The first two albums from Luis Vasquez’ The Soft Moon explored an extremely limited sonic palette, eking out an existence within the confined spaces between chord progressions. Although 2015’s Deeper introduced more pronounced melodies, Vasquez’ distinctive style still retained the almost oppressively claustrophobic sense of dread that was established with the band’s first release in 2010. With Criminal, Vasquez adds layers of industrial noise to form The Soft Moon’s most expansive and ambitious release to date.
Opening with an insistent, growling guitar and a chest-thudding bass line, “Burn” also features a snaking synth melody, like an itch that won’t go away no matter how hard you scratch. It’s an excellent metaphor for the lyrical and musical themes of the album. While Vasquez has always pulled from a seemingly bottomless well of nihilism, Criminal is even more drenched in self-loathing, with continued references to hell, fire, burning and ghosts.
In “Burn,” the lyric “I can’t control myself” is repeated like the mantra of someone suffering from OCD, while the industrial percussion of “Crush” befits lyrics like “take your time, crush me fine.” It’s the masochistic fantasy of someone caught in the wheels of a giant machine, perhaps even the cacophony of the song itself.
Despite being frequently obscured by distortion, there’s a pure, pleasing tone in Vasquez’ vocals. This makes the falsetto of “Give Something” as effective as the deep grumbling of “Like a Father,” in which Vasquez’ carnal delivery recalls the erotic aura of 2012’s Zeros album. The latter song also points to just how much Vasquez has evolved as a songwriter.
Opening with staccato rhythms and adding in verses where the music stops but the vocals continue, “Like a Father” eventually becomes one of the catchiest songs on Criminal, like a horror movie that begins as a slasher but morphs into a supernatural thriller. This kind of shifting trajectory also makes “The Pain” stand out. “How can you love someone like me?” Vasquez asks over a synth melody that apes Depeche Mode’s “A Question of Time.”
What’s intriguing about The Soft Moon is the way that Vasquez occupies a certain Goth/Darkwave/Post-Punk space in the musical landscape without consciously trying to do so. In a 2015 interview, he remarked that “When I get compared to certain genres or bands a lot of the time I don’t know what or who any of them are. I didn’t listen to this genre growing up.”
Listeners might be surprised to learn that Vasquez never considered himself Goth, despite so much of his music evoking bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Clan of Xymox, Garlands-era Cocteau Twins and The Danse Society. In fact, the surprising list of influences on 2015’s Deeper runs the gamut from Michael Jackson to Charles Bernstein to punk stalwarts The Descendents. It truly is, as Vasquez states, “more of a kindred spirit kind of thing.”
This knowledge makes “Young” an even more extraordinary song. While lyrics like “you remind me of when I was young” might seem to refer to a Gen X nostalgia for the original wave of Goth, that’s not actually what the song addresses. It’s the only song on Criminal that is uplifting, both lyrically (“I think I’ll stay ‘cuz it makes me feel fine”) and musically, with the repeated sound of metal clinking on glass representing a kind of bright spark.
Those wondering if Vasquez has lost his edge need not fear, however. Instrumental tracks like “ILL” feature explosive walls of synths and noises like someone screaming in pain while being bound and gagged, while “It Kills” builds to a murderous crescendo as Vasquez sings “I yearn for anything that burns me down.”
Still, there are moments of levity on Criminal, even if they are subtle. “I’m so bored I could quit” Vasquez remarks in “Born Into This,” a line that feels more like Kurt Cobain than Friedrich Nietzsche, and provides a bit of humorous sarcasm. After the onslaught of apocalyptic tunes on Criminal, the album’s title track also offers a kind of relief. It’s slower and more atmospheric than the rest of the album, less reliant on hooks than it is on reverbed guitar and carefully drawn out vocals.
“It’s the way I cross the line,” Vasquez muses, making the listener wonder if the crime in question is transgression against the self. The chorus is almost gentle, with Vasquez softly singing “hate me now,” as if the protagonist has become resigned to his fate. While The Soft Moon has always released music that could best be described as “none more bleak,” with Criminal, there seems to be something like acceptance. Maybe that’s the bleakest timeline of all.
Criminal was released by Sacred Bones Records on February 2.
Leslie Hatton (@popshifter) is a Fannibal, an animal lover, a music maven and a horror movie junkie. She created and managed Popshifter from 2007 – 2017, and also contributes to Biff Bam Pop, Diabolique Magazine, Everything Is Scary, Modern Horrors, Rue Morgue and more.