It’s official: June is EXO’s month. Their third album, EX’ACT, even before its release, had received over 660,000 pre-orders, and over 450,000 CDs have been sold in Korea alone since its release on Thursday. It smashes the fastest-selling album record in Korea, held by — drumroll please — EXO themselves for their Sing For You EP. But does EX’ACT really live up to the hefty expectations left by EXODUS and XOXO? The answer: yes, but not in the way you would expect.

EXO has two title tracks this time around, “Monster” and “Lucky One”, each with their own concept and sound. “Monster” is a fast-paced, electronic track that highlights EXO’s undeniable dark side, like their previous comeback “Wolf”. With its punchy sirens and addicting chorus, “Monster” is a song that could rival anything on the charts right now and definitely a stand out on the album.

exo monster

“Lucky One” is a funky, disco song that didn’t grab me as quickly as “Monster” did, but it’s one that slowly gets you hooked over time. It could be the jaunty flute in the chorus, a surprising and refreshing touch that’s unlike anything else right now, or the spiky electric guitar that reminds me of “Love Me Right”. Their ability to play around with the tempo, especially in the bridge and rap, also help to make the lively chorus stand out even more. EX’ACT is full of little surprises like these ones that keep the listener eager for more.

The Disclosure-esque “Artificial Love” leads the way in EXO’s new sound, with its electronic, house music feel. Its heavy production is contrasted by high lilting vocals, making it a song you can’t help but dance along to. Other tracks on the record like “Cloud 9” and “White Noise” follow suit, while others favor a smoother, R&B influenced approach, like “One and Only” and “Heaven”. All together, the result is a well blended mix of slow-grooving and upbeat dance tracks that play off each other incredibly well. Fun fact: Chanyeol wrote the lyrics for “Heaven” alongside Min Yeon-Jae!

exo lucky one

The hidden gem of the record, however, has to be “They Never Know”. With its gorgeously layered harmonies and a slick R&B sound that breaks down into a feel-good interlude. It’s the perfect song to put your headphones on and drift away to. The song has a surprise little kick at the end, in which they jack up the beat and tempo, and it makes the track even more unique. Without a doubt “They Never Know” is the dreamiest song on the record and one not to miss.

The vocal line carries it home with “Stronger”, a bleeding-heart ballad that is beautiful because of its simplicity. Sometimes, all EXO really needs to do to create an absolutely phenomenal song is just a piano and their voices. With the past and all of its scandals and departures behind them, EXO stands more united than ever and this song is the perfect reflection of that. It has a powerful and poignant message: they’re stronger not only together, but with their fans too.

While other albums like XOXO and EXODUS let EXO play with different genres and then packed them all together in one CD, EX’ACT is an album that flows well together. It still has all of the charms of a normal EXO record — and the title tracks are definitely within the same calibre of their previous comebacks, if not even better — but this time EXO has a solid grounding in the music they want to make and it shows. It’s a new direction for the group, but one that they have handled well and is a solid evolution of their sound. EX’ACT is without a doubt one of k-pop’s strongest records of the year.

This post was written by our guest blogger, Emlyn Travis.