We can pretty much credit Luis Vasquez for bringing the darkwave post-punk genre back from the dead. The clattering of krautrock influences banging on the doorsteps of the 2010s may have been facilitated by the likes of Iceage and Preoccupations, but Vasquez kicked the entire movement off in the late 2000s as The Soft Moon.
We’re not going the route of debating genre classifications or even attempting to rest one entire genre on a single person’s shoulders – this is simply to illustrate that Vasquez has been doing this a lot longer than even the most popular acts in the scene. His self-titled debut in 2010 was the harbinger, but it wasn’t really until 2015’s Deeper that it felt as though The Soft Moon had finally reached its apex. Deeper was brutal and spine-tingling with its esoteric compositions and Vasquez filtering himself out of his own consciousness on standouts like “Black” and “Far.”
By the time 2018’s Criminal came around though, the boom of post-punk was already starting to weaken and those torchbearers had to evolve, but for Vasquez it just meant more room for his work to grow and pulsate. Criminal’s darker nature may have come from the switch to Sacred Bones as a label, a label known for its gothic-leaning roster.
All of this exposition is to show how secular the Soft Moon project has been, and why that’s important for Vasquez’s fifth album Exister. He opens the record with the aptly titled “Sad Song,” a whispery hymn that sets expectations appropriately for Exister. This escalates nicely into the industrialized “Answers,” that instantly smacks of With Teeth-era Nine Inch Nails. Vasquez even sounds more like Trent Reznor than ever before, which is a blessing and a curse.
This is easily the Soft Moon’s most intense record, as evidenced by the hybrid first single “Him.” It pulls us in like a traditional Soft Moon song – comparable to anything from his first two records – but quickly descends into voice manipulations and a guest spot from rapper/producer Fish Narc. The buck doesn’t stop there either, as “Unforgiven” follows and continues to test our patience with this project through a guttural Alli Logout (of Special Interest) performance.
“Become the Lies” hearkens back to the old Soft Moon days, thanks to lurid drums and Vasquez lyrically wounding himself repeatedly, “You make me contemplate if I should live or be dead.” If Criminal was Vasquez exploring the dark realms of his mind, Exister is him languishing in it. The blitzed out electric guitars of “NADA” are promising, and definitely evoke the bleakness Vasquez wants us to feel.
Interspersed throughout the album are a handful of instrumental passages that act as gateways to the next level of Hell for Vasquez. The true purpose of these instrumentals isn’t always clear since the sequencing of Exister doesn’t give any hints, so a three minute detour like “The Pit” just sort of hangs there in a vacuum.
There are moments of brilliance as always littered throughout, the closing title track for instance is another instrumental but seems oddly fitting as a static-filled finale. There’s true pain in Vasquez’s words, he has after all always been direct in conveying his emotions, and Exister succeeds at painting a portrait of his despair in charcoal. Unfortunately, as a piece of music to consume it’s just too choppy and incoherent to elicit a feeling. In the end it’s a risky exploitation of his frail psyche, a destination already travelled to and not worth revisiting all that often.