Next Level” in 2021, Aespa have undoubtedly mastered the craft of dropping one hit (in lead singles) after another. They’ve built a name for themselves as the K-pop group to blend the real and cyber worlds, constructing complex narratives around how the two mesh together…all while simultaneously delivering these fantasies through a hyperpop-inspired palette of dark synths, unexpected drops, and catchy hooks.

There are such high expectations around any of the quartet’s releases. Therefore, the announcement of their first full-length album nearly four years since their debut begged the question of how their distinctly grungy and empowering sound would translate into a full LP.

Given K-pop’s fast-moving trend cycle, both the mini- and full-length album format often push artists into a corner to please all listeners and current musical fads, resulting in a far from cohesive set of songs. Additionally, title tracks are almost always starkly different from their album cohorts. Typically, that standout lead single is either most representative of the group’s core musical identity, or of the hottest genre trend of the moment, and only sometimes both. 

Unfortunately for Aespa, their first full-length album, Armageddon, is not immune to this. Lead singles “Supernova” and “Armageddon” are easily some of the quartet’s best and most distinctly “Aespa,” but they’re almost impossibly different from at least half of the rest of the album, which struggles to balance bright, midtempo b-sides with the brazen sound the group are known for. 

If pre-release single “Supernova” is the group’s classic take on confident, experimental pop, title track “Armageddon” is its evolved counterpart, incorporating grungy hip hop and smooth R&B elements alongside clever wordplay (“I’ma get it done”) to create a new iteration of an Aespa hit. The drawn out “aw wayo wayo” hook in “Armageddon” serves as the perfect response to the staccato “oh-ay” hook in “Supernova, enabling both tracks to feel biting and big-budget in their own unexpected yet satisfying ways. 

Meanwhile, subsequent tracks “Set the Tone” and “Mine” continue both the bite of “Supernova” and hip hop-forward imaginings of “Armageddon.” A tone is set in the album’s first half with songs evolving and expanding the group’s core musical style. Both tracks feel substantial and innovative, with “Set the Zone” in particular zig-zagging freely between heavy-hitting rap verses from Karina and Giselle and easy-going, R&B-inspired vocal moments courtesy of Winter and Ningning

Still, as with any group whose core musical persona isn’t the bubbly, poppy K-pop that now seems to be dying out as a popular concept, the remaining tracks on Armageddon struggle to fit neatly into Aespa’s highly recognizable sonic universe. While there are some attempts in the remaining b-sides to lean into the quartet’s experimental, high-art flare, they fail to nail the intricacies and bite of the aforementioned tracks. 

Instead, Aespa attempt to appease a wider audience with hollow pop tracks— a sound that feels entirely uncharacteristic for a group as defined as Aespa. There’s “Long Chat (#❤️)” and “Prologue,” two sugary pop tracks that are too tame and flat to excel, even with the use of Aespa’s usual sharp and zippy synths. While cute and uplifting, “Long Chat’s” lyrics, which reference the intimacies of late night text conversations with a friend, come off as too surface level and kitschy for a group known for their bold messages of unabashed confidence.

While they feature standout, skilled vocal performances, pop-punk track “Live My Life,” a thematic sequel to previous single “Life’s Too Short,” and ballad closer “Melody” don’t have much going for them beyond the members’ impressive singing chops. Rather, they serve as forgettable transitional moments at the tail end of more interesting tracks, almost as if to fill the necessary tracklist needed for a full-length album.  

Still, there are moments where Aespa really do excel at a midtempo pop song. “BAHAMA” is the clearcut winner on this front, committing to its poppiness in full and taking listeners straight to a breezy island with airy beats, a funky bassline, and escapist summertime references:

Take me, take me, take me on an ocean-blue

Bahama, ba, ba, Bahama, hama

Surfin’, surfin’, surfin’ on a wave with you

In an industry with fast-moving trends and constant, ever changing external demands, it’s hard to please everyone, even for a powerhouse group like Aespa. It’s no real surprise that Armageddon isn’t immune to these pressures, continuing a trend of hits and misses in the group’s discography thus far. Flat b-sides aside though, Armageddon articulates that Aespa are still at their very best when they’re exactly themselves. 

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