EXO Effortlessly Evolve on ‘The War': Album Review
S.M. Entertainment favorites EXO have come a long way since their rookie days.
Their first album, XOXO — which was released in 2013 — was a combination of soulful ballads and darker-themed theatrical numbers, perfect for the seamless, visually compelling choreography in EXO's music videos.
Moving into their second album, 2015's EXODUS, there were hints that EXO had no intentions of staying in the on-brand, intense-but-danceable space they had created for themselves. Flashes of sass, starting with spunky R&B single “Call me Baby,” began peppering themselves in between the soulful ballads and heavy dance numbers the group was previously expected to deliver.
By the time album No. 3, last year's EX’ACT, rolled around, it became pretty clear that EXO were confident with pushing their own boundaries, and the heavier sound of the previous two albums was thrown to the wayside for a lighter, groovier energy.
With their fourth album The War, released today (Jul. 19), EXO continue to make drastic decisions in pushing their style.
The most obvious indicator that The War establishes a solid rebranding of the group might be the fact that the album title does not follow the stylish pun trend of its predecessors. However, after listening through the album, fans will realize that the changes in EXO’s visuals aren’t the only thing new: as opposed to a complete overhaul of the group's sound, their newest direction seems like a natural artistic progression, while still succeeding in keeping things interesting for their fans.
Opening track “The Eve” encompasses the production style that took the mainstream U.S. music world by storm late last year; the group's compelling delivery is surrounded by vocal chops and other future bass fodder, establishing an explosive new dynamic on The War unheard in previous albums.
It’s not just the opening number that fully embraces the more energetic, electronic-fueled pop sound of 2017. Other tracks like “Ko Ko Bop" and closing track “Going Crazy” contain the sort of kaleidoscopic intensity of energy found in “The Eve," with frenetic trap-infused beats and synths setting the scene for even more vibrant vocal work.
EXO started out making darker-themed dance tracks, and though their sound has slowly evolved with each album, it’s the addition of tracks like “Forever” and “Diamond” that will remind listeners of that original enigmatic sound they began with — though with some minor upgrades.
Attention is quick to focus on the newer, brighter EXO though: the music video for their reggae-inspired “Ko Ko Bop," along with those individual EXO member visual teasers, are an indication to fans that those weightier, dark dance days are relics of the past. Instead, colorful bright skies are ahead for the band. And just look at Chanyeol’s hair!
The weakest two tracks on this album — though using “weak” is a bad way to put it, even EXO’s weakest tracks are well-developed, fleshed out songs — are without a doubt “What U Do?” and “Chill."
“What U Do?” has a lot of flashy appeal, with its loose, slick production providing the perfect background for an uncomplicated chorus (“What you do?”), but it fits a bit too comfortably as background music soundtracking your Forever 21 shopping experience to be truly memorable. “Chill” has a more complex problem; the track bounces through too many styles and genres, jumping from glitchy, contemporary pop production to a bass-driven hip-hop switch up near the end. It’s too frenetic, and sounds like there’s barely room for the individual members of EXO to breathe life into their words before someone else takes over.
The rest of the tracks on The War continue to show EXO diversifying outwards: the groovy “Touch It” is as different in sound and theme as “Diamond," shaking things up with a previously unheard touch of disco vigor. As always, it’s hard to say as to how K-pop will age as the musical trendiness of a specific year goes out of style, but from the sound of it, EXO will be able to confidently keep up — and their ability to convincingly transition into different styles of music is a strong indicator that they’re on top of things.
“Walk On Memories” is the one smooth, ballad-like track on The War that will make listeners remember the soulful ballads of EXO releases past. Though it’s a shame there aren’t more of these types of tracks on this album, “Walk On Memories” is a mellow, compelling stunner. It’ll be an easy save to your favorite R&B playlist, but more importantly, the track gives a lot of space for the members of EXO to show off their emotional best, with soulful vocals reminding listeners that they’re not just some machine, despite their years in the industry.
The War ventures into even further unfamiliar territory than previous albums, though it also retains those signature EXO elements that have firmly rooted the group as a remarkable and irresistibly popular K-pop artist through the years.
There’s no doubt that EXO has aged like fine wine with each new album, though the analogy can only be applied loosely; for rather than aging into an already familiar sound, the group has continued to challenge themselves, and surprise listeners, with each new direction they go in.