Sunday, June 17, 2012

KOREAN MUSIC: MBC’s “I AM a Singer” Season 2 (5)

Naneun Gasuda (나는 가수다) or NAGASU (나가수)

Although it is still a good show with good music, watching NAGASU 2 has felt more like watching KBS’s “Concert 7080” or “Open Concert.”  In other words, the show seems to have suddenly grown old compared to its first season.  Maybe it’s because changing the competition rules have made it less thrilling.  Or maybe it’s because some of its cast are seemingly washed up, old-fashioned singers.  But what’s obvious is that, its ratings aside, this once much-talked about show hardly attracts the media or public attention.  It seems like no one’s talking about it.  In season one, news about the show and the critic or fan reviews were plastered all over the internet just a minute after it was over.  But not anymore.  Every Sunday morning, I turned on my computer the first thing to see who won and who was eliminated.  But not anymore.

Guckkasten: (left to right)  Lee Jeonggil (drums), Ha Hyunwoo (vocals and guitar), 
Kim Jineok (bass guitar), and Jeon Gyuho (lead guitar)

On the first night of the second round (6/3/2012), however, the psychedelic rock band Guckkasten made their first appearance and added a refreshing jolt of energy to the insipid show. They are considered one of the most successful bands on the Korean indie music scene but have remained invisible to a mainstream audience engaged by mainstream media.  Even though they were the most-recommended by the music critics to share the NAGASU stage with other veteran singers, their win was totally unexpected considering their low public recognition and the previous elimination of Baekdusan, Korea’s legendary heavy metal band.  In short, rock is a worthy genre Korea is not as familiar with.  And even they could hardly believe their ears themselves when their name was announced as a winner.

Guckkasten: "A Glass of Reminiscences"
on MBC's NAGASU (aired on 6/3/2012)

Lyrics:  “A Glass of Reminiscences”

Late at night, sitting lonesomely by the window,
I watch the fading light.
Somewhere there's a voice calling me.
So I look around with my drunken eyes wide open
And I saw your face in my wine glass.
Let’s drink a glass of reminiscences.
Let’s drink a glass of wine.
Let’s drink, let’s drink it up.

We spent the long winter nights together.
We tried to subdue each other’s silent sobs.
Our stories flowed over the clinking glasses.
I saw your face over the flickering lights.
I pour that face I loved into my glass.
Let’s drink a glass of reminiscences.
Let’s drink a glass of wine.
Let’s drink, let’s drink it up.

Standing alone on a dark street at night,
I watched the dim street lights.
Somewhere, there's a voice calling me,
So I look back on the off chance
Only to see the lonely shadow of mine.
Let’s drink a glass of reminiscences.
Let’s drink a glass of wine.
Let’s drink, let’s drink it up.
Let’s drink, let’s drink it up.

Guckkasten is an archaic German word that translates to “Ancient Chinese Kaleidoscope,” the colors and patterns of which are known to look like fireworks.  The band’s name reflects the dreamy, colorful, and psychedelic atmosphere as well as the delicate yet fierce quality of their music.  While reading The Odyssey of Aesthetics: Piranesi and the World of Beauty by Chin Jungkwon, a philosopher, professor, and cultural critic, Ha Hyunwoo (vocals and guitar) was so inspired that he named the band after the word he found in the book, i.e., Guckkasten. In their 2009 interview with IZM, Ha said, “There's something psychedelic about this ancient instrument. Just like that, I thought we could create the modern psychedelic music that is palatable to listeners using an older analog technology.” (Source: Their 2009 Interview with IZM)  As their musical inspirations, Han cited Radiohead and Marilyn Manson, Jeon Gyuho (lead guitar) cited Lee Byungwoo, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Nuno Bettencourt, Lee Jeonggil (drums) cited Metallica, Lars Ulrich, Radiohead, and Green Day, and Kim Gibum (bass guitar) cited Rage Against The Machine and Green Day.

On the first listen, their lyrics seem too weird to understand.  As follows is Ha Hyunwoo on their lyrics (Excertps from their 2011 Interview with DCInside News):

HA:  I don’t think our lyrics are puzzling.  I just wanted to be more abundantly expressive.  I don’t want to write “I love you” to say “I love you.”  The phrase is such a cliché that there's nothing special about it anymore when we hear it. Such feelings are something everyone feels differently.  I use unfamiliar words or strange phenomena to describe such feelings in various ways.  In other words, I’m looking for ways to write beyond words by visualizing a variety of subtle and sensitive feelings.  I think my lyrics are improving in that spirit.

DCINSIDE NEWS:  I think the masses are too used to straightforward lyrics to understand metaphorical expressions.

HA:  I agree.  I often say, “If some say our lyrics are too hard to understand, such people might have never finished even one single poetry book.”   

For their first stage on NAGASU, however, they played it safe by choosing Lee Janghee’s 1974 hit, Han Jane Chueok ( 잔의 추억, “A Glass of Reminiscences”) to reach the heart of every person in the audience and it turned out to be a clever move.  Not only did they become a bona fide winner, but they grabbed the valuable opportunity to break into the mainstream just like Kim Beomsu and Lena Park did in season one.  Reportedly, they have already been receiving offers to appear on commercials, TV talk shows or TV entertainment shows.

BTW, coincidentally, two songs written by the 70’s legendary folk singer/songwriter Lee Janghee were chosen on the show’s first night of the second round:  “A Glass of Reminiscences” by Guckkasten and Bul Ggeojin Chang (불꺼진 , “An Extinguished Window”) by Park Sangmin.  “A Glass of Reminiscences” was featured on the soundtrack of the 1974 Korean film, Byeoldeure Gohyang (별들의 고향, “The Stars’ Heavenly Home”), and “An Extinguished Window” was sung by Cho Yongnam in 1973 and also by Nam Gyuri on SBS’s 2011 drama “49 Days” (Click to listen to Nam sing the song.).  Both songs were banned for ridiculous reasons during Park Chunghee-Chun Doohwan’s military dictatorship (1963~1987): The former might encourage drinking and the title of the latter might encourage lewd thoughts.

Original Version: Lee Janghee
Han Jane Chueok "A Glass of Reminiscences" (1974)
OST from "The Stars' Heavenly Home"

Now, I’ll introduce Guckkasten’s two signature songs to you.  The first song is Geo-ul (거울, “The Mirror”) featured on their 2007 debut single.  When asked about the song’s meaning, Ha said, “This is a song about me, a story of splitting of the ego.  Sometimes when I see an ashtray, I feel like it and other times when I see poop, I feel like it.  Just like that, when I look myself in the mirror, I see my other ego.  Me and my other ego dance together off beat.  When me and my ego dance together with our ears and eyes closed, my steps start faltering.  My “self” starts splitting.” (Source: Their 2009 Interview with IZM)  

Guckkasten: "The Mirror"
Guckkasten Concert in Seoul (12/11/2011)

Lyrics:  “The Mirror”

The eyes of naked you watch my naked body.
You hold me so coldly and kiss me so bitterly.
Your strong scent made my steps falter.
With faltering steps, I’m growing tired.
Pathetically I’m coming to you again.

(Refrain)  You quietly cover your ears with your hands
And dance with your eyes closed.
With me standing behind you,
You dance looking at yourself in the mirror.
You offer your chapped hand
And ask me to join you.
With an uneasy gesture,
I look into the mirror to find me.

You dance with your eyes closed.
You dance with your ears covered.
You dance with your eyes closed.
You dance with your ears covered.

The next song is Bulgeun Bat (붉은 , “The Red Field”), featured on their 2010 mini album.  The song was written based on Ha Hyunwoo’s dream.  According to him, it’s a story about a man who broke free from taboos, regardless of good or evil, reached top, and fell into ruin. It was metaphorized in the image of a fallen angel who turned into a bird.  The bird tried to fly up higher and higher only to fall to the ground, die, and stain the field with its blood.  So the field turned red, which embodies human passion and fight against ridiculous taboos.

Guckkasten: "The Red Field" (Acoustic Version)
on KBS's Sketchbook (aired on 1/8/2011)

Lyrics:  “The Red Field”

Red Angel, you drank up joy.
Let’s fall into the last flame.
The voluptuous scream that you bit off
Make us all dance.
Holding our cast-off skins in our hands,
We go to touch the sun.

(Refrain)  Our heated bodies are gradually cracking.
Come down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down.
My drying bones are losing their memories.
Come down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down.
Come down, come down, come down

The corner of the last flame,
The chorus of an angel,
Who turned into a bird,
The last flame,
The broken senses,
An angel who turned into a bird,
The cursed land inside me.

Lastly, even though I’m not a Kim Yeonwoo fan, I think he deserved to be in the top three spot.  I really liked his rendition of this 80’s hit Dangsinmani (당신만이, “Only You”) by Beonnimdeul (벗님들, “The Friends”).  And I think he sounds way better in falsetto.

[STUDIO VERSION] Kim Yeonwoo: "Only You"
on MBC's NAGASU (aired on 6/3/2012)

Lyrics:  “Only You”

Even if the dazzling sunlight shines upon me, what’s the use?
My beautiful you are my only light.
Even if the subtle moonlight embraces me, what’s the use?
Only your sweet-smelling hair can embrace me tenderly.
(Refrain)  My dear, please don’t say goodbye
But give me the look of love only.
Ah! Just like this, I want to keep my love forever.
Even if the dazzling sunlight shines upon me, what’s the use?
My beautiful you are my only light.

Original Version: Beonnimdeul (The Friends)
Dangsinmani "Only You" (1984)

KOREAN MUSIC: MBC's "I Am a Singer" Season 2 (4)
KOREAN MUSIC: MBC's "I Am a Singer" Season 2 (6)

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