The Return of SMPM's K-Pop Expert
For the third time in 2020, GFriend arrived with a demonstration of both versatility and sheer perseverance in the K-Pop industry. Completing a musical and conceptual trilogy sparked by Labryinth's 'Crossroads' in February, and followed by 'Apple', from July's Song of the Sirens, through the joint efforts of Big Hit Entertainment and subsidiary Source Music, the group's latest effort Walpurgis Night is a triumph of creativity, and an essential addition to the GFriend catalogue.
Sowon, Yerin, Eunha, Yuju, Sinb and Umji are not average people. They sing, they dance, compose their own music and endure through the media frenzies that swirl tempestuously around Korea's biggest groups. It's non-stop working every single day of the year. The hard work demanded for every single expectation GFriend must fulfil is an extraordinary, and often unhealthy pressure, and for that their fans will always reward such effort with a devotional support for their endeavours. Above all else, it should be expressed that the group should take incredible pride in surviving the relentless strain that they put themselves through in the production, and maintenance, of international superstardom. GFriend debuted in January 2015 with single ‘Glass Bead’ from their first mini-album Seasons of Glass with a suited concept for teenagers; titled powerful innocence. It still stands vita to highlight the empowering messages that single put forward, telling young people that even the simplest emotions hold the strongest power:
"I may seem like a clear glass bead
But I won’t break easily"
GFriend’s songs have always centred around loved ones, focusing especially on the love of friendships and family as much as lovers, yet there has always been a certain level of inner empowerment in the band's grasp on innocence. In 2020, however, GFriend entered a transition period. Now adults, their music has shifted from their love towards one another to a love that focuses on the self. GFriend, caught in that eponymous 'Crossroads' of transition, chose to set aside the path of loving others, to focus on the path of loving themselves.
That message of inner empowerment (and the empowerment of women in particular) stands as the central theme of newest album Walpurgis Night. Entitled in direct reference to a pagan tradition in which springtime and the fertility of the land was celebrated, since Walpurgis Night found itself incorporated into the Christian tradition, from the 17th and 18th century the tradition of it has become almost synonymous with witches and other entities of supernatural malignance. A sort of German / Northern European version of Halloween in which these spirits and witches roam freely among the land. But what does all of this witch-talk have to do with GFriend? As we saw in previous single 'Apple' with its chanting-like post-chorus and depictions of witchery in their music videos, all of GFriend's performances pointed to a theatrical transformation. The concept of Walpurgis Night is evidently one of so-called ‘modern witches’; a group enjoying themselves in its lead single ‘MAGO’. GFriend taking a stereotypically negative vision of a witch (witches in folklore tend to be ugly, bitter and evil) and breathing into the concept a sensational positivity. Like their earlier innocence and purer concepts, its a reclamation; imbuing empowerment into perceived weaknesses with a sparkling confidence.
'MAGO' probably stands out as GFriend's best lead single of 2020, but although the shift to disco perhaps proved surprising, this was certainly not been their first lead single venture into the retro sound. Songs like 'Fingertip' and 'Navillera' also take mayor inspiration from 1970s dance-pop with their heavy synth-pop sound. Produced by various producers including members Yuju, Eunha and Umji, as well as Big Hit CEO "Hitman" Bang and Frants, the song blends bounciness with elegance. Deceivingly romantic at first, in truth the song is far more reflective. The girls are looking at themselves in the mirror and not at a love interest; telling themselves that they are worthy of loving themselves:
"My life is waiting for you (Yes, you!)
Her smiling at me in the mirror
… My heart is beating for you (Yes, you!) No more fairy tale"
Through the confidence of 'MAGO', the strength of resilience in self-love only becomes more apparent through GFriend's recent transition into K-Pop witchcraft. Throughout the lyrical designs of Walpurgis Night, GFriend insist through a constant comparison of opposing concepts that they can be both at the same time. Adamant that women need not be encapsulated between a binary choice of identifications, choosing instead to find their own, individual paths.
‘Love Spell’ sounds like a mid-2000s pop song. It's almost grunge-adjacent with the girls accessing a lower, huskier register, but at the same time fuses the unabashed pop-sensibilities in a fusion not too dissimilar from Rina Sawayama's SAWAYAMA. Though nothing ground-breaking, I find the song to take a fairly experimental approach for the group. It utilises a lot of half-spoken, half-sang musical motifs; proving genuinely unique amongst their extensive discography. With a main hook sang completely in English, ‘Love Spell’ is perhaps the most internationally accessible of Walpurgis Night's songs. ‘Three of Cups’ follows, directly referencing ideas of the occult through clear allusions to tarot reading. GFriend have toyed with the concept of tarot cards quite regularly in recent months (releasing a song titled ‘Tarot Cards’ in their previous mini-album, while also releasing a photobook all inspired on tarot cards) but it's still a compelling aesthetic. There's probably not a better way to describe 'Three of Cups' than as a fusion of elevator music and a 1980s pornography soundtrack. Campy, fun and almost too kitsch, somehow 'Three of Cups' manages to work. It is a celebration, like its tarot parallel, of happiness, of friendship and independence. It continues the strong core message of female empowerment that is built to the core of this album; celebrating yourself when thriving, yet being mindful and understanding of when you are confronted by difficult times.
‘GRWM’ (‘Get Ready with Me’) arrives as the album's token EDM track. I heard far too many K-Pop songs in 2020 with 'too-lazy-to-write-a-proper-chorus-to-my-EDM-song syndrome,' thankfully ‘GRWM’ utilises a variety of synths and emphatic beats, which makes it all works well in the service of something enjoyable. This is something I can't often say when listening to K-Pop EDM deviations. It might not achieve the successes of songs prior, but it remains interesting, at least.
After 'GRWM' the album delves into three subunits made up by the members of the group. All of these songs are self-produced by the members, which is a first for GFriend. The first unit is composed by members Sinb and Yerin who composed and performed the song ‘Secret Diary’. Composed in a sort of bubbly R&B style, the song is cute. Comprised of only a piano, bass and drum, the song sounds clean, with warm vocals shining at the centre of the song. Cute does not have to mean weakness, however, and that distinction works well to illustrate what ‘Secret Diary’ has to offer. Sinb’s and Yerin’s vocals are breathy and calming, but confidently assured.
'Better Me' stands out as one of Walpurgis Night's best moments. Crafted by members Umji and Sowon, the track stands, in many ways, as a symbolic representation of the journey GFriend themselves have progressed through since their debut in 2015, and Umji and Sowon in particular. Whilst all of GFriend's members have faced harsh criticisms from Korean (K-Netz) internet users for their looks, vocal abilities, attitudes or dancing abilities (K-netz are known to be very toxic in online anonymity) members Umji and Sowon have faced the most criticism of all. Attacked for their appearance, and derided for their dancing and singing abilities, ‘Better Me’ stands as a congratulation of astonishing resilience.
The last subunit of the album comes from members Eunha and Yuju with their song ‘Night Drive’, a cool, R&B and synth-pop ballad fusion song that is a super popular genre of music in South Korea. The instrumentalization is simple, allowing GFriend's voices to take centre stage. Utilising metaphors of the road, the construction of 'Night Drive' can sometimes feel like a congested highway. At times, though, in another moment it can be a beautifully vacant street. The song comforts. It is perfectly fine to change paths and course of action in your life. You do not always have to keep going in the same destination. The song is soothing, and a reassuring presence amongst the darkness of 2020.
Walpurgis Night then goes on to feature previous tracks by GFriend in order from newest to oldest, ‘Apple’, ‘Crossroads’ and ‘Labyrinth’ - all songs released throughout 2020. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but the re-released version of ‘Apple’ sounds slightly different, with a great deal more reverb all over the track. Perhaps these re-releases emblemise the shift in musical style achieved by GFriend's progression in just one year. As a musical trilogy all about retrospectivity and returning to the past, Walpurgis Night gives us the wider context of where the groups progression has come from, but also where it is moving towards.
The album's final track, ‘Wheel of the Year’, concludes this year’s trilogy of musical releases, conceptualized as a return to the past as a means of projecting themselves stronger into the future. The song repurposes the concept of 'the wheel of the year' as a vehicle for positioning personal growth and progression. Times remain incredibly difficult, but things will not stay the same forever. A new wheel begins: life goes on. Though the song employs typical arsenals of synthesizers, it relies heavily on live instrumentation for the track. Live drums, live bass, live piano, live guitar and live strings all embellish the track with an emphatic full-ness. The instruments emerge into view gradually as the song unfurls, the expanding sonority of the song serving to parallel GFriend's meteoric rise to superstardom.
This is more than just GFriend's most cohesive album. It's their most stylistically confident, and it might just be their best. Though some songs are guilty of fusing together, sacrificing individuality at times, these criticisms are ultimately small in the scheme of Walpurgis Night's successes. Following this, GFriend deserve a rest. Whether they will get it, is another question.
- 8.4 -
'MAGO', 'Better Me', 'Wheel of the year'
Guille Fernandez is a music lover who studied the cello for almost 10 years before moving to the UK to study English literature at King's College, London.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and co-edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He is also a Fleet Foxes shill.
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