Album Review: GFRIEND – 回:Walpurgis Night

[Source Music; 2020]

When K-Pop group GFRIEND announced their latest album, 回:Walpurgis Night, their fanbase frantically Googled what the mysterious title meant. Many were overjoyed to read that Walpurgis Night is a German holiday where bonfires are lit to symbolically ward off evil spirits and witches. From that, it was predicted that GFRIEND would be doing some kind of satanic concept album, sinking further into the dark and sinister depths that their July single “Apple” (undoubtedly their most polarising single since 2017’s “Fingertip”) was only ankle-deep in. However, in a very odd twist, it seems the girls are in fact the ones lighting the bonfires and exorcising the demons before they are fully possessed.

2020 has been a renaissance year for GFRIEND, and this album marks the final instalment of the  ‘’ (a Chinese word meaning ‘to return’) trilogy. Preceded by the mini-albums 回:Labyrinth and 回:Song of the Sirens, the series has delivered the orchestral and dramatic tracks that have defined their catalogue, but their albums, always a pleasant dish, are now peppered with more experimental tracks. For example, “Apple” is a seductive, bewitching ode to temptation, underpinned by a crawling electric guitar, while “Crème Brûlée”, another track from回:Song of the Sirens, is an appropriately sweet venture into R&B. Even songs that reside comfortably in their wheelhouse have a mature urgency to them, such as “Eye of the Storm” and “Here We Are”.

It cannot be a coincidence that this sonic expansion occurs after the group’s company Source Music was acquired by BigHit Entertainment last year (yes: that same company that has BTS on their roster). Whether the catalyst or not, they have stopped tiptoeing around the borders of riskier choices and now stand bravely in uncharted territory.

回:Walpurgis Night is a bold, vibrant and occasionally experimental album that finds GFRIEND shedding the melancholy of their previous two releases. “MAGO” is purification by disco fire and explores the power of newfound self-love, inhabiting a similar space that The Weeknd’s music does: upbeat retro vibes disguising something darker lurking beneath. As the girls concede that there’s “no more fairytale,” they are cutting ties to some previous heartbreak that is finally giving up the chase. As the chorus explodes with the proclamation: “My life is waiting for you!” it’s not directed at a future suitor but the better version of themselves they yearn for. Despite a jarring “hakuna matata” thrown in – as if the girls were dancing atop Pride Rock instead of beneath a mirror ball – the song can easily join the upper echelons of their iconic tracks.

From that incredibly strong starting point, the album continues on an unpredictable path. “Love Spell” is a 90s-lite pop-rock song that proves incredibly satisfying, its lyrics driven by angst and explore the destruction of naivety; magic is realised as a figment of imagination and cannot make someone fall in love with them. Beyond the unexpected sound, their vocals are lower and pleasantly rough as if forgoing the usual studio-engineered perfection to properly convey the themes of disappointment. Album highlight “Three of Cups” (a tarot card which symbolises celebration) is a euphoric city pop song revelling in the freedom of friendship, where the melodies and powerful vocals are goosebumps-inducing and could easily join “Hear The Wind Sing” and “Rain In the Spring Time” as one of their best album tracks of all time. The album’s conclusion “Wheel of the Year” completes the trilogy on a traditional GFRIEND note, with its triumphant piano, strings and guitar helping to send the message of running to the future together; a cheesy yet relevant sentiment as the world goes through a very divisive time.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of this album is the introduction of sub-units. The six members pair up to deliver three very contrasting tracks in sound and mood. “Secret Diary” (sung by members Yerin and SinB) is an unabashed romantic song bragging how they are both “that lucky girl” for finding someone who accepts them as they are. Reminiscent of the sugary songs from the group’s early discography, this feels a bit saccharine when considering the album’s overall sound, yet this doesn’t detract from it being a very pleasant listen. As a contrast, “Night Drive” (sung by Eunha and Yuju) is a chill R&B song with the message that, no matter how lost they become, they can find their way back home. It is simultaneously wistful and hopeful, with Eunha and Yuju’s delicate vocals fitting the casual groove of the song. The ace of the sub-unit songs, however, is the phenomenal “Better Me”; airy synths, gentle guitar and a bouncy tempo make this Latin-influenced track a true ear-worm. It gives under-utilised members Sowon and Umji their well-deserved spotlight, with the former’s clear tone and the latter’s sweet voice creating amazing chemistry together.

Where the album makes a misstep is in its fluffing of the track-list. The inclusion of the older tracks “Apple”, “Crossroads” and “Labyrinth” is to apparently tie the trilogy together, yet their presence on previous instalments in the trilogy makes them uninvited guests here. Despite the songs being newly-mixed, their inclusion comes across as an exercise in cutting corners as opposed to giving listeners a full album of completely new tracks. It may be a mild transgression – the songs themselves aren’t of any less quality because they’ve reemerged on this album – but it still adds a few scuff marks to what is an otherwise polished project.

Ultimately 回:Walpurgis Night may not have checked the box as being a full commitment to darker powers, but it is a daring reinvention that adds new dimensions to their discography. However, the group haven’t fully veered away from what has made them one of the most distinguished groups in K-pop, and what makes this album special is how they have reserved their bright energy for internal healing and liberation, but still keep romance in their peripheral vision. It has been a year of loneliness and isolation where people have been forced to be their own company, but GFRIEND understand that self-discovery is a necessary evil to see the light ahead.