The Soft Moon‘s career has been something of a slow reveal. The gradual evolution from Luis Vasquez’s humbler, dreamier darkwave origins into a fully blown post-punk doom machine is akin to watching an eerie fog dissipate, only to find some more sinister and aggressive beast lurking beneath the haze. Vasquez reached an artistic climax with 2015′s Deeper, a set of muscular, lean goth rock that seethed with genuine menace yet moved seductively. Its title track felt like a breaking point—a percussive, pounding moment of apocalypse-tribe primal scream rituals. Whatever kind of Mr. Hyde had previously been lying dormant inside of Vasquez, he was ready to come out—and he was out for blood.
It turns out the seething monster inside The Soft Moon has only grown hungrier. Criminal, Vasquez’s fourth full-length, is the heaviest he’s ever sounded, a twitchy, tormented network of pretty hate machines. Each of its 10 tracks is built on punchy full-band arrangements, the once-subtle synth-grooves of the past now usurped by furious, mechanized drum patterns and gut-churning fuzz basslines. It still sounds like The Soft Moon, but a version of the band that sounds more dangerous and tortured than before, bolstered by some of the most direct and anguished lyrics of Vasquez’s career. “I’m learning about myself and it’s kind of freaky,” he said in a recent interview, reflecting on the darkness he channels. “I’m kind of messed up, you know?”
The idea of darkness leading to great art is an old cliché, but in Vasquez’s case, it’s one that sticks. He plays that darkness like an instrument, his manipulation of atmosphere and menace essentially virtuosic. The pounding rhythm of lead single “Burn” reflect a more corporeal, full-band sound for The Soft Moon, though the intensely—if seductively—unsettling ambiance remains. Vasquez chants “I can’t control myself” against a snakelike bassline that climbs and snaps back, always on the verge of breaking. Yet its chorus is one of the catchiest moments in The Soft Moon’s entire discography—a moment of tortured triumph that stacks up to vintage Nine Inch Nails. There’s a similarly wretched groove to “Choke,” its carbon-monoxide-poisoned bassline juxtaposed in perfect balance with its freak-funk industrial beat.
Deeper cuts only lead to deeper wounds. In the woozy psychedelia of “Give Something,” Vasquez hints at a potentially destructive codependency as he sings, ”I don’t want to lose my mind, that’s why I keep you so close.” It could be drugs he’s reaching for, or it could be sex, but there’s every reason to believe that it’s only a temporary salve. Over a robotic synth march on “Like A Father,” his patriarchal-directed rage festers: ”This hate is a problem… something’s got to give.” And when Vasquez gives a screeching reading of the title phrase in the driving goth rock of “Born Like This,” it sounds like a fatalistic acceptance that nurture can’t overcome one’s fucked-up nature.
Good vibes are in short supply on Criminal, and frankly they’d probably just get in the way. There’s no celebrating on Criminal, just gnashing and brooding, manifested in the form of some of The Soft Moon’s most urgent, intense material. These songs hit hard, but they never lose sight of the sexy, savage grooves that have propelled Luis Vasquez’s music from the beginning. Criminal is an industrial rock dancefloor exorcism, hedonistic and raging in equal measure.