Album Review: Trax – Blind

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Release: November 10, 2011
Distributor: SM Entertainment

The life of a metal band under the unlikely label of SM Entertainment:

1. Debut with an outdated visual-rock concept and a weird musical hybrid between SMP and nu metal.
2. Fail to garner attention, except for some moderate success in Japan.
3. Slowly transform into a rock-ballad band; lose the out-of-control looks and also two members along the way.
4. Take a 3-year hiatus; return as a full-fledged mellow pop band. Finally begin to gain some popularity.

And that is how Trax, after seven years since debut – which came before the debuts of all active SM artists except BoA, Kangta, and TVXQ – came to be one of the label’s least known artists. I’ll go out on a limb and say that more people have probably heard of former member Noh Min-woo, who is now an actor, or have seen current vocalist Jay as a member of SM the Ballad, or even have heard some rookie nu-metal band ripping it up in TVXQ’s 2004 single Tri-Angle, than have heard of the name Trax. Which is unfortunate – I was absolutely enchanted by Scorpio in 2004, and they were one of the extremely few visual-rock bands remaining in Korea for a time. SM CEO Lee Soo-man‘s business savvy didn’t do much favors for these guys.

But hey, here’s a new EP from the now-two-man-band. 창문 (Blind) doesn’t do anything fancy: it fits fairly snugly within Trax’s newly found, easy-listening identity. Its melodies are soft, smooth, and harmless; the arrangements, done in large part by guitarist Jungmo, are austere, homely and a sometimes little rough. Disappointingly, the EP is mediocre at those things and tries little else.

The songs reflect shades of rock-ballad bands popularized years ago. Speedy alternative number Like A Dream closely resembles the uptempo style of The Nuts, while slow ballad 가슴속에 묻어두겠지 (Buried In Your Heart) follows the footsteps of Flower and countless similar bands. Good News is much more interesting, channeling a little country with its rhythmic acoustics and tasteful ad-libs, but ultimately falls within the confines of M.C. the Max, which used to do some music with melodic arrangements even more creative as this one.

As is the case all too often, the EP’s saving grace comes from its title track, 창문 (Blind) – tellingly enough, Blind happens to be the least “easy-listening” track of the bunch. Now, it might not sound so good on paper at first. The EP’s other tracks go back maybe 6, 7 years in terms of when their respective genres were popular, but Blind goes back more like a decade: this is old-school rock ballad, where dramatic and catchy choruses, straight-played and austere arrangement, and unwavering vocals were the stuff of success. In other words, this is soundtrack music. You could probably dub this over a montage of some drama out there and get a pretty convincing promo trailer.

That’s not a bad thing. The hallmark of good soundtrack music is a memorable melody, and Blind undoubtedly has that. The explosive chorus, where Jay effortlessly (but also plainly) pulls out a grim, resolute melody, is the prime exhibit. It’s awfully intense, and the relentless strings and guitar add a bit of the edge missing in Jay’s performance. As is custom in these types of songs, the last minute is the track’s best; the brief instrumental lull followed by the sudden burst might be the oldest trick in the book, but it’s still effective.

Experimental track Knock Knock Knock deserves a few words, if only for the couple new wrinkles it shows off. The acoustic rhythm is a little too subdued to be called feisty, but it captures a bit of free, unconstrained spirit that we haven’t seen this band before (unless you count those visual-kei days, and that’s a whole different story). Taking the cue, Jay assumes a less controlled vocal style, letting his notes hang a bit and having a little fun with the falsetto ad-libs. He really is a good singer: most of Trax’s songs play it too safe for him to be able to do much, but this guy’s got a nice tone and uses it confidently. I’m sure he can still belt like he used to do in Paradox (2004), but the years of ballad have made this voice more nuanced.

So the vocalist is improving; on the other hand, the band’s music is stagnant. Blind doesn’t try anything that we haven’t been hearing for years, and the EP turns monotonous quickly. Its few tries at novelty, such as Knock Knock Knock, are rather feeble. This band needs to either take some risks or try and perfect their current craft; I half suspect that SM Entertainment’s pop-minded composer division could churn out better rock ballads than what this duo wrote for Blind. (Jungmo wrote all songs except Knock Knock Knock and Good News.) I’m still rooting for Trax to make it big someday, but this EP won’t help their cause much.

Tracklist (recommended tracks listed in bold)
1. 창문 (Blind)
2. Like A Dream
3. Knock Knock Knock
4. 가슴속에 묻어두겠지 (Buried In Your Heart)
5. Good News
6. 이별여행 (Silent River)

Photo credit: maniadb

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