The Layered Musical Mastery of Samuel Seo's 'Dust'
Okay, so here's the thing.
At this point, Samuel Seo does very little to surprise me. His sound is very familiar the more you listen to him. Distinguishable from most artists from South Korea. In fact, he's admittedly begun to actively leave his fingerprint on everything he has a part of (whether his song or someone else's). Signature sounds and "Easter eggs" sprinkled throughout his discography that are beginning to leave a solid trace.
So, no, "Dust" doesn't surprise me. At this point there's little that he does that manages to catch me off guard. However, Seo does continue to impress me. And while I don't claim to be the singular authority on anything, it takes a lot for an artist (especially when not yet part of the pantheon of musical legends and heroes) to impress me with every release. Seo is one of few artists from South Korea (whom I've listened to) who baffles me with his ability to consistently release genuinely good music. How is it possible to have virtually zero bad songs in one's discography? (There's a debate where his first unofficial release is concerned, one Seo himself will vehemently argue in the negative. But I digress.) As you'll find out, it begins and ends with the music.
As with most of Seo's discography, breaking down "Dust" is a treat. It's a challenge. Finding out if someone as devoted to music as I am is actually worth their salt as a commentator on the subject. It's also a delight. For what could be more fun than dissecting a piece of brilliant music?
(DISCLAIMER: I am not a classically trained musician. My use of terminology is an estimation based on several years of chorale/SATB and being around trained musicians. Feel free to correct me if I miss the mark.)
"Dust" is a glimpse into Seo's mastery of strings. Drummers do make the best composers (in my humble opinion), but as a former violinist, it's no surprise Seo is able to craft a song around stringed instruments. This is a study of how a song can be almost completely constructed using strings and still carry a remarkable amount of rhythm.
The song opens on a vamp reminiscent of D'Angelo's "Really Love." The piano is grand, a sweeping etude of sorts that comes in without preamble and swirls around a guitar arpeggio. It's a bold entrance that subverts expectation, but hints at a complex piece of music that's more intricate than it seems. The piano-guitar vamp ends on a filtered reverb, then silence. What follows is subtle percussion and an explosion of strings. This is some of the most robust string work Seo has ever put together. A smart combination of synth for the bode instruments, Park Chemoji's guitar and Seo's piano and bass.
The bass alone makes up the bulk of the rhythm on the track. That is, the bass guitar here doesn't act as a string. Rather Seo plays it in a way that suggests it's meant to act as a drum (providing the bottom beat, while no more than two actual percussion instruments round it out). He seems to make use of the janggu (a Korean percussion instrument), harkening back to 2019's "Cloud," in which he used the instrument as the song's rhythmic core. As Seo revealed in our chat a few years ago, he's attempting to merge the music he loves with the culture he grew up in, crafting neo soul in South Korea in a way that both pays homage and adds to the conversation. "Dust" is one of the strongest indications that he's succeeding in finding that balance.
"Dust" also highlights something Seo has started to become very adept at. A compositional attribute that D'Angelo perfected with his Voodoo: vocalizing. Seo uses his voice to emulate instruments. However, unlike scatting that's used to simulate percussion, the type of vocalization both D'Angelo and Seo use works as part of the melodic composition. A perfect example of this is D'Angelo's "Send It On." Vocal hiccups and stabs reminiscent of horns in the song's ending vamp. Melisma to mimic strings in the pre-chorus. Seo has managed to create an added layer of instrumentation using his own vocal chords. In the chorus, the tight harmony swells and blends almost seamlessly with the synthesized bode instruments. The manner in which he uses syncopated harmonies resembles string stabs to punctuate certain lyrics in the verses.
Something you might not notice if you're not paying attention: Seo's ear is very sharp. His harmonies are always multilayered. He makes remarkable use of seconds and fifths, harmonies so densely packed that there's a level of dissonance that hits the ear awkwardly until you realize it's created that way for a reason. Each vocal line is braided together to mimic the twine of a violin and cello harmony.
Forgive me. Fucking brilliant!
A note about his vocal work. (I didn't want to spend too much time here, but here we are.) Seo's vocal maturity has never been more apparent. I adore that he's fallen in love with his lower register. Resting more comfortably down in his lower tenor/baritone has opened up a soulfulness in his voice that he's never had before. So much of that soul goes into the music itself, it's not surprising that he only ever spared what was necessary for his voice. With "Dust" it seems like he's started to understand how voice and instrumentation can complement each other. At the very least, there's a noticeable synergy between all elements. His voice has never been the most notable aspect of his music, acting as the vehicle for his lyrics but very little else. Decent, but not standing out as much as his composition or lyrical content. With his latest singles he's acknowledged, if subconsciously, the power of the human instrument and how it can be just as integral to composition as any other instrument. His full vocal range is on display here. Even if his voice is meant to act as another layer of strings, we are given every piece of it from the furthest reach of his falsetto (that explodes on the last note) to the belly of his baritone.
"Dust" is a glimpse into how much of a technician Seo is. A master class in intricate composition. In the most complex track he's released to date, Seo makes use of every instrument in his arsenal, including his voice. Save for the guitar, he displays the full range of his musicianship.
So again, is "Dust" unexpected? No. Is it out of Seo's range or comfort zone? Of course not. No matter how much sweat equity and time he puts into a track, a song like "Dust" isn't an overly difficult feat for him to pull off. However, is it impressive? The sheer depth of the sound and his experimentation with strings are enough to proclaim a hearty HELL YES!
Produced by Samuel Seo
Composed by Samuel Seo
Arranged by Samuel Seo, Cheomji Park
Guitar played by Cheomji Park
String arranged by Samuel Seo
Keys played by Samuel Seo
Bass guitar played by Samuel Seo
Drum programmed by Samuel Seo
Percussion played by Samuel Seo
Recording directed by Samuel Seo at STUDIO OPC
Mixed by Shin Bong Won at GLAB STUDIOS
Mastered by bk! at AB Room
If you like "Dust" you should listen to:
"Really Love" by D'Angelo
"Picture of My Life" by Jamiroquai