Even until now, during their fourth anniversary, fromis_9 has actually released a little over 30 tracks since debuting, their collection of substantial EPs and three-song singles alone may have been enough to cement their current status. The group has worn many faces so far, from the influence of their so-called “school girls” concept of their early debut days, to the frantic, swirling fun of their disco pop phase, and finally now, as they seize their R&B vocals with both hands and dig in. Interestingly, all of these characteristics are so distinct that it’s hard to pick one image that’s solely representative of the group. It could be because two basic ingredients—melodies centered around the delicately stacked close harmonies of the nine members’ voices and the occasional furious drumming of a beat that never loses its thrust—have been put to use so effectively each time to the new style that accompanied each subsequent period. Even though it could have been easy for fromis_9 to lose their balance, they were able to keep moving forward thanks to B-sides that kept their immediate future bright by successfully combining everything they had to work with, and lead singles that fully embodied the characteristics they had explored in the past and truly made them their own.

Let’s first look at “Glass Shoes,” fromis_9’s debut song, and what could be called their “Glass Bead.” fromis_9’s track falls under the umbrella of a class of songs, like GFRIEND’s “Glass Bead,” best defined as the “powerful innocence” of the latter group’s early period, and, more broadly speaking, under the Korean–Japanese school concept hybrid of the mid-2010s. To that end, they tend to follow a pattern of having a rock rhythm that brings out their bright melodies—often likened stylistically to those heard in the openings to animes—as well as a composition featuring sublime string sections. These characteristics are especially evident in the chorus of “Glass Shoes,” while the electric guitar ringing out underneath throughout, the excellent bass riff and the clockwork precision of the drum together constitute the song’s cheerful “powerfulness” driven by its rock-influenced composition. But the focus of “Glass Shoes” is on the “innocence” of the melody that flows as one voice atop the powerful instrumentation. As the song deftly takes its journey down from major to minor, the listener is rewarded with one unbelievably catchy earworm—those parts that stick with you from just a single listen—after another, as though following the listener with light footsteps that go “spinning, spinning, spin-ning tick tock.” Even after this debut song—one that, despite using what was then a popular chord progression, nonetheless shows characteristics of the group’s then upcoming development embedded throughout—fromis_9 doesn’t look back; they diligently move on, deliberating how best to make use of the distance between the styles of the vocal melody and powerful instrumentation.

 

We can see how these concepts and melodic progressions since the time of their debut extend to their follow-up series, To. Heart and To. Day. Specifically, we see this in “To Heart,” a song that updates the style seen in “Glass Shoes” and adjusts for clarity through its use of strings to surround the rhythm of the choppy electric guitar riffs and offbeat drumming and therefore further emphasize it. However, the EPs are otherwise stuffed with sugary, bubbly tracks brimming with melodies composed chiefly with electronic instruments that sweeten the overall tone. Some of the tracks, like “22CENTURYGIRL,” aligned with the characteristics and balance of their previous work, but songs like “Miracle” and “Pinocchio” add the kind of zip that can be best described using the title of one of their later songs: “FUN!” To. Day set an example for this kind of per-album changeover, and its lead single, “PITAPAT (DKDK),” laid the foundation for the approaching era by overlapping two of them in one track. We hear an “innocent” string section in the song—one that used to stand on its own in previous singles but which is here cushioned in lively synths. The melody, too, loaded with strange, occasionally spinning harmonies, is accompanied by an exciting drum and bass beat.

fromis_9’s imagery has strengthened more and more with each of their disparate, long-separated promotional periods, causing listeners to reflect upon the group’s past in a new light. The effect of this imagery on fromis_9’s charm really becomes clear beginning with the singles they released over 2018 and 2019, where the clear colors stemming from those early EPs take on a shine of neon primary colors. FUN FACTORY, the title of the single album containing “FUN!,” also works as a phrase that perfectly encapsulates this period’s electrified, spinningly explosive style, kicked off by the song “LOVE BOMB.” Despite some variation in sound, such as the sudden single bar of trap music in “FUN!” or the dense, ticking bomb-like hi-hats in “LOVE BOMB,” fromis_9’s factory of fun still runs a production line based on melodies defined by their short earworms and long, vivid choruses brought to life by powerful electronic sounds. In other words, the two melodic features of “Glass Shoes” were parceled out to these two tracks and their choruses were developed using those halves as their bases. 

Vestiges of “Glass Shoes” are woven into these later songs: It lends its “spin-ning” to “FUN!” in the form of the latter’s “melt-ing” and the influence of the ample harmonies and vocals in its minor melody can be heard in “LOVE BOMB.” It’s at this point in their history that fromis_9 effortlessly transforms from a solid, school-days-style new artist into the sugary, addictive dance pop group of today.

 

These single albums have three tracks each, however, and among them are “DANCING QUEEN,” with its groovy rhythms, “COLORING” and its chill, sparkling synths, and “FLY HIGH,” featuring lofty, crisp vocals. In a sense, these acted as a preview to a nature that would prove to gradually gain strength over time, from the EP My Little Society that established a steady way forward, to the impressive scene-stealer of 2021, 9 WAY TICKET, and up to their most recent release, the splendid Midnight Guest. While moving from an image of school girls to the pursuit of the pinnacle of enjoyment, they also changed the relationship in the music between the instrumentation and the melodies, a phase during which each of the members injects their vocals with their unique personalities and the way they work the beautiful melodies and harmonies together really shines. Writing their “SECRET CODE” after they’ve already given us so much “FUN!”—written, appropriately, with an exclamation mark—makes for results that “Feel Good” by any measure.

Consider three of the lead singles released by fromis_9 since the start of the 2020s: “Feel Good,” “WE GO” and “DM,” all written under the purview of Woo Min Lee (collapsedone), and all of which bravely hop on the retro disco craze that has retaken the British and American mainstream and K-pop idol music by storm. And this time, too, the other tracks released alongside those singles might be hinting at where their music is going in the future. Two of the tracks on My Little Society, which functioned as something of a transition point, include “Somebody to love,” a track whose sophisticated interpretation of the deep roots of R&B is made possible through its loose and laid-back jazzy structure, and “Weather,” a chiptune-infused song punctuated by a strong, distinctive beat that nevertheless melds effortlessly with the melodic vocals and brief house cameo. Meanwhile, 9 WAY TICKET delivers a track called “Promise,” finally making good by using this keyword in a song title—a word that had been constantly brandished, including in the addresses in the form of letters in the intro tracks of the group’s EPs dating all the way back to their debut, their unique fan signing events called the Promise Events, and, above all, in their group name, which is itself a interlingual pun on the word. The track in question is an expertly executed soft R&B song, a familiar style for the group and diligent preparation for their next appearance.

 

All this particular emphasis we’ve placed on the R&B influences in the songs fromis_9 has released since the start of the 2020s is important because their fourth EP, Midnight Guest, is such a departure that they’re essentially reframing their entire career as an R&B catalog. Under this new direction of R&B pop, one centered around prominent, singularly expressive vocals, fromis_9’s essential formula is updated to remove the earworm elements from the melodies, aim for an elegant rather than innocent serial composition and tone down the power of the instrumentation, allowing it to recede into the background rather than brashly compete with the vocals. Though the vocals in “Escape Room” travel up and down with refined sophistication, the song nonetheless retains a strongly pounding bass line and a dusting of hidden ornamental sound gems, effectively communicating how the group are able to embody their current twist of flavor without completely abandoning their power as can also be seen in the aforementioned “Weather.” Similarly, “Hush Hush” boasts a disco–house combo with an emphasis on sampled acoustic guitar, “Love Is Around” is a lyrical ballad and “0g” delicately and tidily unwraps its synths where “LOVE RUMPUMPUM” was a tad on the nose with its emulation of the past. The sum of these changes is an EP that subtly shifts the lights from a vibrant magenta to a more subdued light purple.

fromis_9 started out as an outstanding challenger in the competitive school days style scene when they debuted, moved on to serve up the most sugar-coated entertainment that late-2010s idol pop could provide and finally made a seamless transition to become a disco pop dark horse and one of the leading R&B vocal groups of the 2020s. When an idol group makes major changes to their career trajectory like this, they often overemphasize their transformative characteristics and strongly hint that people should disregard their past entirely, insisting that everything has changed. Of course, with overemphasis on such a rapid transformation, the past they seek to bury can come back to haunt them or they can even leave behind the important parts they should have kept. But fromis_9, even without drawing attention to their enormous changes, never once faltered, instead pressing forward as they grew into their new image free of any gracelessness and without forgetting their all-important roots. Through their rigorous school days and a lockdown full of video calls, the nine members of fromis_9 have seen their way through thanks to their ability to stay true as they adapt and advance and their bottomless capacity for change—the very promises they have never once hesitated to keep.

Article. Wonyoung Na(pop music critic)
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2022.01.28