This compelling full length debut of dark, panic-ridden minimalist sounds won’t let you go. It’s a claustrophobic thrill ride.
The Soft Moon is Luis Vasquez and The Soft Moon is his debut on Captured Tracks. The sound he purveys gels with the tastes of the man behind the label, Mike Sniper, who is also known musically as Blank Dogs. By this I mean that the Soft Moon plays a dark and minimal, synth-heavy, electronically-enhanced kind of pop with a lo-fi aesthetic. However, Vasquez edges more towards the instrumental or ambient side, eschewing typical song structure for exercises in poppy repetition and drone.
The Soft Moon obviously owes a lot to its krautrock and synth-rock influences, but it also fits in perfectly with the current moment. Though the sound has an expansive reach, it’s a small kind of music, made by one person alone. Being freed from the collaborative aspects of a band also takes this music away from the typical confines of the pop song. There’s more emphasis on repetition and layering. Instrumentation doesn’t stand out, vocals don’t matter; the music communicates a feeling.
All of the songs on this album are essentially versions of each other, but Vasquez always knows when to add a new layer, a new bit of sound, to make it interesting. Most tracks don’t really have coherent lyrics, just breathy vocal vamps to punctuate the sound here and there. The major mode of the Soft Moon is bass and the bare minimum of a beat (that gets elaborated with other percussion). Though these songs exist in time, they have that collage feel of aggregate parts pasted together and hanging there at once. So most of the tracks aren’t really songs. The album ends up resembling the score to a scary Road Warrior type film. The track “Out of Time”, for example, could actually show up on a spooky sounds compilation and not seem out of place. The high pitch-shifting synth is like a haunted cat squealing in the night.
Only three of 11 tracks resemble anything like a “proper” pop song, with verse and chorus structure (based on lyric or melodic difference). These songs structure the album like the beginning, middle, and end of a sentence. The highlight of these three "When It's Over" is also the major anomaly, having dreamy vocals over a guitar with vibrato. Not that this is a typical song; it opens up with a high pitched groan of pain. But it’s the closest Vazquez comes to an anthem -- if an anthem is draining and you can’t sing along to it. It’s more like a tip of the hat to the Soft Moon’s ‘80s British influence.
Album opener “Breathe the Fire” is like krautrock mixed with rockabilly (krautabilly?). Over a bass line that could be a Joy Division song that stands still inside of three notes, Vasquez whispers tonelessly but with a hint of pompadour, while a sickly bending note drones over the song. Whatever melodic component the song has comes in the staccato guitar notes that serve like a bridge outro to the song. Perhaps the most emblematic track is “Circles”: It has a queasy synth and a driving beat with reverb-washed percussion. The song comes in repeating layers that, whether voice or synth, work rhythmically rather than melodically to produce a dark trance state.
As I’m trying to describe the Soft Moon’s sound, I keep coming up with metaphors of sickness. The insistence of bass, guitar, and synth to hover between two notes brings to mind that kind of strange empty focus that comes with the pain of illness. But it’s not just me who thinks this way. Vazquez hints at it: “Sewer Sickness” winds itself into you head like a migraine, with a syncopated gasping vocal that could be a dry heave. This isn’t to say that the album makes you feel bad. Call it a flight into illness -- something about the album is otherworldly, not right, but inevitable; and like the worst illnesses it marks the time it takes with an irrevocable beckoning. There’s something about that time that makes it seem like it will never be over, and yet you will keep returning to it.