Silica Gel is the latest to join the legion of synth-rock bands in the Korean indie scene, but has already more than found a place for itself. While the band established a strong psychedelic, shoegazing, and ambient base with its first full-length album Silica Gel, their most recent album SiO2.nH2O builds upon these romantic sentiments with a kitschy approach, nicely encapsulating the Korean hipster aesthetic.
The 8-bit ambience leading into the opening track “Nap” gracefully falls into the background as rich synths come in. The vocals and guitar tone immediately evoke feelings from “Space Angels,” a collaboration single by Parasol and Silica Gel. This track too brings the 80s and 90s cyberpunk aesthetic back to life. The drum and basslines somehow manage to fit a funkiness into the majestic, on-beat synth stacks.
The next track “Ttukbang-Gil” goes all-out kitsch, with 80s-synths and narrations. The slightly out-of-tune guitar tows the line between psychedelic and beachy blues, while the synth arpeggios and crashing waves in the ambience likewise replicate the feeling. Even as the ripples of synths ebb and flow, the drum and bassline remain firmly in place, much like a levee the title refers to. The synths get the better of the song towards the end, though, and takes things to space.
“Zzz” is an interlude track, with lofi strings, an accordion, and filtered drums. The soundscape suggests an old western aesthetic.
“Rogues” is interesting because it phonetically explores an old Korean word in the chorus. This is also the most acoustically-based track, although synths and distorted bass, along with a whole host of other instrumental sources, come in to constitute the chorus. There is an odd sense of cacophony in the chords progression, which combines with an almost cinematic use of ambience.
“Neo Soul” feels like the most typical Silica Gel track, the sentimental synth melodies with Kim Hanjoo’s characteristic vocals, peppered with psychedelic sparkles. The synth solo is more appreciable with the knowledge of Kim Hanjoo’s skills in mind – he needs not use software modulators. Perhaps to make room for the synths, the guitars and drums stick to basic punk riffs except during the bluesy guitar solo towards the end.
If all of the previous songs were instances of self-exploration (amplifying qualities already present in the band’s past music), “Grinnae” is a step beyond. The melody sounds like something by Broccoli, You Too, but the distorted guitar is an element of differentiation. The two vocalists go for a more balladic approach, while the woodwinds, strings, and modulating synths add a lo-fi touch to an otherwise heady ambience. The instrumental breakdown in the middle summons profiles of garage bands like Kings of Leon. The return of the 8-bit synths gives a sense of uniformity to the album.
The two remix tracks bring the old and new together; DJ Soulscape and Dalparan are some of the initial names of the Korean electronic music scene, going back to its infancy in the 90s. Korean indie rock songs have crept into the club scene in smaller circles, but remixes by prominent producers have been rare.
The DJ Soulscape remix of “Neo Soul” brings in the drum machine and strips back the synths to just the chords, fusing disco with psychedelic. He still had the good sense to leave the guitar solo in for the breakdown, highlighting the original feel of the song.
Dalparan’s remix of “Rogues” brings techno into the mix, translating cacophonic elements of the original song into an industrial iteration. Chopped vocal samples provide an extra sense of rhythm. In light of Yaeji’s popularity in the U.S., this track is a reminder that Korean techno is a much more legitimate tradition than it seems.
It is a shame that this album will be the last by Silica Gel for at least a year or two, as the band has announced its members will be heading off to military duty. SiO2n.H2O is a record of the 2017 Korean hipster aesthetic and a nice place to start to get acquainted with popular motifs among Korean indie fans.