Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Anarchy in the SK!

By: Michael Cho

When people think of popular Korean music (K-POP), well-choreographed dance routines and well-crafted plastic surgery are the norm.  All songs are about love and even the “hardcore” rappers rhyme about love.  K-POP, J-POP (Japanese pop music) and Canto-Pop (Cantonese pop music) all occupy the same slick, commercialized niche which seeks to maximize the amount of profit and the exposure of the artist.  It is not uncommon to see singers turn into actors and vice versa.

There have been revolutionary artists in the Korean pop scene who have stood the test of time, Kim Gunmo and Seo Taeji, who have varied their styles and genres over the years.  However, they still remain safe, marketable and appeal to the larger, Western pop culture sensibility with a Korean twist.  However, Skunk Label Records, (Not to be confused with Skunk Records, the Long Beach record label founded by former Sublime lead Bradley Nowell) has been at the forefront of the Korean ska, punk and oi scene since 1994.  One of the premiere bands on Skunk Label is The Cockrasher, who released their debut album with the label in 2007, titled Kids Return Now.

The album is 13 dense tracks of screamed, harsh vocals and grinding guitars.  Since punk rock in Korea doesn’t have the same sort of history as SoCal hardcore, or original British ska-descended punk, The Cockrasher takes its musical cues from all over the spectrum.  Their look is SoCal Hardcore all the way, the music is a mélange of The Clash, Rancid, The Pogues, and The Dropkick Murphys.  Like many punk bands before them, it is easy to trace their lineage and influences and The Cockrasher pay homage to them all.

This however is where the main weakness of the album lies - they sound like their influences a little too much.  Listening to the album, you pause and wonder when Rancid issued a Korean language album, or if The Dropkick Murphys’ ripped off a bass line from Matt Freeman of Rancid.  Vocalist Lee Suenghan crafts a blend of Al Barr and Tim Armstrong, injecting his gravelly voice enthusiastically in all the tracks and bassist Lee Taesun (No relation, although the real brother Lee Seungjun is the guitarist) lets loose with absolutely Rancid-esque riffs.  It all sounds familiar, like something you have heard before, with that Korean twist.  The most obvious metaphor is how Korean electronics brands like Samsung and LG were copies of the Japanese counterparts from Sony or Toshiba.  They were familiar and you never noticed the difference outside of some design variances.  Right now, The Cockrasher isn’t anything new, it does what it does well, but doesn’t push any boundaries or blaze any new trails into establishing a distinct Korean punk rock identity.

That’s not the say the Kids Return Now is not a good album.  It is.  It delivers good, solid punk rock for those who like the bands they mimic.  Maybe part of the novelty is that it is Korean, and very refreshing in the face of the corporate, manufactured pop music which dominates the Korean music landscape.  The Cockrasher does take that first step in expanding the repertoire of popular Korean music, and will hopefully set in add to the popularity of a growing Korean punk rock scene.  After all, Samsung HD flat screens are amongst the best in the business, Hyundai is almost on par with Honda and Toyota in automotive quality and Skunk Label Records is well on its way of being the seminal Korean punk rock label with The Cockrasher in its stable of artists.


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