In 2009 Trent Reznor started selling all his gear on eBay after he announced Nine Inch Nails were “waving goodbye” to touring – a promise he thankfully broke a few years later.
On the Soft Moon’s fourth album Criminal, it sounds like Luis Vasquez bought Trent’s synths and kept the knobs and patches just as they were – this is nervy industrial goth, shot through with curled-in-a-ball self-loathing. You can almost smell the Woodstock 1994 muck off it. The hissing, frazzled sonic palette is somewhere between Pretty Hate Machine, Broken and the Downward Spiral, with the high-fret scraped bass sound off the Cure’s Pornography or Peter Hook’s darkest detours.
The Trent touches are most evident on opener Burn (there’s even a 1994 NIN track of the same name). Led by a rusty knife slash riff and an industrial techno kick, Vasquez breathily chants, “I can’t control myself, can’t can’t control myself, myself”, and a stage dive chorus bursts in after the first verse, making catchiness out of a line like “I am a stranger living in my skin and it burns”. But even if the Nine Inch Nails nods are initially striking, Criminal transcends these first impressions, and unravels into a seething, clanking mission statement.
On previous Soft Moon albums, Vasquez sang in whispers or half-shrugged lines buried under dense krautrock/post-punk mechanics. But on Criminal – recorded in a “claustrophobic” basement in his adopted city of Berlin – he’s retching out long-buried demons, so oblique strategies just won’t do. They’re songs of depression, Catholic guilt, abandonment and, explicitly, an absentee father, bandaged together with a sense of genuine anger and debasement. He’s wailing, screaming and seething, with the odd moment of tender reflection to soften the blow – notably on the track Give Something. Even the close-up portrait on the sleeve is a big departure from previous geometric and constructivist artwork (above).
He said in a recent interview: “This is an autobiography of my life… it’s a last resort… an act of desperation. I’m having to face things that I’ve perhaps hidden away. Ironically it makes cool music and people relate to it, but it’s difficult. It’s painful.”
If “cool music” feels like some sort of reward or an byproduct for Vasquez, Criminal is at the very least his most singular work yet. Aside from wringing himself emotionally, it’s a dense, intricate album with a factory floor clatter, but you’ll find a hook down every dark corner – from the strobe-lit EBM thrill of Like a Father, to more melodic washed-out synthpop like Young, The Pain and the closing title track. But even if the hooks are pinging round your head, the main thing you’ll take away is a visceral howl and, hopefully, a sense of catharsis on his part. On Criminal, Vasquez has been torn open, and he’s left a lot of himself tangled up in the machines.