K-drama OST Review: Heartless City

15 01 2014

by: Raine

Heartless_City_the posse

(The best bromances, friendships, and bad guy group of awesomeness ever!)

I’ve been a tad neglectful of the Dichotomy and I wanted to bring you guys some good stuff. As a musician, I thought reviewing OSTs would be fun. I asked around on Twitter and compiled a list of OSTs you guys wanted to hear about. First up is Heartless City (aka Cruel City), one of my favorite dramas with one of my favorite OSTs.

I will list the OST in order of release and then talk about them. I’ll put a glossary of some terms I use at the bottom and highlight the words in the review so you know I’ve explained them.

Heartless_City_Wolf_Tattoo_Kyungho

(I need to be that woman painting the tattoo, but I suppose Sooyoung will have something to say about that, hm?)

First, though, I want to say this OST is as slick and sexy as Heartless City is. It is the delectable cheese to the drama’s fine wine. The songs revel in themselves, make great use of real instruments and synthesizers, were wisely produced, and the singers have immaculate control of their voices. The OST is one of the best-complimenting OSTs that I’ve heard in a while. I will often like a song on a OST, but think that is inappropriate for the show or inappropriately used. But Heartless City‘s OST was non-invasive and always enhanced the moment.

I want to say that this OST is functional in a way that a really good video game OST is. A song or theme can be repeatedly used without becoming annoying because it is well-planned and well-matched the the specific character or mood it is supposed to match. When you hear the song on its own after watching a drama, it automatically brings up a very specific set of emotions, or image of a moment, or thought of an actor or scene. Heartless City’s OST makes me think, “I need to watch this AGAIN.”

Heartless City OST Part 1 200px-Heartless_City_OST_Part_1

The first time this song played, I think everyone fell in love with it and along with it, Jung Kyung-ho’s Paksa Adeul/Jung Shi-hyun. It was such a raw experience to watch that intricately choreographed knife fight in the narrow hallway with this crooning rock number behind it. I’m playing it as I write and Lil’ Raine says, “I want to watch it.” And that, my friends, is the power of a great OST paired with a great show.

Basic song analysis: It’s verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus. Or, in other words, a super typical rock song that has a few transitions in between. A few synthesized held chords and windy sound effects are joined by a sustained bass note that brings a steady, quiet beat laid down by the drums. Those bring in Kim Yong-jin (we’ll get to his voice and singing style in a minute) who sneaks all sexy-like in to join the texture that thickens when the drums get a little busier without getting louder. That creates tension. As the verse progress, a guitar plays on all the downbeats, bringing the mourning, awesome chorus. It stays loud, then the texture thins: guitar and voice and a lot of the drum kit stop. We hear the opening and then we rinse and repeat. After that is the bridge, which is a small instrumental break followed by Yong-jin singing us back into the awesome chorus with some synthesized strings and keys added into the mix. The long-held synthesizer chords bring tension into the purely instrumental moments as they sustain and the drums carry the song forward.  It’s just clever usage of typical song technique.

Kim Yong-jin: I love this guys voice. It’s a husky voice that has wonderfully open projection during loud moments and the man knows how to use the huskiness to bring out the sexy and the angst. When he sings loud, he doesn’t scream like some belters out there, and he really supports his voice with good breathing. You can actually hear that he isn’t straining his vocal cords. HOORAY! He also does soft really well. It’s not weak because it’s soft. It’s just soft. Tone and power don’t suffer for volume. And It’s just so damned sexy. Like Jung Shi-hyun…

Lyrics: The lyrics are about love being dead and a man wandering the city, damaged by love and probably by life. Sounds like Heartless Citys Shi-hyun, right? I feel like the crooning of the synthesizers and the steady rock beat really compliment the sad, city-man vibe of the song.

I LOVE THIS SONG! It’s so great and catchy and just has the ‘it’ factor that no amount of music graduate schooling will allow me to explain.

Heartless City OST Part 2

200px-Heartless_City_OST_Part_2

This song, the love song of Heartless City, is just simple and gorgeous. It is unpresuming and is very introverted, which is so perfect for a lot of Heartless City. The show reflects a lot on the lack of humanity and the abundance of cruelty in the world. Reminds me of Sarah Mclachlan and her singing and song style: slow, full-bodied and a little melancholy. The simplicity of the instrumentals, just piano and a few-piece drum set, is fantastic. Would also make a great transition to the live stage!

Basic structure: This song also is just about verses, choruses and matching the mood of the lyrics. It starts with Hye Rim crooning out her sadness. She’s joined by barebones piano and they duet that way for a while until the chorus comes along. They get louder and the piano gets a bit note-y-er but not much else happens until she, a capella, brings in the piano and a drum set. The set works with some brushes to soften the sound and really sits on the backside of the beat. What I mean by that is it seems like the beat is as reluctant to move forward as Hye Rim is to let go of her lover. Well, at least her lover in the song.

Hye Rim: Is it just me or does this woman sound like Sarah Mclachlan? Seriously! It’s not a bad thing. I LOVE Sarah and she sang the soundtrack to my life growing up. I just want to take Hye Rim to Lollapalooza! She doesn’t have as much of that yodel-feel (I don’t know what that technique is called) as Sarah, but its the same open tone, easy-going vocals that are emotion packed.

Lyrics: The lyrics are about a woman comparing the lover she left to a butterfly. She misses him and can’t stop thinking about him and dwelling in memories. The set up of the song is just so perfect for these lyrics, the empty texture, the 3-piece band, the limited production. Just so beautiful. It mimics the loneliness of the lyrics. I do find some of the English phrases awkward, but as a lover of K-pop, you get used to such things.

It’s really beautiful and fitting for the Love theme.

Heartless City OST Part 3

200px-Heartless_City_OST_Part_3

The song is so sexy at the start with the Spanish guitar and the slow groove laid down by the drum set. There is a bass and keys reinforcing the downbeat for the sexy, sexy three-feel. Jo Jung Hee doesn’t push his voice at all and allows air to escape, giving breathy, sexy vocals. He sits really well and heavy into the beat. Then a cello comes in to comment every once and a while, mimicking the lilting vocals. Jung Hee ssi has the same vocal stylings as Hye Rim ssi in in Butterfly, but the cello/(strings) makes the song even heavier along with the huge range jumps in the chorus (“Because you are my love.”)

It sounds like they have another guitar player adding a few simple notes on top, or it could be the same player recording again. In any case, the instrumentation is simple: 2 guitars, drums, strings, Jo Jung-hee. I love it simple. Makes it feel like you’re in a cafe, late at night, enjoy a glass of wine and listening to the house singer croon with his bandmates after the end of a hard day. Let’s face it, that’s usually what the people in Heartless City are doing (drinking) at the end of a hard day. Probably with harder stuff than wine.

The lyrics focus on a man whose made mistakes and is nervous, but still wants to protect his love. The English is clear and grammatically correct, which makes me happy. YAY FOR GOOD ENGLISH! Not like my Korean is great, but good English makes me happy! *happy dance*

I love how the song peters out on a vamp at the end. (Vamping is when is core group lays the same stuff over and over and single players here and there improv over it.) Jo Jung-hee does a few vocal riffs and exchanges musical phrases with the guitar. It’s a lovely way for the song to go out. It plays out a lot like the romance in this show: quiet, understated, sad and gradually coming to an end.

This song makes me revel in the melancholy of it all and it makes me enjoy it!

Heartless City OST

200px-Heartless_City_OST

(All tracks published by DRM미디어 (DRM Media) and 로엔엔터테인먼트 (Loen Entertainment))

Track 4, the Heartless City title song, is the first really heavily produced song to be heard in terms of the OST release. It’s got lots of synths, altered vocals, and a taste of agonized Middle Eastern singing. (If anyone knows what style this singing is sampled from, that would be great to know!) It’s undercut with calmer vocals that only increases tension. Then the beat moves and we get an exciting, dark intro to an exciting, dark world.

Track 5, Cosmos, takes its lead from the clarinet. A lot of the background music (BGM) in this show does. First, there is some synthesized bass, lower keyboard work that lays down a heartbeat for the clarinet to meander over. It’s meant to help build a scene up and to do that it keeps layering on instruments over the heartbeat. First the clarinet, then the strings, then some kind of guitar. It reminds me a bit of the BGM in City Hunter in the use of the instrumentals. Then there is a pause after some buildup. Silence is a very effective musical tool it can create or release tension. In this case, it releases tensions and allows for the song to come to an end with another clarinet solo.

Track 6, Memories of the Past, sounds like spy music with the high pitched piano and pitched percussion instruments. The buildup moves towards a string melody where all strings are playing in unison and being as badass as Paksa, Soo and Safari all fighting together…except it’s spy music. So they were probably sneaking around together. It’s pretty generic as far as this type of music goes, but its highly effective.

Track 7, The Man, has the same Spanish guitar as Everyday and it’s lovely. It is Shi-hyun’s think music: cool, calm and sexy. Can thinking be sexy? If its Shi-hyun doing the thinking! And this guitar with the quiet percussion and strings behind it makes me want to find a string quartet and a percussion player to play it. Like the rest of the OST, it is in a minor key (making it sound gloooomy) and really plays a lot with chords (notes put together that have certain sounds like happy, sad, or tense). The second half of the song has a bass player join in just to round out the bottom end of the texture before it ends on a jazzy chord. Super badass.

Track 8, Undercover, is the music that plays when a character’s world falls out from under their feet. It’s the moment of horrible realization that something has happened. The music starts out on a quiet help note that is indicative of disbelief and continues into quietly swelling chords that act like shaky breaths. The chords are filled out by the piano as realization hits the characters and then strings play steady, quick notes to build tension before the texture dies back down to let the characters wallow. There is buildup again and it suddenly ends as the characters decide its time to TCB, take care of business. It’s one of my favorite BGM tracks. It’s really well-planned and put together. It also reminds me of City Hunter. Anyone with the physical album know if they have the same composer? Anyone? Bueller?

Track 9, 그날밤/That Night, plays during the kissing at the end of episode 9. The name is appropriate. It’s their one real night together, but I still hear it as their romantic theme. It is also in three, like Everyday, and has a lot of contrast in style of execution. The upper strings play long notes over the pizzicato (plucked notes) of the lower strings. The upper strings dance with the winds in a minor (sad) key to create this wistful, nostalgic piece that accompanies our lovers during their one night.  Different instruments trade off the melody and then play in harmony, like the lovers in their bed. It’s pretty romantic sounding in all of it’s minor key glory. This song could be easily orchestrated and played live with an orchestra, much like they do with video game music. I’d like that! DO IT!

Track 10, Sharpen the Knife, uses jarring sounds like clanging, hollow-sounding percussion and whining guitars that bend pitches to create a tense mood before bringing in angry strings. Percussion is what creates the aggressive feeling behind this BGM and it’s used for chasing, and tense scenes were reveals are scarily made. Or for fighting the clock. It’s effective and useful. It’s much like any Hollywood movie score during a chase scene.

There you have it, folks, my kinda music nerdy review. Let me know what you think of the album. If you have the physical album, what’s good about it? Pretty pictures? Clear organization of written material? Jung Kyung-ho on the cover?!

Glossary:

Produce/production: How something is recorded (mics and all) and then altered. The post-production stuff of music. A singer (or instrumentalist) goes in, records and then afterwards, the music guy (engineer if you want to get all fancy, heh) futzes around with it puts all sorts of effects and adds in other instruments and layers and does all sorts of fancy stuff that I don’t understand. Sometimes the background is recorded first in its entirety. Sometimes just some keys or a guitar will be laid down and then the vocals. Sometimes someone will buy a beat someone wrote (or write their own) then work with that. So basically, production is what happens with the engineer. It’s what happens in a studio. Not on a stage. It’s what makes albums a wonderful, fun tool for musicians. It’s the recording process and the sprucing up of a song/piece. Whatevs.

Real instruments vs synthesizers: As a cellist, I can hear when someone didn’t have the budget (or just didn’t have the concept) to use real instruments, be they cello, piano, or drums. It’s a big distinction to make when listening to a song because it says a lot about the concept of the piece, and sometimes, a lot about the budget. Hiring musicians to record is expensive. We’re being replaced by FAKES! But sometimes those sound cool. Shhhh!

Texture: How many things are happening at the same time. The build-up of how many instruments/singers are performing at the same time and how they drop out and come back in. It really does a lot to build tension and release it in music.

Downbeat: Music is organized into small units of beats, usually into groups of three or four. In the case of “Everyday,” there are grouping of three. The first beat of each grouping is the downbeat. When you emphasize that, you often get a Waltz feel or some other kinda of dance feel.

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3 responses

29 06 2014
Ice

Where can I buy the cd? I can’t find it anywhere…:(

16 01 2014
martha

Wonderful review! A good OST makes a good drama even better.

15 01 2014
BetsyHp

I love everything about this post. Everything. I thought the music in HC was flawless but I couldn’t come close to articulating why and you’ve done it beautifully. Plus! I learned things (the vocab, the technical aspects) and I love learning things!

I’m so excited that you’re starting this as a thing. There’ve been times that I’ve thought a k-drama’s been doing well with their music, but didn’t take it further than that — so I look forward to future posts! :D

Also — good Lord, that was an awesome tattoo! Why? Why did they have to blur that loveliness out?!? (For some reason I’d thought was a dragon or a snake and was, obviously, completely wrong.)

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