Sounds of Seoul

Our music columnist selects six must-hear songs from the South Korean capital.

By / May 2012

On the cultural front, Seoul, that massive urban hive that serves as the capital of South Korea, is better known for architecture than music. The city’s architectural legacy spools back to the multiple dynastic kingdoms that ruled the peninsula before the the modern state of Korea was formed in 1897. But in the last decade, the city has embraced a myriad of world musical stylings, most noticeably a thriving expatriate and indie rock scene whose gritty ethos clashes, welcomingly, with the clean and angular sheen of this high-tech metropolis.

Although ensembles like the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra satisfy more refined tastes, the heart of Seoul’s of-the-moment music scene can be found in the racket emanating from venues like DGBD, a divvy joint built to resemble CBGB’s, the legendary Bowery hole that spawned the careers of Blondie and the Talking Heads. If you’re looking for a mosh pit, head to Hongdae, the university district; if the dance floor, seek out Gangnam. Whatever your predilection, the songs below demonstrate the profusion of styles that make Seoul a city to watch.


1. Galaxy Express: “Live Planet”

Grinding out tight-fisted, mohawked headbangers, Galaxy Express keeps alive the tough sound of bands like Rancid, the Ramones, and early Husker Du, with a nod to 70s acts (the New York Dolls, MC5) who infused a theatrical sensibility into their music. Earlier this year, Galaxy Express they played the famous SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, where their frenzied, feedback-laced style temporarily overloaded the sound system and nearly blew out the circuit breakers. Their latest album, Wild Days, was nominated for album of the year at the 2011 Korean Music Awards. In “Live Planet,” a 1977 Lower East Side dive-bar riff carries the day over Nirvana-style power drums.


2. Winterplay: “Cannot Forget”

A soothing mix of jazz and pop, Winterplay formed in 2008 and came to prominence when their single “Happy Bubble” provided background music for a popular commercial for washing machines. The single’s popularity through online sales was the entree Winterplay needed to tout their mix of rosy horns, gulping upright bass, delicate guitar work, and dusty vocals from twentysomething lead singer Hye Won. Winterplay, along with Youn Sun Nah (see below), deserves major props for looping jazz inflections into the South Korean mainstream.


3. Youn Sun Nah: “Calypso Blues”

In 1995, Youn Sun Nah abandoned a career in the fashion industry to start a second career as a chanteuse. Although she sang from a young age, she didn’t take an interest in jazz until a friend, deeming Nah too old to become a classical vocalist, suggested it as an alternative. Before long, Nah was performing in Paris, and recently, the French government awarded her the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres for significant contributions “to the enrichment of the French cultural inheritance.” In “Calypso Blues,” Nah actually beatboxes, using a vocal looping device to turn the pops, clicks, and hums created by her own mouth into the rhythm section to this seductive number.


4. Unjin: “Dernier Vol Pour Paris” (feat. Sandra Meynier)

Nearly 20 years after he began peddling his brand of house beats, Unjin has become one of Asia’s top producers and DJs. In “Last Flight For Paris”, Unjin evokes the late-night, moving walkway, white-tile modernism that the song title suggests. The track settles into a comfortable 130 beats-per-minute groove without getting too carried away with synths. An urgent, low frequency pulse does the trick nicely here, accompanied by some horn and loudspeaker samples. Put your tray tables up for this one.


5. Ahn Trio: “Dies Irie”

On first listen, Ahn Trio’s music can come across as a confection, a sort of melodramatic film score dressed up in the garb of art music. But upon closer inspection, traces of Debussy or Ravel begin to surface and re-inform what we initially mistook for Hollywood tearjerker pop. The trio is composed of Angella Ahn on violin, Lucia Ahn on piano, and Maria Ahn on cello. They write slowly unfolding pieces which make stunning use of counterpoint and harmony — you know, the kind of stuff you might expect from Julliard grads. The Ahn Trio isn’t confined to classical styles either; they’ve written songs with David Bowie and performed with Bryan Adams.


6. The Black Skirts: “Untitled”

The Black Skirts is the one-man indie rock project of vocalist / guitarist / bassist / keyboardist Holiday Cho. Though Korean by birth, Cho immigrated to the United States at age twelve before returning to his hometown. As a consequence of his polyglot formative years, Cho finds it difficult to write lyrics in Korean, but eschews English nonetheless. Cho’s songs are generally meandering affairs. In the first 30 seconds of “Untitled,” Cho leads with a Paul Hardcastle drum machine loop before quickly switching to a 4/4 Red Hot Chili Peppers bounce while offering a nod to the Strokes and Franz Ferdinand. More please.


David Wilezol is a radio producer, writer, and hobbyist musician who lives in Washington DC.