It’s 7.30, long before the headline act usually takes the stage – and the devotees of the latest Korean pop sensations are out in force. Ateez’s fans call themselves Atinys – pronounced “a-teenies” – and are younger and dress more gothic than those recently drawn to the O2 by fellow K-pop sensations Blackpink: Ateez’s own look leans towards black clothes, eyeshadow and lipstick, which leaves the eight members looking both androgynous and strikingly pretty. But they’re just as susceptible to the lure of the merch stand. The hot ticket item is the Ateez lightstick, which illuminates in different colours in time to the band’s performance, like the wristbands at a Coldplay gig, and sells for – get this – £63, plus £3 for batteries.
Still, no one could complain they’re not getting their money’s worth when it comes to the show itself. It starts at 7.30 because it goes on for two-and-a-half hours. Some of that is taken up with interstitial videos, including one that features the members of Ateez spray-painting anarchy symbols on walls, devotees of Bakunin and Discharge to a man. And more of it still is taken up with between-song chat. Because there are eight of them, and they all get to have their say, the banter takes forever, a sensation heightened by the fact that the screaming that occurs every time one of Ateez puts a microphone near their mouth renders most of it incomprehensible.
But even with breaks, its sheer length – 22 songs, none of them compressed into medleys – makes it an extraordinary show purely in terms of the band’s physical endurance. The choreography is so precisely done that the big screens can repeatedly fast-cut from showing them onstage to showing them doing the same routine on video, in different costumes, completely seamlessly, a neat trick that underlines how well-staged the show is: the opening sequence, which features the band members illuminated by neon tube lights held up by the dancers, is a really simple but incredibly striking idea. The ballads are rooted in the 80s – synthy soft rock on Dazzling Light, R&B slow jam on Mist – but Ateez’s speciality is in sounding epic.
Their signature sound borrows EDM’s vast, fizzing synthesisers and its penchant for dramatic dynamics – immense builds and drops - while the drums boom even when they’re replicating the cantering rhythm of an old Stock, Aitken and Waterman single on Cyberpunk. During Wonderland, they shift unexpectedly into sea-shanty-ish 6/8 time, the better to bellow along to. More unexpected still, Guerilla’s climax comes overlaid with raw-throated vocals derived from emo. It’s not the only time Ateez recall the harder end of rock. Chief vocalist Choi Jong-ho has a remarkably powerful voice, but it’s a remarkably powerful voice that you could easily imagine soaring over heavy guitars: unbelievable as this sounds, something about his strident vibrato faintly recalls Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson.
On and on it goes. There are more songs and more costume changes (at one juncture into something approximating PVC fetishwear), more interstitial videos, and there’s more between-song chat. The aforementioned lightsticks are shilled, the audience is teased with the suggestion that it’s the last song when it clearly isn’t.
If you’re not a paid-up Atiny, it’s the dictionary definition of too much of a good thing, but on another level, it’s hard not to be impressed. So much pop music aimed at tweens and young teens is tainted with the dismissive whiff of short-changing and will-this-do?, particularly in its live incarnation. You could never accuse Ateez of that: thought has gone into giving their music a USP and they’re working incredibly hard up there. They seem to believe that you get out what you put in, which is both laudable and a strategy that’s paying off handsomely.