Aespa: Armageddon review | Alexis Petridis’s album of the week

Estimated read time 5 min read

If you doubt that the world of South Korean manufactured pop is significantly different from its western counterpart, then a description of female quartet Aespa – or rather the world around them – should put you right.

The artwork for ArmageddonView image in fullscreen

Their name may sound like an upmarket brand of air-freshener, but, according to the Seoul-based entertainment company that launched them in 2020, it melds the words “avatar”, “experience” and “aspect” in a way that’s intended to symbolise the ability to “meet another self through an avatar”. Aespa themselves are enmeshed in a kind of K-pop equivalent to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which bands are promoted as superheroes with interlinked storylines. In the case of Aespa, this involves each member having an online avatar or “ae” that is supposed to exist in another dimension called the Flat, but which can cross over to the real world via something called the Synk. In between the real world and the Flat lurks another virtual realm called the Kwangya, lawless and inhabited by Aespa’s mysterious mortal enemy the Black Mamba, who may or may not have hacked into the avatar of one of the band’s members, Karina, thus corrupting the real-world Karina.

To compound matters further, it isn’t entirely clear how, or indeed if, any of this links to the storyline around their debut album Armageddon, which requires its own website. Separate to the website concerned with the more traditional K-pop pursuit of denuding fans of their cash as efficiently as possible – one CD version of Armageddon comes in its own CD player, yours for the best part of 90 quid – this is a fantastically designed and entirely baffling morass of teletext pages, fake virus warning pop-ups and captchas, and links to mock news stories, conspiracy theorist websites and Aespa’s music videos. As far as one could discern before being overwhelmed by the urge to go and have a little lie down in a darkened room, the story now is that the world is threatened by an extinction-level event involving mystifying meteorological phenomena, a supernova, and mysterious pieces of alien popcorn that may in fact be “a manifestation of interdimensional rifts that allow glimpses into a parallel universe”. There’s also a blurry photo of a woman with three arms.

This is all intriguing, and, it has to be said, very well done – Aespa’s videos are charming and made to an extraordinarily high standard – yet it can’t help but rouse the suspicion that their music might constitute something of an afterthought, a theory not dispelled by actually listening to it.

Clocking in at half an hour, which makes it something of an epic by K-pop girl group standards – Blackpink’s two albums to date were each over in 24 minutes – Armageddon’s songs are the handiwork of writing and production teams who frequently hail from Sweden and the US, but seem to concentrate more or less exclusively on the South Korean market. There’s also Karen Poole, once of 90s pop-rock duo Alisha’s Attic, latterly the provider of hits for Kylie Minogue and Becky Hill. Her co-writing credit comes on Licorice, a quirky, catchy cocktail of hard rock guitar, trap-influenced rap flow and bubblegum pop hooks that’s probably the most arresting thing here. The sonics of K-pop have been subject to an overhaul of late – artists including NewJeans and Fifty Fifty have minted an appealingly airy and lithe sound that suggests someone in the vast entertainment organisations of Seoul has been listening to PinkPantheress – but Armageddon sticks with the familiar old model: grinding, lurching dubstep-derived basslines and rapping that shifts from English to Korean and back again, sometimes within the space of line; sudden jump-cuts to cutesy pop melodies and Auto-Tuned harmony vocals overlaid with fizzing EDM synths. For variety, there’s a burst of incredibly toothsome disco pop on Bahama – blessed with the album’s best chorus – and, on Live My Life, something approaching pop-punk, albeit pop-punk so rounded-edged it makes Avril Lavigne sound like Rudimentary Peni. It’s all both perfectly fine and faintly disappointing, given the evident effort that’s gone into the conceptualising around it.

Without a Korean-English dictionary, it’s hard to grasp what the lyrics have to do with the concept, although doubtless their fans will unpick it in time. And perhaps that’s where the fun lies: in immersing yourself in Aespa’s confected backstory, and scanning the translated lyrics for meanings and inferences that further the storyline.

It all makes Aespa a very modern band indeed. We’ve been told for years that music is no longer the central, defining force it once was in pop culture: well, here’s a band for whom it doesn’t appear to be the most important thing either. Whether you view that as pragmatic and forward-thinking or profoundly depressing is your call, but stripped of the added value – the mythology, the visuals, the styling – Armageddon can’t excite much more than a shrug.

This week Alexis listened to

Benét – The Real Me
His star acoustic turn supporting Faye Webster sent me back to Benét’s 2023 album Can I Go Again?: at its best when the arrangements don’t over elaborate his voice and guitar, as here.


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