Luis Vasquez’s Self-Inflicted Anarchy
The Soft Moon returns with Criminal, their fourth full-length album. Calling The Soft Moon simply a post-punk effort diminishes the true depth and extent of their uniqueness. Headed by singer-songwriter, instrumentalist and producer Luis Vasquez, the Oakland band has an industrial abrasiveness to their sound that combines the noisiness of Vasquez’s distorted production with darkwave EBM complexities. Their last LP, Deeper, was recorded during Vasquez’s pilgrimage away from his life in Oakland to near-total solitude in Venice, Italy, where he focused on his capturing his pain through his songwriting while Maurizio Baggio worked on the production.
Continuing to work with Baggio, Vasquez delves into a cathartic declaration of self-loathing and anger on 2018s Criminal. On the album’s opener, “Burn,” Vasquez laments the sting of feeling foreign inside his own skin. He expresses the wish to be someone else, over the chaos of aggressive electric guitar riffs and furious drums. His voice is not quite a whisper and not quite a scream, but captures the emotions behind both through the delivery alone. The self-hatred he expresses on “Burn” extends itself across the album, showing up again most notably on “Pain,” where Vasquez questions how anyone could love somebody like him, alluding to self-harm. The noisiness of his distorted vocals is heightened by the synth and bass melody that follow it, creating an adrenaline rush representative of the angst he feels. A shrill electronic whine and warbling, distorted shrills oscillate around each other until the track ends abruptly in eerie, complete silence.
What brought Vasquez to the point of having these toxic thoughts? In an extremely honest and raw manner, he details the substance abuse and the guilt that follows, which seem to be the perpetrator, and simultaneously, the healer of his disgust with himself. “Choke” vividly illustrates his own gritty meticulousness while crushing cocaine. The instrumental is especially rough, as screeching electronic noisiness and rattling percussion fight for dominance over the equally toothy electric guitars. The result is an image of seedy, middle-of-the-night activities that will no doubt have physical and mental consequences on Vasquez in the morning. These consequences are obvious on “It Kills,” where Vasquez reveals how addictive these substances are. He explains, “I yearn for anything / That burns me down.” He “crave[s]” and “need[s]” it, even if “it kills” him inside and out, each time to a worse extent. The instrumental here is slower than the rest, perhaps mimicking the anguish that Vasquez details in his lyrics. The spectrally atmospheric start of “Young” teasingly builds into blaring guitars, electronic synths and drums that never quite climax, just as Vasquez explains that he only feels okay while far from sobriety. In any case, though it’s clear his vices are distressing him, he sees no point of exit anytime soon.
The fast life that Criminal details has roots as deep as childhood. “Like a Father” deadpans that his absent father eventually became “the ghost of [his] problem.” The intense instrumental is amplified by crashing hi-hats and lightening-paced guitars. Here, all of the anger that he has manifested against his father explodes alongside the instrumental, even as his voice and delivery are uncannily calm. The title suggests the distress that comes with finding the similarities between his father and himself. With both himself and those who are meant to be close to him to blame, Vasquez displays his struggle to find a way out of the poisonously delicious rut he finds himself in.
Though Criminal is another one of The Soft Moon’s projects where Vasquez focuses on his lyrics, the Baggio’s collaborative production never takes a back seat. On “Ill,” the album’s only instrumental track, a banging beat amplified to the brim with reverb, switches between simplicity and complexity as it quiets and loudens again and again. A sour electric guitar steals the show, but only until an alarm-like blare closes it out. This attention to detail is what makes Criminal’s 40-minute length zoom by so fast. Though the tracks are extremely consistent in tone and style, they are as layered as Vasquez’s destructive tendencies. The final result is a beautiful catastrophe that’s as horrifying and gratifying as Vasquez’s undoubtedly scarring experiences.