South Korean outfit JAMBINAI — currently founding (and core) trio Bongi Kim (haegum — a Korean fiddle-like instrument), Ilwoo Lee (guitar and piri — a Korean flute, made of bamboo) and Eun Young Sim (geomungo, a Korean zither). Jaehyuk Choi (drums) and B.K. Yu (bass) — can trace its origins tow hen its founding trio met while studying traditional music at Korea National University of Arts. Kim, Lee and Sim bounded over a mutual desire to present traditional music in a new way, “to communicate with the ordinary person, who doesn’t listen to traditional Korean music,” Ilwoo Lee, JAMBINAI’s principal composer and songwriter explained in press notes.
JAMBINAI’s approach manages to eschew several generations of Korean modernists and post-modernists and leans much closer to Western styles with Korean instrumentation — with their sound drawing from Western classical music, jazz, jazz fusion, post rock, prog rock and experimental rock. The then-trio further established their unique headbanging take on traditional Korean music with 2010’s self-tiled debut EP and 2012’s full-length debut, Differance.
While their sound and approach does manage to shock Korean audiences, the band has seen critical and commercial success: Differance was nominated for Best Crossover Album and Best Jazz and Crossover Performance at the 2013 South Korean Music Awards, and won Best Crossover Album. The band used the album’s success as a springboard for several critically applauded, international tours as a quintet.
2016’s Hermitage was released through Bella Union Records, The album featured “They Keep Silence,” a song that sonically brought Tool and Ministry to mind while tapping into a seemingly universal feeling of anger and isolation — especially those, who are growing both impatient and suspicious of the forces that are influencing and controlling their daily lives.
For the South Korean post rock outfit, the past couple of years have been the best of times and the worst of times: The outfit released their third album ONDA back in 2019. Just a few months later, in February 2020, the quintet won Best Rock Album and Best Rock song for album track “ONDA” at that year’s South Korean Music Awards. Of course, the pandemic struck in March 2020, throwing a monkey wrench into both people’s lives and their plans.
The band’s latest EP Apparition is slated for a Friday release through Bella Union. The EP reportedly captures the depth and range of emotions that the band has felt and experienced over the past couple of years, from anxious lockdowns and the disappointment of thwarted plans, to the thrill of renewed creativity, hunger and hope. “After ONDA we saw 2020 as a new opportunity to work on a bigger stage,” JAMBINAI’s Ilwoo Lee recalls. “I personally wanted to release a new album and tour to exhaust the energy of ONDA and find new inspiration, but it didn’t work out that way. We didn’t find enough energy to make a full album yet, so for now we are releasing four songs.”
The EP’s title is derived from Lee’s perception of the band,. “JAMBINAI have been making intense music for an intense group of devotees in invisible places,” he says. “Overall, I have tried to express a message of comfort to everyone living in a difficult time due to the pandemic and what’s going on in the world.”
The EP reveals a band that’s more energized than ever, making up for lost time and momentum: Their appearance at the Seoul 2018 Winter Olympic Games Closing Ceremony set up the forward momentum that produced ONDA. Their South Korean Music Awards wins upped the ante for a prospective follow-up. Even after winning the Asia category at the 2020 Songlines Awards, they felt that the thrill and force of new music and performance would be the only thing to really count. By the end of 2021, they had started to record the material that would become Apparition — but they managed to be be busy: They released four acoustic performances. They collaborated with Soojung Baek’s boutique Craft Codes to combine two of her seats “that seemed to match our music the best,” Lee says.
The urge to create has pushed the band’s core trio creative energies into new territories: In September, JAMBINAI’s Lee worked as a metro of the traditional Gyeonggi Sinawi Orchestra for performances in Poland, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia and the Czech Republic. Just last month, he collaborated with PAKK at London’s K-Music Festival. And he wrote the music for the first season of the BBC’S Korean-set crime podcast, The Lazarus Heist. The band’s Kim and Sim co-wrote the music for a modern art piece in South Korea’s National Museum of Contemporary and Modern Arts. Sim also released a solo album back in 2019 — and wrote and performed the music for a piece by choreographer Jinyeob Cha earlier this year, Kim also currently DJs for a Korean traditional music broadcast.
The band’s core trio, along with Choi and Yu will embark on a tour in may 2023, “and when there’s an empty space, I want to make a new album,” Lee adds.
Apparition‘s latest single “from the place been erased,” features guest vocals from K Pop legend swja (also known as sunwoojunga), who has worked with 2NE1, Blackpink and a little known outfit by the name of something like BTS. swja’s ethereal and achingly delicate delivery i paired with a brooding and expansive arrangement that alternates between dreamy and atmospheric passages and stormy power chord-driven sections that rip hard. Sonically, the song is a seamless synthesis of trip-hop, shoegaze, doom metal and post rock — with Western and Korean instrumentation that captures intense emotion: unease, frustration, anger and hope within a turn of a phrase.
“I thought swja’s voice would go well with our music,” says Lee, “so I asked her for help. I am honoured that she willingly participated. Despite our heavy and strong sound, she understood its inner emotions.”
Directed by Jinho Park, the accompanying video features swja and the members of JAMBINAI performing the song together in intimately shot footage paired with some gorgeous and trippy lighting.