K-Pop icons evade third album syndrome for an entertaining return...

There’s a term in music known as ‘third album syndrome’, where artists, looking to change up their sound or cause a stir, can end up creating something so divisive people aren’t sure whether to call it groundbreaking or disappointing. In the case of NCT 127, and the release of their new album Sticker, that seems to be less of a concern and more of a deliberate intention.

Opening with the titular lead single, Sticker contains 11 songs showcasing a myriad of sounds, talents and genres that the nine member group are able to pull off. NCT 127 have (sometimes affectionately, sometimes not) been dubbed ‘pots and pans music’, due to their propensity for packing songs to the rafters with booming, hardcore often contradictory EDM sound design, and Sticker does not shy away from that label - if anything, it leans into it. Following in the footsteps of 'Sticker', an absolute bacchanal of bassy synths, shrill flutes and surprisingly beautiful harmonies, are the tracks 'Lemonade', 'Breakfast', 'Far' and 'Bring The Noize'. They’re loud and thunderous, but full of hefty vocals that are almost a match for how impactful the sheer amount of noise is. Because that’s where the contradiction of NCT 127 lies, in the polarity of their ability to make it feel like you’re sitting millimeters from a reverberating speaker while also soothing you with the intimate subtlety of their softer songs.

Right as you feel like you’re about to settle into the bass-laced journey you think NCT 127 are taking you in in Sticker, they take a hard left turn with songs 'Focus' and 'The Rainy Night'. They’re sweeping, melodic tracks, reminiscent of 90’s boyband ballads. It’s in these songs that the talent embedded within NCT 127 is able to shine, as each of the nine members is able to show off their crisp and hearty vocals. They’re shown again later in the album, as the record rounds off with a run of sweet and poppy tracks like 'Dreamer' and 'Promise You'.

Compared to the opening of the record, which can best be imagined like that gif of Jay Z looking confused by bopping his head at the same time, these songs sit much more in the realm of purely palatable pop songs. But that’s kind of the genius of NCT 127. With every new comeback, a wall of noise is established from the start, but hidden behind is a wealth of simplicity, richness and restraint that allows them to be disruptors in the K-Pop scene while simultaneously proving they’re more than just a loud gimmick.

Since their debut in 2016, NCT 127 have always been marmite when it comes to their releases - you either love them or you hate them. Sticker is no different and, in fact, it’s probably they’re most ballsy confrontation of that label to date. The title track especially will be divisive to established and new fans alike, and for many that third album syndrome will have settled in, especially following their critically acclaimed 'Neozone' back in 2020. In comparison, 'Sticker' has far less cohesion as you listen through, and whilst the whiplash of genres feels deliberate in regards to the overall message of the album (that the group can be a sticker, pulled and placed whatever way you want them to go) it’s not an entirely relaxing listening experience. But I’d argue that this isn’t a mishap or an overshooting of their own shtick, but a declarative statement that they’re in on the joke and will ultimately be the last ones laughing.

8/10

Words: Lucy Ford

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