Beautiful Rivers and Mountains: The Psychedelic Rock Sounds of South Korea's Shin Joong Hyun: 1958-1974
(Light in the Attic)
US: 27 Sep 2011
Shin Joong Hyun’s story is one of trials and suffering. As a boy in Korea, having lost his parents, he looked for any and all work around Seoul to support himself and his brother. Despite long hours and little play, he also tried enrolling in school at the same time, though he often fell asleep in the classroom. That struggle continued when, as a young man, he tried to become a working musician, auditioning for shows at the US military base entertaining the troops in a post-war Korea. He finally did get into the base shows—after a disastrous turn as a music teacher—but the pay was little and Hyun, a budding and talented guitarist, had no room to improvise in those performances.
Those difficult beginnings, however, did pay off for Hyun. Eventually, he worked room into the songs to solo at the base shows—creating a new stage persona, “Jacky Shin and his Electric Guitar”—and he enraptured the crowd. As his career picked up steam, the British Invasion hit South Korea in the ‘60s, and then later the psychedelic movement made its way there as well. Hyun took it upon himself to start the first rock band in Korea, ADD4, and though they never found success, a glut of bands followed and the “group sound” took off in South Korea. Hyun himself didn’t find big success until he found the Pearl Sisters and wrote and produced for them a #1 hit, “Nimah”. That song finally gave Hyun the recognition he deserved. From there, he began writing and recording with just about anyone in South Korea. His prolific output grew more experimental as he became more interested in psychedelic music (and, briefly, psychedelic drugs) later in the ‘60s, but it was the way he blended his love of soul, jazz, rock, and traditional Korean elements into his music that made him a unique talent. Oh, and he could play a hell of a guitar.
Beautiful Rivers and Mountains: The Psychedelic Rock Sounds of South Korea’s Shin Joong Hyun: 1958-1974 attempts to represent the best of Hyun’s career and also, in some way, tell his story. Part of that story is his development into the experimental producer, writer, and performer he became in the ‘70s. The first song here, 1958’s “Moon Watching”, feels a bit alien in the collection as a result. Recorded on a mono recorder from the military base, the instrumental song shows Hyun’s chops well, as he rips through the surf-rock riffs. But it’s also boilerplate rock music for the time, technically sound and catchy, but not jaw-dropping, particularly since from there things get much more layered and intricate. In fact, much of this compilation is compelling because it tells two stories at once: the story of Hyun as an uncanny developer of talent and the story of Hyun as a dynamic guitar player and arranger.
The expansive “The Man Who Must Leave”, recorded in 1969, shows both sides well. Hyun’s playing is ragged and untethered. Couched in primitive effects, his riffs are stunning and unpredictable, and his use of organ as a pulsing foundation for the song is brilliant. It creates space for Kim Sun’s voice, and Sun proves himself a natural soul singer, each note sweet and evocative. “Spring Rain” has a bit more rock heft, and the organ vamps while the guitar takes a backseat with its minor-chord progressions, but the performance Hyun gets out of singer Park in Soo is aching and rangy. He wails with all the heartbreaking power of Otis Redding in the song’s huge finish, and turns in the best singing on this disc.
These songs could be standard blue-light fare, and effectively so, but they come to life with the unpredictable guitar work. Hyun’s solos have more of the improvisational qualities of jazz than rock music noodling. They feel boundless, and he uses them at the right points not to announce his talent but to evoke deep emotion. The wide-open solos also make for nice counterpoints to his pop songs here, the quick energetic bursts of the Bunny Sisters’ “Why That Person?” or Jang Hyun’s smoldering “Pushing Through the Fog”. In these spots, you can see him tightening up his spacey textures in more concentrated doses and the results are often excellent. For all the different performers here—Hyun is more often songwriter, arranger, and performer here and less the front man—there’s a fluidity to these songs, sonic connections that never slip into repetition. You can hear Hyun’s sound evolve from rock and roll to soul to psych-pop, but his vision doesn’t change so much as it morphs slightly with time.
The most revealing stuff here, though, comes on two of his own expansive compositions. The first is the rumbling 15-minute jam that is J’ Blues 72”. It’s a song that lets his guitar playing wander, making for a different fusion of rock and jazz than Miles was busy trying in the States. The song balances Hyun’s two loves—the first half yields to guitar soloing, the second (and decidedly funkier) half lets the organ go crazy. It’s an exciting and beautifully executed piece, one that towers over his pop songs, stretching out their ideas in interesting and, somehow, not-at-all-bloated ways.
1972 also marked a dark time for Hyun. The ruling Republican Party invited him to write a song celebrating controversial president Park Jung-hee. Hyun refused and as a result he was monitored closely for “subversive behavior”. His music was banned and he was later arrested in 1975 for marijuana possession, tortured, and stuck in a mental institution. Shortly after turning down the request to write a song for Park Jung-hee, he wrote and recorded the 18-minute “Beautiful Rivers and Mountains”. The version here, just over 10 minutes, is an amazing song of resilience. It is strident but not angry so much as it is melancholy. Suffering under Jung-hee’s strict rule, he mourns the time for all rather than railing for himself. The sound has that same generous, if downtrodden, feel of unity, with multiple voices singing sweetly in chorus over a lilting bed of organ, wind-instruments, deep bass and shuffling drums. It is Shin Joong Hyun’s definitive statement, a singular vision of defiance, of shaping his world to the sounds he knows and loves. It is a particularly striking piece of protest music in that, well, it may not intend to protest. What it does do, though, is prove that resistance (particularly in music) need not be reactionary and driven by anger. It can be beautiful and fragile and sweet, as long as it is honest.
As a collection of Hyun’s best work Beautiful Rivers and Mountains works well, though it seems to be a bit limited in scope. Though it claims to cover 1958-1974, there are only three songs here that don’t come from his ‘70s output. The focus is a bit narrower than the title lets on. The songs are also sequenced out of chronological order, so while the flow of music here is solid, it’s hard to tell where in Hyun’s career you are without the liner notes (themselves generously informative and interesting) at your side. Make no mistake, though, the Light in the Attic label is doing a service in pushing Western audiences to look closer at Shin Joong Hyun. His sound—no matter his role in making it—rose out of a life of trials and tribulations. So that they sound so alive, that it makes his expressions of emotion all the more powerful and not at all muted by self-pity, is nothing short of miraculous. Yet, despite its deep layers, despite the uphill battle to become the musician he became, at every turn in this collection, Shin Joong Hyun’s playing sounds effortless.