At first, a shock, delightful perhaps only to someone like me: the opening track of The Soft Moon‘s Exister is most coherently reminiscent of Porcupine Tree, that contemporary-ish prog group that always had a buried knack for the gothic and propulsive which would later become foregrounded in frontman Steven Wilson’s solo work. This, as it turns out, is part mirage by The Soft Moon, not quite a feint but not quite a commitment either. Because what follows confirms that Luis Vasquez has evolved from being a mere prodigy of contemporary gothic music to a kaleidoscopic talent, able to shape shift seamlessly from avant-garde soundscape to progressive suites to throbbing dance floor pieces to foreboding and forbidding cavernous macabre spells.
This kind of expansive but succinct document has been a long-time coming; each album prior to Exister positioned itself as focusing on a tightly arranged set of elements, with stray components pointing toward a broader vision. Something was clearly up when Vasquez’s last record, A Body of Errors, was released under his own name, pursuing more discreetly cinematic approaches to songwriting; it felt obvious that his next release under The Soft Moon name would seek to be a transformative document, whether that be a violent shift in form or a thresholding moment.
It is certainly the latter. Exister lives in similar space to former Dillinger Escape Plan vocalist Greg Puciato’s two The Black Queen records or the peak Blaqk Audio material, work trapped between pastiche of the living-dead styles of coldwave and darkwave and all its varied elaborations and something pressingly vital, especially in increasingly apocalyptic times. The last time an album like this felt so keenly vital to me was in the early 2010s, hovering around the apocalypse of 2012, where the housing market collapse and dawning depression of the late 2000s and the violent end of Occupy Wall Street combined with what felt like a wave of psychic decay that crescendoed in violence in 2014 was acutely crushing my skull. Elaborating on why 2022 feels like the dawning of a new apocalyptic era would constitute an essay unto itself; suffice to say, this type of material, especially fanning out so wide, feels as necessary a document now as HEALTH’s DEATH MAGIC when that record was released.
One could parse the technical elements of this record (say, for instance, the notable NIN-isms spread across the disc, little squiggles of avant-garde soundscaping, clearly manicured over the course of the past several albums, or the occasional punk rock gusto he lets loose on some of these pieces), but that would privilege the wrong element. While the critic in me wants to tell you that these are not only thoughtfully composed pieces of music but also a keenly arranged whole, the music listener in me, the one that responds to art as a vital and necessary force of life, feels this like a mighty exhale, a welcoming cloak.
Autism provides many difficulties, the most obvious one is the accurate communication of the interior self and its perceptions to outside elements that are more interested in viewing you as weird, threatening, vaguely monstrous or annoying or confusing. This kind of music, this record, Exister, feels like a bridge; when words fail, there is something like this, moods captured on tape I can jab a finger at and go no, like this. Is this the greatest post-punk record? No. In some objective scale, imagine a Metacritic score of 80, well put-together and mostly strong but lacking perhaps that final bomb burst that makes something a masterpiece. This is true in the objective sense. But art does not come alive in the objective world; it alloys itself to our spirit, becomes armor and weapon and world and self, and through us it gains its presence and force.
Goth music, like disco, doesn’t live in the headphones but in how we bring it out into the world, an attitude and grace and sense of unfurling. This is fibrous in a way a lot of industrial, coldwave and goth music sometimes avoids, leaning away from waves of imagery of water and crystal and muslin. Even the bursts of static and gunshot snares feel physical, like you are in the streets, like you are failing to transcend and not for lack of effort. That sense of being trapped, even sonically trapped in the world of sound design, feels fitting, working through denial an embodiment of the pain, frustration, and humiliation this genre works so well to make clear. That the album closing title track ends with what feels like banging fists against a bathroom door in the dark moments before suicide, like someone who crossed the fatal line but realized too late they don’t want to go, only underscores this settlement. Art doesn’t need to be perfect or a masterpiece to be evocative. Exister places you inside of that choking moment, lets you show it to someone from the inside.
Label: Sacred Bones
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.