“Pop-rock”, at once characterized by hook-heavy harmonies, jangly lead guitar licks, crunchy rhythm guitar riffs, and melodious bass lines, is alternative rock’s radio-friendly next-of-kin. Bands like The Gin Blossoms and The Lemonheads produced some of the most unforgettable pop-rock songs in the 90’s – pop tunes plugged into Marshall amps set to ten. Later on, the term “pop-rock” somehow plucked itself off from its grungy roots to describe glossy, danceable pop music that incorporated live instruments being played during performances. Today, it is very much alive in groups like Maroon 5, who infuse elements of dance, funk and electronic music in their songs.
It’s still an unusual sound in K-pop, where the hooks are definitely dominated by the dance groups, and the harmonies only ever make an appearance in r&b ballads. It’s tricky to be a rocker in the K-pop game. However, the few groups that identify as bands sans the prefix common in most K-pop today have won their fan bases over with their own brand of songwriting and performing on top of the pre-requisites that dictate idol behavior and physical appearance (nobody in K-pop can escape those!) FT Island, CNBlue, Busker Busker, and Dickpunks are some examples of bands that have secured their place in K-pop despite their lack of synchronized dance movements. Is there room on the playbill for more pop-rock?
Royal Pirates are a three-piece band composed of Kim Moon Chul (vocals and guitar), Kim Soo Yoon (drums and vocals) and James Lee (bass.) Some may refer to the band as belonging to the Western Line because they come from California. Prior to coming to Korea to work on their debut, Royal Pirates grew its fanbase off Youtube as a duo, with Moon Chul and Soo Yoon playing bare-bones rock covers of K-pop hits. They were very interesting even from the first fuzztone riff of their take on Super Junior’s “Sorry Sorry”.
Royal Pirates were what convinced a lot of reluctant listeners of K-pop that there was solid songwriting behind the hits, that these weren’t just songs that have marketed their way into K-pop consciousness. Royal Pirates sounded like a K-pop Black Keys – the bones of the song exposed by Moon’s rock n’roll riffs, and backed by Soo Yoon’s muscular drumming. Moon’s phrasing added an edge to the lyrics, too. Royal Pirates had promise and it showed in those early uploads. For a group that had yet to have an official debut, Royal Pirates had a loyal international fan base, and it was this fan base that followed the group’s journey from YouTube cult status to full-fledged K-pop stardom.
Signing with a small agency called Apple of the Eye Entertainment, Royal Pirates had a solid debut on SBS Inkigayo in August 2013 that introduced the band to the K-pop consuming public. Though the reception was a tad shaky, the band was able to reach the intended (mainstream) audience and they gained more fans during this time with their single “Shout Out”.
Perhaps Royal Pirates’ first mini album has come in at exactly the right time in K-pop. “Drawing the Line” marks the group’s comeback for 2014. If “Shout Out”’s release seemed experimental in the sense that it asked the question, “Who will listen to this band?”, then “Drawing the Line” asserts itself with more confidence than its debut and demands to be listened to. It’s a strong opening track. A stuttering guitar transforms into loose, yet clean guitar work. A tight rhythm section lifts the song off its ass and takes it to the dance floor, the drums embracing a disco-ish backbeat. The song hits all the right pop pressure points – heavy on the chorus’ recall, with sharp hooks. It’s almost just enough to make up for the slight awkwardness of its chorus (“You keep on drawing the line/just a little bigger every time.”)
The mini album’s second track, “You” starts off deceptively as an acoustic ballad (replete with a lap steel guitar-like whining in the background) only to come crashing into a dense wall of sound. This track is the most reminiscent of pop-rock songwriting from the 90’s, and its influences reveal themselves in the phrasing of its chorus, with chord progressions punctuating every line, and then taking a sudden sharp turn to a minor chord before the chorus’ end. For those who grew up on this type of pop-rock poetry, it’s nice to catch a glimpse of it on some new players in a fresh musical genre.
The band’s faster paced songs are always catchy, but how do their slower tracks fare? “See What I See”, the third track on the mini-album starts off plodding heavily and builds itself up into its soaring crescendo of a chorus. It’s a solid pop-rock ballad, and the only slow track on “Drawing The Line”. Its inclusion here is welcome, as it exhibits the range Royal Pirates have as a group. It’s a slow burner, but like all of the tracks on this album, can stand on its own if the band decides to release this as a single.
It’s great when pop rock pays homage to older influences, and the fourth track, “Fly” has shades of the British beat by way of “That Thing You Do!” There’s some bouncy drumming courtesy of Soo Yoon, and the harmonies in the song’s chorus work wonderfully in the background. If the boys could work on developing their three-part harmonies, they would be unstoppable.
The latter-day pop-rock sound reveals itself in “On My Mind”, with an intro that calls to mind the lazy swagger of Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning”. It’s equal parts hook and melody, rounding out the mini-album on a high note before the album closes with the English version of “Drawing The Line”. It’s an appreciated addition to the mini-album, something that gives Royal Pirates an edge when it comes to gaining an international audience.
With the band’s evident talent, more than marketable good looks and a just a little extra push from famous friends here and there to back them up, Royal Pirates are steadily gaining traction on the K-pop landscape. With a smart and snappy selection of songs included in their debut mini-album, listeners of rock-influenced K-pop will no doubt find a lot interesting in this promising three-piece. “Drawing the Line” is short, sweet, and all killer.
For the most part, Royal Pirates have been successful in determining that as far as groups like theirs go, the arena in which they have chosen to play is situated firmly in K-pop, as an idol band- a smart move for them in terms of audience building and recognition. So far, since “Drawing the Line” debuted at number 8 on the World Music Charts on Billboard, the group has been quite visible promoting and active on social media. Their recent guest spots on Arirang’s “After School Club” showed the boys’ (especially Moon Chul’s) capacity for hosting. Now, the group is set on beginning their promotional activities in Japan, which opens up a whole new ball game. It’s exciting to see where Royal Pirates intend to take the direction of their music next, but it’s good that Moon Chul, Soo Yoon and James are staying true to their pop-rock sound amid the pressures of working within a sugar-saturated music industry, proving that that the real win for Royal Pirates is less about drawing the line and more about walking it.
(This piece was revised on March 2, 2014. Special thanks to my batch mates from The Third K-Pop Writers’ Workshop for your thoughts and feedback on this piece!)