Dongyang Gozupa translates to “Eastern High-frequency.” The band’s name is a clue to their sound. Core to the trio’s identity is a modern iteration of the Yanggeum, somewhat of an ancestor to the piano and a descendant of the Persian Santur. Playing progressive rock with an instrument used for traditional music during the late-Joseon dynasty is as difficult a choice as it is an interesting one.
Surface, as a first full-length, is at once a process of testing which elements of rock and traditional music to keep and an attempt to make the process itself feel as straightforward and approachable as possible. The names of each track allude to the sentimental or energetic nature of the songs.
All tracks, from “Wave” to “Sleep,” are purely instrumental. The closest thing to a human voice appears in the choral background of “Edge.” This forces you to pay attention to the interactions between the bass guitar, percussions, and the yanggeum. The bass guitar’s hefty metal-inspired energy often glues everything together, either by playing along the yanggeum’s melody or the percussive rhythms. The guitar tone provides a sense of familiarity, its role especially pronounced in tense tracks like “Destruction” and “Feed.” The funky bassline of “Past” is reminiscent of Rage Against The Machine or the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But percussions, unlike a full drum set, have a difficult time supporting the heaviness.
Sometimes, the bass gives way to the sentimental and psychedelic yanggeum riffs. “Spring” gives a taste of piano-like calmness, while “Noni” shows off an effervescent collaboration with percussions. The yanggeum paints a pointillist picture, rapidly hammering away at each note. The liveliness of “Galaxy” and “Island” in this sense is imaginable; the mystique of “Sleep,” on the other hand, is pleasantly surprising. It’s refreshing to see the much harder sound of the yanggeum serve the same role as those of the much softer guitar or violin.
The composition of this particular rock trio is without a doubt blazing trails. Surface is a meaningful album in this context. It’s on the extension of progressive rock, but pulls the “progress” towards Korean traditional music – a path rarely trodden, with challenges not yet fully uncovered. Dongyang Gozupa face the dilemma of either aiming for familiarity by fully embracing the heaviness of rock or novelty by exploring the psychedelic possibilities of the yanggeum. Conquering this challenge will lead this band to next-level authenticity.