(The cover art for “Montage” – a mini-album by K-Pop band Block B. Courtesy of AllKPop.com.)
Block B is aggressively colorful and poppy even for K-Pop standards. Their music videos are often onslaughts of primary colors or goofy attempts at gangster-dom and their songs are often bouncy and uptempo (though they have their sad songs too). They’re a band built around a very fun kind ridiculousness. In their mini-album (known as an EP in literally any other genre) “Grooming Period” they went for a more serious and meditative sound that felt fine but not nearly as recognizable and unique as their older style. Their newest mini-album “Montage” is Block B refining their old style so it sounds smoother and more mature.
“Montage” comes after Block B’s members – in particular frontman and rapper Zico – had been busy with solo projects. None of the songs on “Montage” have the jumpiness and over-the-top energy of earlier works like “VERY GOOD” or “Jackpot” or even their 2017 single “Yesterday.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since Block B seems to be genuinely experimenting with newer styles and sounds rather than falling back on hyperactive bubblegum pop.
The starting track “My Zone” is profoundly funky, opening with slap-bass, twangy guitar, and a great big, “Hey!” It leads nicely into a very punchy, nineties style beat and some fun throwbacks to dance tracks (see the background vocals of “to the left” and “to the right”). Then the song hits a bridge into the actual chorus – one of the smoothest sounding things I’ve ever heard from Block B. Taeil’s “We know how to fly” line works very well with U-Kwon and B-Bomb’s lead-ins. Taeil’s vocals get a boost from a visceral, kick-drum based beat and a super funky guitar riff. The song finishes with a very old Block B style of beat — lots of rattling noises, vocal chirps and heavy raps about pretty light stuff (like being famous and listened to worldwide).
Then there’s Block B’s lead single, “Shall We Dance” – the smoothest thing I’ve ever heard from Block B. “Shall We Dance” is a sleek and pared down number that doesn’t have much more to it than a bass rhythm, some very distorted horns, and lots of vocal echoes and cut-and-pasting. “Shall We Dance” is an incredible exercise in restraint from the band that made “Nilili Mambo” – a song with symphonic beats, gunshots, and some serious shout-rapping.
The change paid off. “Shall We Dance” shows Block B really can excel in a different style, using different sounds. The chorus of “Shall We Dance” is an absolute earworm in the best sense. Rather than keep the horn line and the guitar clean and poppy, Block B made both distorted and stretched out. With some catchy bass and light percussion (I think there’s some xylophone in there) Block B has the smoothest beat they’ve ever sang or rapped to. Not to mention the video, which has a post-apocalyptic dance hall vibe, an adorable breakdancer, and bad hair decisions.
An easier to miss hot track off of the album is “Give & Take.” “Give & Take” is an r&b song right down to its sexy soul. This song is all about steamy, sultry bedroom business, and it’s a lot of fun. The chorus (“We just want give and take”) is full of synthetic keys and the bridges are full of smooth, quick strings. There’s an expert use of synth, bass, guitar, and simple foot stomping and hand clapping percussion that makes the song an ideal R&B jam – low-key, smooth, and so very groovy. “Give & Take” is a solo track B-Bomb co-produced and it makes me think he’s underutilized. I’d love to hear a full solo r&b album from him, or a collaboration with Dean.
The rest of the mini-album didn’t strike me as much. “One Way” is mostly interesting for how reggae-like it sounds (there’s a heavy dose of steel drums and a much clearer, cleaner horn line). It’s a very fun song, and a literally bouncy one because the vocals and instrumentation put heavy emphasis on when the beat falls. The chorus has a fun samba rhythm to it. At minimum, it’s interesting to hear Caribbean rhythms and instrumentation paired with K-Pop singing and Korean vocals.
Then there’s “Like This.” It’s a slow, operatic ballad that’s mostly piano and vocals. Full disclosure, slow songs are rarely my thing. Even adjusting for that, “Like This” feels dull and generic. It reminded me of a Disney song, and that’s because it basically is one. The vocal swells in “Like This” sound like they’re from “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” and the calmer sections feel like they’re from “Tale As Old As Time.” The vocals in the song are fine, but boring because they’re generic and there’s nothing backing them. At least “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” has a chorus of backup vocals.
After multiple listens, “Montage” felt good to me. I like the different styles and ideas they play with. Block B sounds smoother and more mature than before and it definitely improves their songs. Still, they are definitely capable of stronger, more unique slow songs than “Like This.”