2022 is already shaping up to be the year of Astro subunits. In January, the group’s rappers Rocky & JinJin made their subunit debut with the spunky EP Restore. Now, Moonbin & Sanha are back with their second mini album, Refuge

For a group known for their bright, boyish charms, Moonbin & Sanha as a duo tend to be the outlier to the rest of Astro, instead showcasing a darker and more mature side that the group as a whole has only rarely ventured into with title tracks like “One” and “All Night.” As a follow-up to their first EP, In-Out, Refuge takes the mature sound and image Moonbin & Sanha first introduced one step further, paring it down into a more cohesive, sophisticated musical palette.

While Moonbin and Sanha’s first title track, “Bad Idea,” was already a surprising departure from Astro’s comparatively tamer concepts, “Who,” the title track on Refuge, takes things up a notch and signals the duo’s venture deeper into their dark side. Backed by grinding, revving synths and light but almost haunting 8-bit notes, “Who” immediately embodies a moody, sinister feel. The melody of the pre-chorus is easily the track’s highlight, with Moonbin’s & Sanha’s addicting vocals anchoring its drop and mostly instrumental chorus. Although the chorus is too empty vocally for its own good, “Who” still manages to feel like an evolution since In-Out largely due to its fuller and more complex sound. 

Moonbin & Sanha also indicate their continued maturity through the track’s lyrics, which delve into more adult territory and paint the picture of a somewhat toxic inner and outer relationship. Paired with the music video, the duo explores the complicated and at times convoluted feelings that come with facing one’s inner demons, both internally and concurrently alongside another person. 

Unlike In-Out, which fell slightly short on sounding cohesive musically, each track on Refuge feels connected to one another from start to finish through common musical elements that evolve over the course of the EP even as their genres change. For that reason, even though the album doesn’t necessarily tell one overarching, chronological narrative, the darker musical elements in each track give their lyrics a tinge of grimness, and a more mature connotation. In that sense, Refuge easily feels like a step up in sophistication and an elevation of the subunit’s already-established sultry sound.

In “Boo” and “DIA,” the next two tracks on the EP, the two switch things up and opt for a more upbeat sound. “Boo” is a bouncy, R&B and pop track, while “DIA” has obvious disco influences. Although the genres of both tracks are a complete change from “Who,” the transitions from “Who” to “Boo,” then “Boo” to “DIA,” are nearly seamless. In “Boo,” the half-mysterious, half-haunting plucky 8-bit elements and light but shrill string notes carry over smoothly. Lyrically, “Boo” also makes its own “spooky” references but in a more playful form, as the two reminisce of a “ghost friend” who was once their “boo.”

You’re my boo, whenever I see you

Déjà vu, my last memories

Would you love me still?

Last Halloween

Still, we’re ghost friends

The orchestral and synth elements carry over once again in “DIA,” taking on a slightly different sound to match the track’s disco influences. While “DIA” has an upbeat feel thanks to its trap beat, it again features intense, grinding electronic sounds as in “Who,” which strengthens the cohesion of the album as a whole. 

The EP’s tempo drastically slows down with the final two tracks, “Distance” and “Ghost Town.” While the last half of the album is far more subdued than the first half, “Distance” and “Ghost Town” are necessary steps back from that intensity to round it out on a realistic and meaningful note. “Distance” is a soft, acoustic ballad in which Moonbin & Sanha mourn the growing distance between them and someone they love and don’t want to let go. Although genre-wise the track is the most different from the others on the EP, this aspect only makes it stand out more as the duo’s powerful vocals are front and center against the backdrop of a delicate acoustic guitar and subtle siren-like noises. 

“Ghost Town,” the final track and pre-release single from the EP, is the culmination of Refuge’s high points, and qualifies as its standout track for that reason. As a follow-up to “Distance,” it carries its delicate, acoustic riffs over, then combines it with a trap beat similar to that in “DIA.” As in “Boo,” the two’s vocals are smooth and easy to listen to, as they switch between their lower registers and even falsettos in the cadence of an R&B song. The track perfectly bookends the album, which started with the self-discovery of “Who,” then the relationship stage of “Boo” and “DIA,” and finally ends with the moving on phase referenced in “Distance” as well. 

With Refuge, Moonbin & Sanha make their musical evolution clear. Although the elements that keep the album cohesive and unified are small in size, they’re big in terms of impact. As one haunting note or instrumental element changes and transforms from track to track, the duo add more layers and meaning to their lyrics and build upon Refuge’s dark and moody musical universe. The subunit’s affinity for tackling sinister concepts and mature topics in their music only furthers the promise of Astro of a group overall — a perfect balance of light and dark, much like Refuge itself.

(YouTube. Lyrics via Genius. Images via Fantagio Entertainment.)