LOONA (often stylized as LOOΠΔ), the 12 member behemoth of a girl group, have finally debuted after a 18-month long pre-debut project of sub-units, solos, and reality shows. Korean media reports that this unique pre-debut process has already racked up costs of around 9.9 billion won. That’s over $8.85 million USD, folks. The high costs have plagued the group with rumours of money laundering for their record label Blockberry Creative - a subsidiary of a South Korean conglomerate whose main business is said to be the arms trade.

It’s not hard to see where the money has gone. LOONA’s pre-debut music videos reek of high production value and marketing for the group has remained consistently high through the last 18 long, long months. Initial ambitious plans included overseas filming for every release before that was scaled back. Now, the culmination of the pre-debut project comes in the form of EP + + (read, naturally, as plus plus).

It’s difficult to review a group’s official ‘first’ release when there’s already been a variety of hype-building releases prior. There have been multiple hits and misses that skew how + + performs as an introductory album to a big girl group. The intro (also titled + +) somehow captures the highs and lows of official title track 'Hi High'. Essentially an instrumental mash-up of the intro tracks of the albums by per-existing sub-units LOONA 1/3, ODD EYE CIRCLE, and yyxy, the electric guitar and finger snaps almost promises something jazzy until it ultimately falls back onto a sugary base complete with high toned rhythmic whistles. Hi High opens with spacy synths that sparks interest until a few seconds later where it falls on the sweeter side of things. The chorus becomes a generic affair that is a crash back to a ‘sweet girl’ image. Producing team Monotree takes inspiration from their Sweetune past and it’s an unfortunate call back to a sound that doesn’t fit with a debut in 2018. The song is repetitive, peppy, and upbeat, but lands flat in a sea of summer hits from elsewhere.

Lead single 'favOriTe' was the group’s first release as its full, 12-member collective and again, calls back to 2010 K-pop. It feels slightly dated but, laid bare, is a maturer version of 'Hi High'. The rapid-fire verses are still in play as well as some slower verses that keeps things fresh, but the track does what Hi High failed to do in showing off the power that the members have. Vocally, the use of 12 members doesn’t appear to an advantage at the moment and instead both 'favOriTe' and 'Hi High' feel rushed so that every member has a moment to shine in a 3 minute song.

B-track 'Heat' is a much stronger affair that plays up the nuances instead of relying on what appeals to the masses. Heat is a tropical pop track that continues pumping life into a musical trend that will not die in the land of K-pop. Although the genre has been worked to death, the airy vocals of some of the members do make it an enjoyable affair. Disregarding the other songs that has used the trop-pop genre, the song itself is strong for a b-track and LOONA does have some unique vocalists that stand out more in 'Heat'.

'Perfect Love' feels like a modern take on a 90s R&B track. It’s a drum and synth affair which doesn’t distract nor add to the sweeter tones singing about a perfect love. Stylish is the final track and is a strange combination of sub-units LOONA 1/3, ODD EYE CIRCLE, and yyxy. It’s all airy harmonies with R&B-esque verses that ultimately serves as a fair ending single that matches with the intro.

LOONA and Blockberry Creative have shown experimentation that seasoned companies rarely engage in due to the knowledge that their domestic audience, the South Korean public, are often simply not into it. As mentioned, LOONA have debuted with over a year’s worth of pre-debut singles. It’s hard to ignore a body of work that spans longer than the group currently standing before us. Singles such as 'New' by Yves, 'Eclipse' by Kim Lip, and 'Singing in the Rain' by Jin Soul (and, hidden firmly away, 'loveis4eva' by yyxy) remain firmly saved in the replay pile while + + feels stuck teetering between ‘next release please’ and ‘I’ll take another listen’. The girls can do much more than + + and I look forward to LOONA’s next release.