ONEUS (2022)
ONEUS (2022) | Courtesy of Gramophone Media

K-Pop’s ONEUS Make Gugak Pop

K-pop group ONEUS talk with PopMatters about taking traditional Korean music, Gugak, and mixing it with hip-hop and electronic music to wow fans on their US tour.

Blood Moon
9 November 2021

K-Pop group ONEUS were off to a good start when they released their first single “Valkyrie” (2019), a dance-pop song with an addicting guitar hook. Months later, after one more Korean EP and a Japanese single, they released the single “LIT”. The hip-hop track featured elements of Korean folklore such as pansori (“판소리”, also romanized as “p’ansori”, a musical genre that combines storytelling and drum playing). “LIT” was the prelude to what would become a turning point in their career two years later.  

ONEUS’ 6th EP, Blood Moon (2021), is a continuation of the style and identity of “LIT”. It’s also strongly influenced by Korean traditional music not only in its instrumentals but also in the melodies and lyrics. “Blood Moon is definitely an album that contains the deep colors of ONEUS and Korean tradition,” member Ravn tells PopMatters. The EP ranked #10 in PopMatters’ 20 Best K-Pop Albums of 2021.

Now, the group is preparing for a one-month tour across the United States. They land at Webster Hall, New York, on 12 February. 

Seoho recalls the excitement their US fans showed when ONEUS performed “LIT” during a previous tour, so it’s only right that they have high hopes for this tour. To perform the songs from Blood Moon on the other side of the world is, to the members, not only a source of pride and joy. It also takes “a sense of responsibility as we express Korean culture,” Xion shares.

From VIXX’s use of traditional music instruments in “Shangri-la” (2017), to Blackpink wearing hanboks (traditional Korean dresses) in “How you like that?” (2020), many are the K-pop songs and stages inspired by Korean cultural heritage. It’s partially an artistic choice, as K-pop often explores different aesthetics and music genres. But it’s also an opportunity for these artists to show their culture to the world as K-pop’s audience expands beyond Korea. For example, after BTS’ performance of “IDOL” at the 2018 Melon Music Awards, the BTS member Jimin won an award from the Conservation Society of Buchaechum (“fan dance”) for his modern rendition of the traditional dance.

Blood Moon relies heavily on hip-hop and electronic dance music but it stands out when these genres combine with the representative drums, strings, and singing style of Korean folkloric music. ONEUS goes as far as featuring a Gugak/Pansori singer, Choi Ye Rim, in the opening track, “Intro: Window”. The term “Gugak” (“국악”, also romanized as “kugak” or “gug’ag”) refers to Korean traditional music. Choi Ye Rim is the narrator of the story told in the lyrics: the 6 ONEUS members are wandering demons who appear on the night of the blood moon. Leedo tells PopMatters that Choi Ye Rim helped add a sad tone to the song. And indeed, her vocals make the story in the song resonate. A K-pop group has rarely if ever featured a Korean traditional singer in their tracks before. This is an unusual collaboration, and for that, ONEUS scores points in bringing something different to the table. 

The apex of ONEUS’ blend of older and newer expressions of Asian music is found in “LUNA”, the lead single of Blood Moon. Co-written by members Ravn and Leedo, the lyrics are inspired by the mythology of the moon as the symbol of separation between two lovers: “The pitch-black night / The lone cry of the moon / Will I blossom and wither following that light?”. The track is opened by a melody played on a Gayageum (a Korean string instrument), and quickly changes to an electronic drum for the first verse. The pre-chorus builds tension by evoking the Gugak-inspired melody that Choi Ye Rim sings in “Intro: Window”. Flutes are heard in the background. The melody in the chorus of “LUNA” is melancholic but fast-paced. It responds to the synthpop beats and connects with the folkloric themes of the song. 

“LUNA” won a trophy for ONEUS in ‘Show! Champion’ for the first time. “When I first heard this song, I had this very special feeling that this would be the one,” Ravn says. The members agree this is one of their best works to date. To Ravn, Seoho, and Leedo, it is also their favorite song from Blood Moon (while Keonhee’s and Hwanwoong’s is the ballad “Who you are”, and Xion’s is “We’re in love”).

“We are confident that [LUNA] is the best work, but we cannot compare it to our previous album. Because I always did my best. But I am confident enough to say that ‘Luna’ is one of the best songs ever.”

– Keonhee

Blood Moon showcases creative involvement from each member of ONEUS. After all, the skills in the group range from singing, rapping, and dancing, to songwriting, music production, and choreography. 

While writing the lyrics for “Life is Beautiful“, Ravn says he thought about his philosophy to life and how to best express it. “Working on the lyrics I tried to put my motto, ‘Let’s live as it flows’ and the free spirit of youth as much as possible.” Leedo adds, “writing the lyrics for this song wasn’t difficult.”

“I put my values in the lyrics [of “Life Is Beautiful”] as I am a person who thinks, ‘I don’t mind falling, I do what I want to do’. I don’t need to look at other people. I don’t mind making mistakes. Life is full to enjoy, not to worry.”

– Leedo

Every member of ONEUS is deeply involved in this tour, from defining the setlist and stages to helping choose costumes and managing choreographies, but they each have their favorite work. Keonhee, one of the group’s main vocalists, enjoys singing the most. “It’s very attractive that your entire expression can change through details such as breathing, sound, and emotion.” Seoho (who has writing and composing credits in Blood Moon‘s “We’re in love”) enjoys being a singer-songwriter. “If you can sing a song you wrote, it allows you to sing it with the exact feeling you want to convey through the song,” he says. The whole group is deeply involved in this tour, from defining the setlist and stages to helping choose costumes and managing choreographies. Asked about what they enjoy most about their work together, the members give different answers that reflect their roles.

Hwanwoong most enjoys dancing and choreographing. He was involved in creating the choreography for “LUNA”, which incorporates the traditional Korean fan dance. Seoho says fans can expect stages “full of Korean beauty”. ONEUS’ musical references may be ancient, but their music is full of sonic surprises, and their performances dazzle.