The Soft Moon is the musical persona of Luis Vasquez, whose violent, abusive childhood growing up in the Mojave Desert continues to haunt his work. Like Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, a defining influence, Vasquez often embeds himself within an industrial caterwaul of sound to both mask and expose his inner demons.
Criminal, his fourth, is Vasquez’s most confessional album to date. Now living in Venice, Italy, and working with producer Maurizio Baggio, Vasquez puts his lyrics to the forefront in a way that he did not in his previous records, the aggressive post-punk ambiance of
Soft Moon and Zeros, or the more reflective Deeper, which, also produced by Baggio, now sounds like a transition into the confessional anger of Criminal. It is significant, as well, that Vasquez puts himself on the cover of his new record where his previous releases have featured angular, impressionistic artwork
In addition to his growing lyrical maturity, Vasquez’s embrace of Mediterranean rhythms sets him apart. Album opener “Burn’s” self-loathing lyrics “I can’t control myself” loop around Eastern-inflected notes spinning like a dervish and increasing in intensity as Vasquez wails like one possessed: “Hell is where I go to live, so I burn.” Similarly, “It Kills” builds to a synthesizer wash that evokes a kind of blinding dawn’s light, embodying the evaporation of an evening’s battle with personal demons: guilt, memory, and a mind that won’t shut down. And “ILL” arrives with the piercing sounds of a drill’s whine, intensifying and distorting as it hits bone. This is a hard album to listen to, at times; yet, this is a music of intensity that draws the listener in rather than repulsing them.
Vasquez sings with the emotionally pained intensity of Marilyn Manson, but without the affectation. While he may take inspiration from Manson, one senses that Vasquez’s suffering is not a pose. Where Manson too often seeks to shock his listeners, Vasquez seems to be inviting listeners into his own catharsis. There’s a discomforting yet heartfelt sincerity to these songs. Vasquez is a lyricist who knows the depths of his soul and owns both the pain he has suffered and that which he has inflicted. In “The Pain” he asks, sincerely, “How can you love me?”, a doubt that is made more manifest in the self-awareness he shares earlier in the chorus of “Give Something”: “I don’t want to lose my mind that’s why I keep you so close / You give something when I give nothing.” His doubts in his ability to love or be loved are poignantly expressed in “Like a Father” when, amidst spinning buzzsaw sounds, he declares that “You’re the ghost of my problem” and “Something’s got to give.”It is plain that his father has both caused him suffering and bestowed in him the weapons to impose suffering upon others. He wants to kill the remnants of his father that still dwell within him to become his own person and to experience the unencumbered feeling.
Vasquez’s struggle with being someone who has both suffered and inflicted pain comes to full fruition on the album’s closing, title track. Opening with an ominous slowness distinct from any other song on the record, he declares himself “broken”, then begins a chant-like mantra of self-persecution and judgment ending with, “Hold me, chain me down: Criminal / Keep me, judge me now: Criminal / Watch me, break me down: Criminal / Waste me, kill me now: Criminal.”As an abuse victim, Vasquez is hyper-aware of the dangers in perpetuating the patterns of behavior he has learned and turning them upon others. The song offers an exorcism of his personal demons, a plea for forgiveness amidst the self-recrimination.
Criminal is not an album designed as background music. Nor is it an album meant as escapist entertainment. It is, rather, a strong statement of how personal pain can shape art and, further, a reminder that, amidst all the turmoil of its inspiration, beauty can be found in aggression and catharsis.