Legendary Korean rock band 3rd Line Butterfly have excelled in the art of reinventing themselves every time they release something. What’s particularly thrilling about the band’s evolution is that you can hear their pure joy of discovery and risk-taking in each of their new releases. Their most recent album, Divided by Zero, is no exception; the album offers several new, unexpected iterations of the band’s sound – particularly in the form of caffeinated indie synth-pop – while still upholding and celebrating their original No Wave and avant-garde rock genes. 3rd Line Butterfly loves what they do, and that shines through in their music.
“Awaken” sounds like it could be the grand finale to close Divided by Zero, but instead, it opens it. The track is an eleven minute sample platter of the sound worlds 3rd Line Butterfly has in store for the rest of the album, from breezy indie pop to a synth-dowsed instrumental break to a driving rock anthem. However, the eleven minute length seems unnecessary; there are a fair amount of repetitive patches (for example, the first six minutes) throughout the song that could be easily shaved down for the sake of increased momentum.
“Put Your Needle on the Groove” is one of the most deliciously narcissistic sexy jams I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. Nam pivots between a lustful obsession with another person and lustful obsession with herself (“There’s no one here but the echo of my mirrors” // “When I kiss myself there’s a taste that outlasts…”) sometimes fusing the two (“I want you to love everything I do, just be kind, cause I’m not with myself”). The sparse arrangement – the shuffling beat, the Shin Jung Hyun-esque bass groove – is a crisp foundation that provides just enough room for the expansive synths, Nam’s twisty, sexy mantras, and chromatic riffs to pop with flavor.
It’s great to be able to hear 3rd Line Butterfly having fun in their brand new sandbox: synths. The electronic sounds they use are endearingly attention getting, and although they may come off as overbearing, you can’t complain that they lack personality. Some of the album’s synth-related experiments, however, are unsuccessful. “Sense Trance Dance” is a dated synth-pop piece that showed up to the party a decade too late. (Stick around for the unkempt instrumental break after the second chorus, though!)
The album’s title track, “Ex-Life,” is an ethereal indie synth-pop gem. The arrangement is stellar, with simple and bold bass notes accented by sparkly, panning synths. Nam’s voice is intricately layered with and shadowed by her own whispers, creating the effect of a conversation with one voice. Her performance is primarily wispy, but she infuses it with brief moments of tension, such as breaks and trembles. The unruly, bass-heavy chorus comes as a shock (especially Nam’s creaky vocal performance that bursts out of nowhere) and provides just the spicy kick that the song needed.
After a slew of synth-pop, 3rd Line Butterfly leaps into their avant-garde genes. And oh, how they do it well: “Present” is a wacky streak of genius. A potpourri of spitting saxophones, a bass that sounds like it swallowed a duck, and erratic percussion noises provides a surprisingly catchy foundation for the song. The verses introduce some juicy tension with an inappropriately accessible vocal melody and sax solo, leading into the similarly inappropriately stable and elegant chorus, all while the wacky loop keeps quacking away…
Next up on the album is the No Wave tinged rock that 3rd Line Butterfly has championed over the years. In “Homo Ludens,” Oh’s screaming is, as always, to die for; her voice cracks in all the right and wrong places, and the guitar keeps on digging into the ground until its seams come undone. The wailing synth line in “Dare Your Fear” is enough to give you an uneasy stomach, but the erratic, taunting percussion noises continue to twist the dagger. This is another track that is particularly well-arranged; the transformations between warm and cold sound worlds, drunken verses to more controlled choruses, etc., are all carefully blueprinted.
“Zero” is at once a straightforward rock anthem and a perverted little beast. The band shows off their skills with an exciting build up and a triumphant 5/4 groove. But the insistently repeated eighth notes of the drum kit and bass combined with Nam’s guttural groans accumulate into a considerable stench of instability. Each band member is masterful at adding small accents — slides, interruptions, wails – that prevent the listener from ever getting too comfortable.
In general, 3rd Line Butterfly wears the intimate, slow-tempo ballads just as well as their more electrified tracks. However, because they are all lumped together, the album’s pace suffers slightly. “Stay With Me” is an elegant and somber track, and although it might not be the most interesting number on the album, Nam always makes things worth listening to as she lets her heart seep out of her whispers. “Hello Baby” is another one of the more mellow tracks on the album, an agreeable dream pop song with a nice nostalgic quality, but doesn’t add a particular lot to the album.
In the finale, “Spring Breeze,” Nam lets everything out and performs what seems to be a spring cleaning of her throat. The flute (use flute in rock music more, everyone!), strings, and horn complement 3rd Line Butterfly’s core flavors beautifully and provide a blossom of color that finishes the album on a fresh note.