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NCT 127 'Neo Zone' Album Review

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NCT 127 themselves call this their best work, and it's easy to see why. The fact that this phenomenal group could make sweet hits like 'Touch' and 'Highway to Heaven' as well as scary bops such as 'Black on Black' and 'Chain' is what held their fans' rapt attention all these years. But Neo Zone does the best thing - it ties them all together. Oh, and it's good. It's real good.

The album starts out with a laid-back and jazzy song Elevator (127 F). Haechan starts the song off with a melodious “Let’s just keep it simple” which fits the song’s chill vibe perfectly, and has the same energy as Baekhyun’s legendary “Simple is sexy, woah” in EXO-CBX’s Lazy. The beat of this song is groovy, and the best bit by far is the synth-esque instrumental in the chorus which just gets your hips moving. The rappers’ part in the bridge which leads onto the expressive last chorus makes this song a really great start to what is an amazing album.

Though it might not seem like it, Kick It would not be Kick It without its yin-and-yang duality. For instance, the manly shouts of the chorus are the polar opposite of the sensual whispers in the pre-choruses. You can see this even in their performance: the powerful fight sequences intertwine with fluid, almost androgynous twists and twirls in the choreography. It's this which makes Kick It so magical: NCT are revealing to us their whole selves in the deepest way - yet we don't even realise it. The theme of the song is martial arts inspired. You can really feel this in the music video and through the never-ending climactic beats in the instrumental. Mark’s rap in the second verse had a surprising amount of aggression, which was nice to see from him. The number of times the pace and melody switched up in this song left me shocked (almost as shocked as when I first heard EXO’s Tempo, which does a similar thing). This song is addictive and invigorating; Bruce Lee would be proud.

Evoking a cloud-speckled summer sky, Boom is as soft as its name is forceful. This track brings back NCT Dream's Candle Light: not only because Mark shows his gentle side, but because it's romantic without being sad. But as NCT have proved in this album, there's no fun in a story without a twist. In its chorus, the song swerves suddenly into wacky percussion, in a move that delights as much as it shocks. In an ironic twist, this percussive sequence is just like NCT Dream's Boom - coincidence? With dreamy piano, almost inaudible oohs and sweet bass guitar, NCT show off their versatility as artists. If you're describing a song with the consistency of candy-floss, you're probably talking about Boom.

Pandora's Box is feel-good right down to its sun-drenched heart. It's packed with jazzy, muted guitar that is SM through and through, EXO-CBX's 'Lazy' style. The singers hit the chorus out of the park. As their bright voices melt together, the unpredictable tune hits you in the feels, hard. Jaehyun hits us with an unexpected 'ooooh' after the first chorus; he drags it along as if he's teasing you - how long can you handle? The rappers inject the song with a motivational energy with their unique voices and accents, but the most ear-catching part comes after. That's right, it's the outlandish outro, straight out of Mario Kart and basically the coolest ending to a song ever.

Day Dream is a sexy and slow-paced song that completely switches up the vibe from the last song. It is subtle and nuanced in the way that shows off the maturity of the group – this is not something that rookies attempt. The instrumental is slightly eerie and elusive, and reminds me of the steamy masterpiece that is Gloomy by Super Junior-D&E. I loved Haechan’s voice in this song – it has such versatility and fits the mood perfectly. The chorus is unexpected and steers this song away from it being a traditional ballad, plus the transitions between major and minor are very exciting. Jaehyun’s slightly strained falsetto and Taeyong’s soft rap adds a sexy edge too.

“Loving you feels like I’m dreaming”

We know from 'I see...the vision' from Empathy that NCT won't use Interlude: Neo Zone just to fill space. Well, the mixture of melancholy violins and distorted piano is so spine-tingling it must be on purpose. Indeed, the sudden change to a crazy 'Black on Black' style beat is almost unnecessarily shocking. Though, if you've heard this track, you'll know there's only one moment to truly fit the horror-movie jump-scare. That's right, it's the song's culmination - Johnny's whispered, 'No more trauma'. If you didn't jump the first time you heard that, you're certainly braver than me.

From the second the Mad Dog's old-style beat hits your headphones, you're transported to a smoke-filled oriental dream landscape. Taeyong and Mark's rap is unbelievable. They proved themselves as rappers in the past, but with this track, they take it to the next level. Their voices flick from growly shouts to scratchy whispers and everything in-between. That's not all, though. They chop up their flows like fruit salad, twisting the normal beat structure to suit their devices. In the bridge, Doyoung's singing flips the whole song over with a 2016-esque smoothness, which is added to by Mark's Cherry Bomb style rap line. In a word, this song defines swagger.

When Taeyong starts a song off sexily growling “I got a bad habit” you know you’re in for one hell of a ride. When I heard the teasers for this album, I’m not going to lie, Sit Down! was one of the ones I was looking forward to the most. I can say that I certainly was not disappointed! This song is seriously catchy and sounds like something CL would sing. Rappers Mark and Taeyong really prove their worth on this track, but what is most unexpected is that this song heavily features the vocalists. Jaehyun’s voice comes as a surprise, but once you hear his smooth vocals taking the song back to an old school RnB style, you realise that nothing else would have sounded better. The combination of hardcore raps and jazzy vocal riffs makes this a perfect meld between old NCT 127 (who had everything to prove and were fierce and hip-hop heavy) with new NCT 127 (who are more mature, mellow and experimental).

Love Me Now is an EDM-style track which serves as a gentle nod to their 2019 hit song Highway to Heaven. It’s a slower paced song with a hint of pathos. The chorus is simple yet effective. It’s a nice break from the two high energy songs that it follows on from.

“I want you to love me now”

You don't need to understand Love Song to know that it is as special as its name is cliched. The playful story about sharing an umbrella with a lover hides in the pops and clock-ticking in the beat, just like raindrops plopping into puddles. NCT's vocalists outdo themselves. Not only are their voices caramel sweet, especially in the momentary hush of the prechorus, but their sassy acting makes it that much better. Equally, Love Song's tune surprises you; it eludes obvious chord structures the same way Mark's sing-rapping eludes our expectations. Like, seriously. What beautiful place did that come from, Mark? The highlight of Taeyong's rap, however, is the onomatopoeic 'toong toong toong raindrop'. When even the 'chogchoghan beecheorom' (like moist rain) phrase brings splashing rain to my ears, it's no surprise the rappers wanted to join in. Get ready for this to be the soundtrack to your life.

"I really hate the rain, but today I came to like it a bit

No, don’t stop just yet

The rain can soak my left shoulder a little bit more

The love song inside the rain"

Despite being a huge fan of ballads, I’ve never really connected with NCT 127’s ones on past albums (NCT Dream is a completely different story though). With White Night, however, I was really impressed. The soulful vocals and sweet melodies make this ballad so pleasing to hear. This song reminds me of the incredible track Wait by EXO – especially the adlibs in the end of the song, which are just so satisfying. Taeyong’s singing part in this track was unexpected; his voice blew me away! For a rapper he’s got an incredible set of pipes, and I’d love to hear him sing more.

The penultimate track Not Alone is simultaneously heart-warming and heart-wrenching. It is slow paced and emotional – just the type of song that, if you heard it in a concert, you’d hold your phone up with the flash on and wave it slowly left and right. The singers really go for it on this track, especially Doyoung and Taeil, whose high notes shine through.

If you said Dreams Come True was dropped into NCT's album like an egg from a rogue cuckoo, I wouldn't have been surprised. That said, NCT pull off this sunny, Sunday morning track without a flaw. With a song that un-NCT, the 80s-themed MV should have been expected. The gospel-vibes whitewash still came as a shock, though. It's clear that the name of the game is versatility. It certainly takes courage to make a song this analogue from a group with 'neo' in their name and tracks like 'Simon Says' in their discography. In this track, the vocalists showed off their beautiful voices, matched with inspirational lyrics worth starting the day on. As for the budding rapper Johnny's lines, they were fresh, but matching the level of the aces Mark and Taeyong isn't so easy.

"Don’t get scared before you try

Don’t blame yourself for your imperfections

Think about happy things everyday

The most important thing is, you have to believe in yourself"

With this album, NCT 127 certainly showed us some new thangs. In a recent interview, Taeyong described this album as a turning point for the group. I agree with this statement, as it’s clear that with Neo Zone NCT 127 have reached a new level of musical maturity. In the few days that this album has been out they have been met with unparalleled success. It seems that the world is finally catching on to the incredible talent that this group hold. Next stop, world domination!

Kpop Review Café’s Overall Ranking: 8/10

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Written by Krystal and Jessica