Harmony album cover
An unexpected talent from Korea crafts a strikingly emotional album that’s equal parts electronic and balladic.
Young Fenimore Lee | October 24, 2019

The Western music world seems impervious to Asian independent music. Last year saw the arrival of the momentous album Crumbling by Mid-Air Thief, which, in another universe, would have signaled the inflood of Western awareness of the wealth of interesting, intelligent independent music coming from Korea. In the last year alone, Philos by Park Jiha, Crumbling by Mid-Air Thief (who, in 2015, created the similarly-ignored yet brilliant Gongjoong Doduk), and Onda by Jambinai were all released. What genre classifications do they fall under? Who are their influences? Are the dominant tastemakers of the Western music world (Pitchfork, Anthony Fantano, etc.) telling you? Why not?

Of course Pitchfork isn’t telling you - these are albums that are found when digging what feels like just another Internet wastebin: the larger music listening community that comes from rateyourmusic, r/indieheads, and more. For me, a Korean-American, discovering Korean independent music through these means brings twinge-infused joy, as the overwhelmingly white world of Western indie discovers musical jewels and gems of my heritage before I do. And that’s where 和​ (​Harmony) by 카코포니 (cacophony) is situated in my mind - another striking album from a Korean talent who seems to be inevitably ignored by the world at large.

Harmony is cacophony’s letter to her late mother. Lyrically, she confesses all worries and insecurities about her relationship with her. In many moments, a compressed voice shrieks alongside the instrumentals, such as in the chorus of “In the end” (“결국 너는 영원히 남은 사람인걸,” or “In the end, you are forever in my mind”), the climactic moment on “Comme un poisson dans le ciel” (pleading “s’il te plaît”), and most of the track “White,” which is produced in a fuzzy, lo-fi tone. A soft whistle tracks alongside the vocals to the bridge on “Tell me.” It’s hard to separate these moments from the heartbreaking idea, presented in the music video to “숨 (Breath),” of cacophony singing to the heavens as her mother presents herself back in the earthly form of soft whistles and ah’s.

The drama of bereavement is an idea well documented for the West in the melodrama of Korean soap operas and most popular television. The range of this drama, to most, likely doesn’t include for something as tender as the soft synths of “Tell Me” and the short, hopeful song “Spring,” nor as complex as the Björk-esque electronic moments in “kk” and “In the End.” The synthesizer interlude in “Tell Me” draws comparisons, for a Western listener, to the ambient synth works by Emily Sprague or Aphex Twin - serenely intriguing - for the moment, before exiting swiftly in cacophony’s own artfully poppy way.

Certain moments on the album, however, will be rather unpalatable for most Western listeners, and even for some Korean listeners, due to their resemblance to the extreme melodrama I mentioned earlier. The example that first comes to mind is the opening to “Sick Boy,” whose dramatic piano chords play off of cheesy midi-strings. It’s unpalatable to most “serious” music listeners in the West, for whom such music is coded with the worst of connotations. It’s unpalatable to the non-mainstream Korean who seeks something outside the kitschiness of the popular. It’s unpalatable to myself. But to cacophony, it’s clearly meaningful, as she plays off of this introduction to craft a compelling track, filled with as many balladic moments as playful, artfully dramatic synth notes panned to the outside of the soundscapes.

What carries a Western listener through these strange, alien moments is cacophony’s incredible voice, produced perfectly by 곽은정 (Kwak Eun-Jung), whose talents are made clear by every flawless tone heard on this album. The remarkable artistic range of cacophony’s voice moves her from the typically dramatic “숨 (Breath)” to the art pop electronica of “In the End” to the lullaby “Tell Me.” It’s precisely that strength in her voice that creates this cohesion in the concept of the album. The concept, thus, became so clear in my mind that after a while, the ending of the album, in which she sings “피어나” (“bloom”) repeatedly, begins to sound like “일어나” (“wake up”) instead.

cute drawing here
Young Fenimore Lee
Pictured: Henry, his pet Jellybone

Young is the child of two Korean musicians and was born and raised in the Chicago metropolitan area. They identify as queer and non-binary. They’re currently going through emocore/screamo essentials, and they love indie rock, indie folk, emo, post-hardcore, and math rock. Feel free to take a look at their rateyourmusic account, their last.fm, and this collage of the 100 albums they consider most personally important.