Album Review: EXO – EX’ACT

Release Date: 2016.06.09

Tracklist:

  1. Lucky One
  2. Monster
  3. Artificial Love
  4. Cloud 9
  5. Heaven
  6. White Noise
  7. One and Only
  8. They Never Know
  9. Stronger
  10. Lucky One (instrumental)
  11. Monster (instrumental)

Total Runtime: 00:41:30

Recommended for: R&B, electronic, and house music lovers; dance-pop fans

NOT recommended for: Hip-hop or bubblegum pop fans

SM’s record-breaking boy group EXO is back with their third full album titled EX’ACT. This comeback features two very different title tracks in the forefront of album promotions and an additional nine songs, rounding out the total number of album tracks to be eleven. Two of the songs on the album are instrumentals of the title tracks however, a rarity for EXO’s discography. While the album was released in Korean and Chinese as always, SM has forgone the split between Exo-K and Exo-M and all nine members are featured in both versions of the album. The EX’ACT album also explores a new electronic sound for EXO, a style very reminiscent European house music but intermixed with the R&B flavor that EXO does so well. It’s no secret that the group’s music is constantly evolving and they tend to come back with different genres of music each new release and EXO’s latest album is no exception.

  1. Lucky One

Starting off EX’ACT is the first of the two double title tracks, “Lucky One.” The song begins with an instantly catchy electronic beat before D.O. soon enters with his chocolatey vocals. Kai, Baekhyun, and Chen follow his lead in the first verse while Suho and Xiumin take on the lead-in to the chorus as the song slows considerably. The instrumental loses some of its complex beats while smooth vocal harmonies are used in place to build rising tension and establish a chorus with impact. When the chorus finally hits the strong, rhythmic beats of the first verse return and an upbeat flute melody enters to compliment the instrumental. EXO as a group combine their vocal talents for dynamic harmonies that follow the ever-changing instrumental. The chorus explores the lower vocal ranges of the members largely through background vocals while still letting their stronger, brighter singing feature prominently in the foreground of the song. Lay’s sweet vocals begin the second verse after a quick succession of beats that act as a transition from the chorus. He is accompanied by D.O. and then Xiumin and Baekhyun follow suit before Kai and Chen slow the song down for the pre chorus. After the chorus has run through once more, Sehun and Chanyeol take turns alternating in short rap verses in the bridge of the song. The instrumental builds up behind them as the final chorus finally follows. And extended bit of the background music finishes the song with D.O. announcing “I am the lucky one” before an abrupt end. If I could use only one word to describe “Lucky One” is would be funky. Be it the clipped, low-pitched vocals of the chorus or the quirky beat of the instrumental, this track is the definition of funky electropop. The production quality on this track is truly impressive, and “Lucky One” may very well be one of the most well produced title tracks in EXO’s career thus far. The instrumental is complex without being overwhelming, the layers of singing and rapping compliment the song to utter perfection, and the sound overall is fresh and unique. Though “Monster” was the title track that took the forefront of EXO’s music show promotions, “Lucky One” was the title track that really stole the show for me.

2. Monster

Next up on the EX’ACT album is the second title track but the one that featured as the headline of the comeback: “Monster.” It’s definitely a darker concept and sound for EXO, more along the lines of “Mama” or “Overdose” than their more recent comebacks. The song starts with the electronic warbling of what reminds me of the revving of machinery. Baekhyun then enters the track by singing “She got me going crazy” and throws in an echoing “woo!” to follow his stilted lines. D.O., Suho, and Xiumin each take on short lines to finish the first chorus. The instrumental picks up speed and complexity as Kai and Chen sing the lead in to the chorus. The build-up culminates in the quick transition to EXO singing in unison for the chorus as the instrumental changes to a smoother sound to accompany this sudden influx of vocals. The background music falls away entirely as Kai finishes the final lines of the chorus. Suho, with Chanyeol’s voice in support, begins the second verse with intermittent lines from Xiumin, Lay, and Sehun following him. There’s a rather frequent switch between which members are singing and rapping which lends this verse a very dynamic feel. In fact, the song in its entirety does an impressive job of distributing lines to the members fairly, especially given that there are nine different voices to account for. After the second chorus, the electronic sound of the song is reduced as dramatic drumbeats and string instruments replace it for the bridge of the song. Baekhyun tests his higher vocal range here before Chen follows with his own powerful singing. The EDM beats return in full force for the final rap verses from Sehun and Chanyeol, which pick up speed as the final chorus approaches. The last chorus ends and leaves Chen to finish the song with his “creeping, creeping, creeping” lines and Baekhyun with one final ad-lib. There’s quite a bit of English used in this song that was preserved from the original demo, to the point at which Chen’s lines are almost entirely in English. The song as a whole is receiving a lot of love from ifans and the unique and somehow dark sound of it is probably a big factor in it. “Monster” all in all is an intriguing mix of quirky beats, fantastic vocals from all the members, and an edgy twist on the dance-pop genre of music.

3. Artificial Love

The third track on EX’ACT is entitled “Artificial Love” and a personal favorite of mine. This heavily house-influenced song begins with the thumping beats of a synthesizer before D.O.’s smooth R&B vocals enter for a short prelude. Then Kai and Chanyeol take on two extended rap verses where their lines are said with little inflection, almost as if they were speaking. Rather than this being a detriment, it suits the pristine and clear sound of the song; if lab coats and cold syringes had a voice, they would be ChanKai’s rap.  Suho then comes into the song as he delves into the lower part of his vocal register while the higher, softer harmonies from the other members accompany his voice. After a few lines from Chen and a drawn out “Ohhhh,” Baekhyun’s bright, strong voice sings the chorus. Lay’s softer singing punctuates Baekhyun’s and he finishes the chorus with the “love, love, love” lines that follow in a tone noticeably higher than the rest of the song thus far. D.O., Suho, and Baekhyun then sing the beginning of the second verse before Chanyeol and Sehun take turns alternating their short, brisk rap lines. In a similar structure to the two rappers’ back-and-forth, Kai and Xiumin sing softly before the pre chorus begins. Chen and D.O. cover the majority of the second chorus before the bridge of the song begins. Things slow down here as the thumping instrumental accompanies the vocal line. The song does build in complexity near the end of the bridge to lend a final impact to the last chorus. EXO ad-lib their way to the end of the song as D.O. sings a final “artificial lover” with finesse. This track is honestly vocal harmony perfection, on par with standard set by “Lucky One” and perhaps even exceeding it. The combination of smooth vocals, both low and high, that blend with the unaggressive yet rhythmic rap gives the song a slick, manufactured sound that is so, so interesting. It’s the type of song you’d expect to hear playing as a model struts the length of a catwalk at a fashion show, or maybe through the speakers of a high fashion clothing store. A little bit weird but completely addictive, I know I’ll be listening to this track for months to come even without a runway to walk.

4. Cloud 9

EX’ACT changes tempo somewhat with the fourth track on the album, Cloud 9. This song was stated in its official description to have a “progressive R&B” sound, and it does indeed. Chanyeol begins the song by announcing “Girl you got me flying up” with his voice being electronically altered so that it sounds slightly robotic. It immediately creates a strange contrast with the string instruments accompanying him in the background of the song. When D.O. begins singing, a more complicated instrumental picks up, with snaps and the tinkling of electronic piano keys entering the song. The R&B sound becomes very clear as Baekhyun, Suho, and Chen finish out the first verse. Sehun raps the repetitive chorus, his voice tweaked by the same synthesizer as Chanyeol’s in the beginning of the song. There is intermittent singing and rapping parts from some of the other members, sometimes in the background of the song as support, other times being the only voice heard. It’s a different approach to an EXO chorus because usually the members come together to sing the chorus as a group and certainly not to rap it. But I have to say it’s refreshing to hear, even if EXO harmonies are some of my favorite aspects of their music. The song immediately transitions from the chorus to the second verse with Kai’s vocals leading the way and Baekhyun following with his own powerful singing. Even as D.O. and Xiumin continue the rest of the verse, Baekhyun supports them in the background with various ad-libs and one nicely placed instance of falsetto. After Sehun raps the second chorus, with some lines from Suho included, Chanyeol begins singing as most of the instrumental falls away. The music grows in complexity after a brief bit of very nice harmonies from Chanyeol and Chen. As the rest of the members finish up the third verse, Chen demonstrates some ad-libs. One last chorus follows with Sehun and Chanyeol taking the forefront again. As it ends, the song returns to its very softest sound as Baekhyun and Xiumin sing the final lines for a gentle ending to the track. The title “Cloud 9” suits the overall sound of the song very well because it’s dreamy and bright; strong at parts but with the ability to be smooth and soft at others. The R&B elements of the song are definitely present, with the thumping baseline and vocal runs, but it’s by no means a standard R&B track. The electronic influences align with the other tracks on EX’ACT but this song is uniquely its own and one of the most easily recognizable b-sides, in my opinion.

5. Heaven

Up next on the EX’ACT album is the fifth track entitled “Heaven.” Chen starts the song with his clear and strong vocals as he serenades “Hello angel” in English. A simple piano instrumental accompanies him but as D.O. starts singing, the subtle sound of synths in the background of the song slips in. When Chanyeol begins his part however, these sounds fall away and drumbeats replace them, timed with the rhythmic sound of his rap. Kai and Xiumin finish the first verse as they sing in lower voices. The pitch becomes slighty higher as Baekhyun and then Suho sing the chorus with brief supporting lines from Lay at the end. Two very distinct layers of piano playing can be heard in the chorus, but the more simple, repetitive one is the only to remain as the second verse starts with Sehun rapping. The background music is expertly timed to fall away completely at certain parts of his rap to emphasize the line being said. After a brief interlude from Chanyeol, Lay and Kai complete the pre chorus in a mixture of singing and rap. It’s Xiumin and Baekhyun that are in charge of the chorus this time, singing with the same intensity as the first and marking a solid contrast to the softer verses of the song. The piano playing of the instrumental is replaced by some smooth synths during the bridge of the song, which D.O., Suho, and Chen split amongst themselves in equal portions of singing. Baekhyun and Chen, respectively, then sing the two parts of the final chorus with Kai stepping in briefly to sing the final line. After some brief ad-libs from the other EXO members, the song taps to a finish with the final piano keys and drumbeats of the instrumental. “Heaven” is a really lovely song that features a solid blend of good rapping and excellent singing. The fact that Chanyeol himself worked on writing the lyrics for the track makes it even more special for fans, and shows the growth in EXO’s own involvement in creating their music. All in all, it’s a track that isn’t exactly a ballad, isn’t quite R&B, and wouldn’t be considered jazz but manages to blend all these genres in a cohesive and unique mix of musical styles. “Heaven” is easy listening and appropriate for so many occasions, be it late night city car rides or study sessions in the morning. And I know I’ll be playing it when I need a cheerful pick me up from a song that isn’t too busy but still unexplainably catchy.

6. White Noise

The sixth song on EX’ACT, though named “White Noise,” is far from it. In fact I think this track would be more aptly named “Perfect Vocals.” Another favorite of mine on the album, this EDM song begins with thumping electronic and synth beats before Baekhyun soon begins singing. Lay follows him, his voice suddenly mixed with layers of vocal harmonies, before Chanyeol’s lower baritone voice enters the song and the harmonies stop. After an extended part from Xiumin, the background music becomes noticeably less complex leading up to the chorus, only to come back with renewed fervor as Chen finally starts it. Unlike many of EXO’s songs, where the vocalists come together in the chorus to sing as a group, one member seems to dominate each chorus of “White Noise” and make it their own. Chen predominantly takes on the first, Baekhyun the second, and then the third chorus is repeated twice to allow for D.O. and Suho to each sing equal parts. And personally, the chorus of this song really makes it into one of the standout tracks of the album. Each of the four members slide effortlessly into their higher range throughout the chorus and extend their high notes in a way that sends shivers up my spine. With four very different vocal tones covering each chorus separately, we get to hear very distinctive choruses that each member puts their own flair into. Of course, each chorus is not limited to a single EXO member entirely but there is still a clear leader from the vocal line in all of the four. Following the first chorus comes much more mellow singing  that is similar to the first verse, but with different members. This time it’s Suho, Kai, D.O., and Chen. After the Baekhyun-centric second chorus finishes, Chaneyol and Sehun rap the third verse of the song with brief vocal accents in the background. The synth beats of this rap section stop when the bridge of the song is reached and Chen and Baekhyun begin to sing. The echoing line of “somebody” repeats in the background of the track, providing the song with an almost ethereal sound in its softness. The music falls away briefly and then D.O. starts the third chorus. Suho soon follows with the repetition of the chorus for a fourth and final time. It’s Kai that gets the final line as the song abruptly cuts out with the last syllables of his words. All in all, I could sing praises of this track for days and it still wouldn’t properly convey my love for it. The pure vocal talent needed to easily hit some of these notes can’t be found in the post-production effects of the music studio. And I love that most of the members, even Chanyeol, got to show of their singing abilities, if only for a few lines. A whimsical and gentle song, “White Noise” is track I find makes it easy to drift off into to my daydreams as I listen to it, and for all the right reasons.

7. One and Only

“One and Only” takes its place as the seventh song on the EX’ACT album. D.O. starts of the song right away with some smooth ad-libs as a soft, synth-y instrumental plays behind him. A rather horribly misplaced air horn follows him that doesn’t suit that sound of the song at all. Then background music develops a defined rhythm with the constant claps the enter the song as D.O., Suho, and Kai sing the first verse. The instrumental returns to its softer sound during the chorus with its smooth R&B beats that Chen and Baekhyun sing over in separate parts. A rap from Chanyeol begins the second verse before Chen, Lay, Kai, and Xiumin sing the rest of the verse. It’s D.O. and Suho that take on the majority of the second chorus, with a small ad-libs from Baekhyun and Chen. The instrumental completely returns to the very simple synths of the beginning of the song in an abrupt change as Sehun has a small part where he speaks to the listener in English. Then Chanyeol begins an actual rap and Xiumin and Chen sing the rest of the second verse, with some very nice harmonies supporting them. The final chorus follows the same structure as the previous ones but the lyrics change noticeably, and it features Xiumin and Chen as the center. A simple thumping beat starts as the song winds to a close and D.O. shows off his signature vocal runs. Lay chants, “You got me girl, I gotcha” before the song finishes after a few lines from some of the other members. There’s a particularly beautiful “Wae” sung in the background of the track right before it ends that is utterly captivating with the emotion it managed to convey. This song as a whole is a remarkable testament to EXO’s ability to pull off R&B, a sound you don’t really hear much of in the music of mainstream Kpop groups. “One and Only”  exudes a very sweet and dreamy vibe with it’s smooth vocals and soft instrumental. A really lovely addition to the EX’ACT album, the only thing I would change in it is stopping the bizarre use of an air horn to the beginning of the song. It doesn’t match the calm and soothing vibe of the track at all. Luckily, the memory of it is quickly washed away through the power of EXO’s vocals as the song continues.

8. They Never Know

The eighth track on EX’ACT is the mysteriously titled “They Never Know.” The song begins with an extended bit of electric piano before Chen starts singing and some classic R&B beats appear in the instrumental behind him. Suho takes on the next lines alone before all of EXO sing in English the sole line, “They never know.” Baekhyun’s voice punctuates the song briefly before EXO as a group sing this line again. The piano disappears from the instrumental as an electric thrumming replaces it and the song sounds a little softer while D.O. and Kai sing. The background music suddenly changes pace at it turns into an eclectic mix of synths and some more R&B inspired sounds for an extended segment of just the instrumental. This ends with a single line from Chen sung slowly before a fast-paced rap from Chanyeol and Sehun begins. All of Exo sing the line of the chorus that hails to the title song as Suho’s voice interjects this time. Lay and Chen finish up the chorus right before another instrumental break happens in the track. When it stops, Baekhyun and D.O. sing the bridge and then some really lovely harmonies happen as EXO combine their voices to chant softly, “Let go, don’t say no.” One last half-chorus is sung by Baekhyun an Xiumin but it doesn’t sound quite like the choruses that preceded it. Right before the song ends, the instrumental strangely picks up speed as D.O. sings the last lines. The arrangement of this song as a whole is really interesting to me. The chorus enters the song surprisingly fast and the periods of the song with only instrumental playing is a bit unusual for EXO’s music. It’s a nice track altogether though – R&B and EXO always go hand in hand in my books. Perhaps “They Never Know” is not a personal favorite on the EX’ACT album, but none of the rapping or singing disappoints and it’s pleasant and calm enough to listen to on any occasion or mood.

9. Stronger

“Stronger” is the ninth track on EX’ACT and the last one before the two instrumentals that finish the album. When the track list of EX’ACT was first revealed predating the album’s official release, this song was described as a “minimalist jazz ballad” and it’s exactly that. Rather than the entire group participating in this song however, the vocal talents of only four of the EXO members were utilized in “Stronger.” In the Korean version of this track, that means Chen, Baekhyun, D.O., and Suho. The song starts with slow piano-playing that accents D.O.’s buttery vocals. Suho follows him (using his upper register very nicely if I may note) and then Baekhyun finishes the first verse. Chen sings the beginning of the first chorus, with some subtle vocal harmonies in the background from other members, and Baekhyun takes a brief few lines where the piano instrumental picks up in speed. It slows down as he drags out a high note and D.O. finishes the chorus as he sings a long low note. The second verse and chorus are much of the same as the first, just new lyrics and a different order of members singing. The singing becomes much more layered in the final chorus with the four vocals of EXO combining their talents. It’s Chen that sings the final lines of the song however, ending with some nicely placed low notes and the finality of the piano’s soft notes. All in all, it’s a very simple song. The instrumental is entirely a jazz piano while the most complex part of the song are some subtle vocal harmonies.There’s something very coffee shop about this song, and I don’t mean Starbucks or some other mainstream caffeine-selling business. I envision a cozy local cafe with mismatched furniture and heavy ceramic plates where your latte is served in a bowl sized teacup and you can recognize the baristas by name. “Stronger” just seems to invoke a soothing and gentle atmosphere that you could find in a homey little coffee shop. However, I will say the song is a bit underwhelming when compared with some of the other more creative tracks on the album. I am a huge fan of EXO ballads but this one somewhat lacks the spark and ingenuity of EXO’s past ballads, be it because of the simple instrumental or arrangement. The vocals don’t disappoint as usual but it just didn’t wow me in the end. “Stronger” is still altogether a nice song but not one that sticks out on the album as anything exceptional, especially given some of the more innovative tracks featured before it on EX’ACT.

10. Lucky One (instrumental)

The instrumental of “Lucky One” is the penultimate track of EX’ACT. Now, I’m not usually keen on instrumentals being included on albums because for all intents and purposes, they are simply filler. But I think there was a method to SM’s madness here and it has to do with keeping the OT9 motif present throughout this comeback. Nine traditional tracks, with two instrumentals to fill out the full album. I’ll admit though, I would have been more disappointed if the instrumental for “Lucky One” wasn’t such masterpiece. Stripping the vocals from this well-produced track really allows each nuanced layer of the song to shine. The funky electronic beat present throughout the verses is the same one that stops during the slow build up to the chorus but comes back full force in the chorus. Interestingly enough, when the vocal harmonies aren’t there during the pre chorus the instrumental sounds at first to be vaguely reminiscent of the wailing of a siren and then like the background music of an action movie. It’s when the chorus finally hits that the addictive flute-playing enters the song and draws all ears to it without vocals to cover it. As the first chorus ends, there’s something very digital about the beeps that punctuate the second half of the song. I wasn’t able to quite place the sound when I only listened to the original version, but listening to the instrumental during the bridge of “Lucky One” vaguely reminds me of the Tron franchise. Especially the Daft Punk music used in the most recent reboot. In conclusion, though instrumental tracks aren’t the ideal songs to include on a full album in favor of a totally unique and new track, I still can’t help but enjoy this version of “Lucky One.” Though I may be blinded by my love for the original song, the superior production on this track deserves more attention, even if it wouldn’t have been my first choice for filling out the EX’ACT album.

11. Monster (instrumental)

The final song on the EX’ACT album is the instrumental version of “Monster.” Perhaps not the type of song to put on repeat when the original version features the more interesting addition of vocals, it’s still an intriguing listen. The thumping of the bass is more pronounced here without the members singing over it and the lead up to the chorus seems to move faster almost. It’s as if without the vocals present to slow the tempo somewhat, the build up is more obvious, and almost frantic. The chorus sounds particularly epic to me, as does the bridge where string instruments enter the song. You wouldn’t think that the electronic sound of “Monster” would blend with the use of more traditional instruments so well, but the addition of violin and drumbeats in the bridge somehow works. It’s interesting too how the ending part of the track moves away from this heavy EDM sound to use simple snapping sounds and what reminds me of woodwind chimes if they had been run through a synthesizer. It’s a much lighter finish in contrast with the thumping beats of the beginning of the song. There really is no equivalent sound found in other Kpop songs that would be similar to the eclectic mix that is “Monster.” The producers didn’t try to just play it safe with this track and the strange but harmonious combination of sounds in the instrumental is undeniably catchy, and even more so with lyrics. While this instrumental version of “Monster” isn’t really the strong finish I would have liked for EX’ACT and does constitute as filler in my books, the music presented isn’t bad by any means. It’s definitely an interesting listen, especially for those who loved the complexity of Monster’s sound and want to hear exactly what is happening behind the power vocals of the original.

In conclusion, the EX’ACT album is a real treat for those who love R&B with an EDM twist on it. It’s definitely a new sound for EXO, but then the group as a whole has never really maintained one constant sound across their albums. Their latest full album is infinitely more mature than XOXO and definitely more cohesive than Exodus. In fact, I would say EX’ACT is EXO’s most cohesive album yet, with a consistent sound present across almost all tracks (“Monster” and “Stronger” being the most different from the other tracks). EX’ACT also features the best vocal and rapping performances I’ve heard from EXO thus far in their discography, and this is coming from someone who religiously listens to all of their albums. Through EX’ACT, it’s clear that the members are working towards improving their skills as musicians and performers. And the fact that at least one member was able to contribute to actual lyric writing on the album may indicate that EXO will one day be more involved in the producing and song-writing process as well. So be it because addictive songs, the impressive production and execution of each track, or the novelty of an OT9 album, EX’ACT is a great addition to EXO’s quality discography and one I’ll be loving for a long time to come.


Replayability – GREEN

greenSongs are catchy and the album only gets better with more listens

Cohesiveness – GREEN

greenAlbum has a distinct and encompassing sound that is present across tracks

Originality – GREEN

greenTracks presented are mostly unique and the genre explored is altogether uncommon in Kpop

 

Wasta
If there's a Baekhyun, there's a way.

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  • Munaka

    It’s truly a great and cohesive album.
    EX’ACT also features the best vocal and rapping performances I’ve heard from EXO thus far in their discography. < I agree 100%.

    • They really do keep improving each album and it’s such a pleasure to see, and hear, as a fan.

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