Fresh from their second appearance at Coachella and 28 sold-out shows on their North American tour, South Korean hip-hop veterans EPIK HIGH landed in Melbourne for the first of their Australian shows after three long years.

At their 2019 show, held at Melbourne’s iconic 170 Russell, the group promised to come back “to a much larger venue”. Deservedly, EPIK HIGH kept true to their commitment. This time, hundreds of excited fans were lined up around the corner of Hosier Lane, waiting for the doors to open to the historic The Forum.

With an hour before the show was due to begin, the theatre was packed full of people. It was an oddly unfamiliar circumstance; to speak to my own personal experience, this would be my first live show since the beginning of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The fact that my first foray back into live music was to see EPIK HIGH was particularly meaningful.

A year into the global pandemic, in the beginning months of 2021, the group released the first part of their highly anticipated 10th studio album, Epik High is Here 上. This release detailed a lot of their own personal struggles, and served as a reminder to its listeners to accept their emotional journeys in the midst of trauma, healing, and intense introspection through isolation.

For me, this album became a personal soundtrack to cautiously navigating and reclaiming my place in a familiar, yet forever changed and recovering world. In these moments, I had often wondered – like a daydream in a nightmare – what it might be like to experience these songs live; that perhaps, when I did, the performances of these songs would provide some sort of additional comfort or resolution.

And here I was, shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, about to experience their music in real-life. In that moment, I felt such a wide range of emotions; excited, for sure; happy and grateful that I was there; and perhaps even a little nervous.

What I was about to witness was nothing short of exhilarating.

EPIK HIGH have always been honest in a way that only a few are brave enough to explore. Through their use of strong lyrical and musical metaphors, their songs masterfully build on the memories of the past, detail the present, and present their outlook of the future. Known for their incredible ability to capture the complexity of human emotion through their thematic and intricately constructed lyrics, the trio is also widely celebrated for their distinctive style; a wonderful blend of distinct musical styles and genres.

On this note, their ninety-minute setlist was a carefully constructed blend of their extensive and well loved discography, balancing the contemporary and wrapping it in comforting nostalgia; appropriately performing ‘Here’ to open up the show, the group alternated between more recent hits like ‘Face ID’, ‘ROSARIO’, and ‘BURK KHALIFA’, while also providing a sense of sentimentality through classics like ‘High Technology’, ‘Don’t Hate Me’, ‘Fly’, and ‘Born Hater’ – satisfying old and new fans in a celebration of what was and how things are now.

Tablo introduced his group-mates to the audience in a way that friends would introduce themselves to each other; the subtle in-jokes referenced stories of years past, while outrageously over-the-top descriptions served to highlight their three distinct personas: DJ Tukutz, who refuses to take himself too seriously, while still being so effortlessly cool; Mithra Jin, with his affable, cool-boy charisma; and Tablo, himself, balancing his loveable yet sarcastic sense of humour with incredible authenticity. He is so intensely funny, but these moments were also set within the context of the ongoing pandemic; on this topic, he recognised how hard things had been while also recognising the strength of those in attendance.

The importance of connection was emphasised throughout the show; on behalf of the group, he welcomed everyone in attendance as family. Bound by reality, things – even for a moment – felt so incredibly joyful.

The EPIK never ceases. EPIK HIGH was here. Finally.