Album Review: Jambinai – Onda

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Release: June 7, 2019
Label: The Tell-Tale Heart
Distributor: Poclanos
Genre: Crossover, Korean traditional, metal, post-rock

Jambinai seems to be of ever greater profile every time they return with a new album. Since putting out A Hermitage in 2016, they’ve picked up a bassist and drummer full-time, won a few more governmental and critics’ awards, added to their tour sheet all over Europe, and graced the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. While hard to ever call mainstream, the band now has one of the most recognizable names in Korea’s crossover scene. With that comes massive expectations for Onda, Jambinai’s third full-length album.

In the broadest sense, Onda is not a radical departure for Jambinai. This is still a hard-as-nails crossover of post-rock grammar and Korean-traditional instruments, where a geomungo plucks away in a rich and raw replacement of the rhythm guitar and a haegeum shrieks alongside the electric trills. Many of these compositions are still massive, multi-movement affairs, and the album is draped in the same somber and oppressive mood. They’re still punctuated by moments of exhilarating explosion, blinding, deep and powerful enough to overwhelm you under their weight.

And yet, Jambinai takes a step into new territory in Onda too. The most noticeable change is the primacy of vocals. Différance and A Hermitage were essentially wordless affairs, but the band has actively worked vocal lines and lyrics into this album. Each member of the original trio – Ilwoo Lee, Bomi Kim, Eunyong Sim – takes turns as the front vocal; Kim, in particular, brings a weighty mix of intrigue and bitterness to her performances.

With that, some tracks also take more cues from other strands of rock in their sound.  “Square Wave” has a real chorus section, and the ambient accompaniment there wouldn’t be out of place in an alternative or rock-ballad track. The angst-ridden rapping and growling of “Sun. Tears. Red” feels very nu-metal. And “Onda” ups the scale a few notches, wrapping its melody in epic-metal choral vocalizations in the final act.

The immediate returns from these changes are mixed, I think. When “Square Wave” was single-cut earlier this year, I wondered if the song sacrificed too much of Jambinai’s uniqueness; ultimately, while the track pulls off a balance, I also don’t think its repetitive motif works nearly as well in vocals as it does instrumentally. The one that really doesn’t work is “Sun. Tears. Red”, as the off-key vocal lines imparts a sense of ill-fitting design rather than one of unkempt aggression. Onda also misses the contributions of Jambinai’s bleeding edge, the unique-sounding tracks that really explored the potential of its crossover instrumentation. There’s nothing quite as shocking as Différance’s “Grace Kelly” here.

In a lesser album, these flaws might feel more severe. In Onda they perhaps enter into the post-listen reverie, but the album’s listening experience is still dominated by what this band does with such shining excellence.

It’s hard to pick a best moment among the tracks employing that tried-and-true Jambinai method of nervously escalating tension. “Sawtooth” is a tour-de-force of powerful haegeum-led swings. “Event Horizon”, with its thumping, icy geomungo riffs and driving beat, reminds me of the seminal “Time of Extinction”. 13-minute epic “In the Woods” uses traditional scale to bake fairytale charm into a ponderous melody; it begins with acoustic guitar, and the band meticulously layers bells, ambient noise, saenghwang and taepyungso, vocalizations, bass, piano, and more on top as the track progresses. It’s visceral pleasure to track this organic growth, as the instruments play freely and add variations to the core motif.

The emotional impact is perhaps greatest in “Small Consolation”, which parlays a gentle and quaint theme into soaring celebration, sort of like an Irish jig buoyed by bursting crescendo. The trance-like lyrics play perfectly with the structure: it’s about following a faint light in the void, a “voice small and warm like cotton” between a gap, in search of “the place with small consolation”, with small healing, life, joy. Kim’s dry and humming performance is reminiscent of 3rd Line Butterfly’s Nam Sang-ah, and her silence as the track moves into its explosive act hints at both yearning and redemption.

There’s a loose theme of healing that runs through these tracks, sometimes shown lyrically and sometimes through sonic moods. They come to a head in “Onda” and its prelude, together spanning another ten minutes or so. It’s perhaps Jambinai’s most expansive concept ever. Simmering guitar rumbles and relentlessly pounding toms imbue urgency into lyrics that express suffering on a cosmic scale: “When the morning light that conceived life // Slowly lifts the veil of dark // May all scars be erased forever”. The comforting narrator becomes a chorus in the aforementioned epic-metal conversion that closes the song, completed with thunderous ambience that crackles with geomungo and cymbals.

As the roaring voices call out, “Return to my arms, fall asleep in my embrace // The pain thou hast passed by, become radiant stars of blessing // And come [Onda]”, it seems like a whole new realm of possibilities just opened up for Jambinai. Wielding an expanded toolkit of sounds and renewing efforts for more forceful messaging, the band has created an engrossing moment of a kind that they couldn’t possibly replicate before. While Onda has some rough edges as Jambinai works to incorporate these tools, the sheer prospect – that a band as inventive as this one isn’t done growing – is an electric one.

Tracklist (recommended tracks in bold)

  1. Sawtooth
    Composed by Ilwoo Lee; arranged by Ilwoo Lee and Eunyong Sim
  2. Square Wave
    Written, composed, and arranged by Ilwoo Lee
  3. 사상의 지평선 (Event Horizon)
    Composed by Ilwoo Lee; arranged by Ilwoo Lee and Eunyong Sim
  4. 검은 빛은 붉은 빛으로 (Sun. Tears. Red.)
    Written by Ilwoo Lee and Bomi Kim; composed and arranged by Ilwoo Lee
  5. 나무의 대화 (In the Woods)
    Composed and arranged by Ilwoo Lee
  6. 작은 위로가 있는 곳에 (Small Consolation)
    Written and composed by Ilwoo Lee; arranged by Ilwoo Lee and Bomi Kim
  7. 그대가 지내온 아픔들이 빛나는 축복의 별이 되어 (Onda Prelude)
    Composed and arranged by Ilwoo Lee
  8. 온다 (Onda)
    Written, composed and arranged by Ilwoo Lee

Album cover image from Bugs Music. Lyric translations by author.

Related writing: Jambinai – 차연 (Différance) (2012 In Review); Jambinai – A Hermitage (은서;隱棲) (2016 In Review)