My history with Urban Zakapa was different from their trajectory. Instead of becoming enamored with their titular songs “Caffe Latte” and “Sweety You,” I first encountered the group as part of the Tribute90 project, with their cover of “Just A Feeling.” I fell in love with their three-part harmonies and mistook Urban Zakapa as a trio, not the nine-piece multi-instrumental ensemble.

That confusion is very common, since popular Korean music isn’t known for ensemble groups. Unfortunately, the band doesn’t help to correct this problem. Their last record, [02], heavily emphasized the singing trio, leaving the six instrumentalists as an afterthought. For their new release, appropriately titled 03 (note the missing brackets), Urban Zakapa corrects this imbalance to great effect.

urban zakapa 03

What’s immediately apparent about 03 is how spare the vocal trio performs. From the teaser track “Walking Backwards” and the lead “One Day,” the vocals are simple compared to other ballads by the group. But that decision to tone down is a smart one, and not a gimmick. By keeping the high notes and long notes to a minimum, it focuses the band to interject more instrumental breaks and solos, as well as more harmonies.

On this latter point, it signals a return to their earlier work, with the light funk of “Do” and it’s alternating dual harmonies that are light against a hip bass line that suffuses the track. Harmonies play an important role on the two solo tracks by the guys, “춤을 추다” by Park Young In and “꿈” by Kwon Sun Il. They both put at their center aspects of their voices only hinted at in previous songs. Park Young In delivers velvet backing vocals to contrast his trademark gruff delivery. On his best track yet, Sun Il impressively blends his falsetto and deeper singing styles in one. You’ve heard both apart, but together, the combination is mind blowing.

The band side of Urban Zakapa grabs the spotlight when the opportunity presents itself. Horns make a joyous appearance on “Like Love” and “Do,” while the electric guitar is key to the ballads “When Winter Comes” and “Blind.” As the staple, the piano is put to great use on the Jo Hyun Ah solo, “우울,” with a fabulous staccato melody that hints of pain and anger. The keys also emphasizes the dreamy atmospherics of “꿈” and sets up the slow funk in “Tell Me.” Pianist Choi Yoon Jeong deserves more attention after her great work on “03”.

Urban Zakapa’s 03 tones down the vocal performances by Hyun Ah, Sun Il, and Young In to deliver a more band-centric record. The full band is on full display here, and moving from familiar, like smooth jazz, to new territory, like brooding piano pop to shoegaze. They are still at their best with ballads, with “Blind” and “괜찮아” as the standouts. It may not be fireworks on the vocal space, but 03 expands the group’s catalog with wonderful instrumental arrangements and light vocals to accent the emotions behind them.

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Contributed to McRoth’s Residence with a focus on Korean indie and hip-hop music.