(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Recording review - The Soft Moon, Zeros (2012)

Darkwave updated with modern electronics

Imagine an alternate reality where Factory Records didn’t implode in 1992 but instead carried their trademark sound forward to the present day, a timeline where the darkwave sounds of Joy Division, New Order and Bauhaus matured and incorporated modern electronic music. The Soft Moon recorded Zeros with more than half an ear listening to that world’s music.

These songs resonate with the purest sonic elements of that classic, mid-80s period. The stark, treble toned drum sounds are filtered through the same tight reverb that adds its own touch of distortion. The bass lines have the same gaunt, hollowed out tone. Luis Vasquez even catches a lot of the same retro synthesizer sounds. More than that, Vasquez seems tapped into a similar dark headspace where the staccato beat and choppy bass create a Gothic misery. Philistines may hear the echoes of that period’s pretentious excess, but The Soft Moon never wallows in gloomy self-indulgence.

Despite the obvious reverence that the band holds for that era, they add their own twists, such as applying a modern production aesthetic and blending in a touch of Motorik drive. On "Machines", the droning synth and looped drum machine are pure Krautrock, but the bass riff sounds like it was lifted from an early New Order track. In a contemporary move, The Soft Moon turns away from period simplicity and layers in a full assortment of synth accents with a sharply stereo mix. The vocals are processed and low, so the words can’t be discerned but the alienation comes through.

With a touch of Bauhaus flair, "Insides" sets up a strong contrast between a pensive, controlled surface and chaotic depths. It feels like spying on the mind of a stalker. The bass and beat are purposeful and threatening, but the suggestive vocals lurk like an inner voice and the sharp, repeated notes signal a barely repressed tension. As the synth adds some more piercing tones, it’s a tasty frisson of fear that draws the song closer to action.

It is good, though, that Zeros doesn’t dwell completely in the past. "Die Life" starts with a venomous synth stab that creates an immediate tension. This intro transitions into a mechanically percussive groove. When that drops back to make room for the threatening vocals, the bass and drums still sound darkwave, but the speedier tempo leans more towards urgency than gloom. Sandpaper scratches, whirring and grinding machinery and electrical pulses interlock to weave a modern electronic rhythm.

A few songs later, the band once again relies on a complex Motorik beat for "Want". But this time the band ties the steady drive to a choppy, electronic sounding bass and creates a hypnotic trance feel. Dueling stereo percussion riffs set up a drop out break that could have used more space, but like the song says, “I want it/ Can’t have it.” A droning note comes in and climbs steadily, preparing for a climax. The sudden end of the track resolves nothing.

Little thwarted expectations like that make Zeros a more interesting album. The Soft Moon uses the dark proto post punk and Krautrock to make a statement, but they’re talking to their peers, not the past. Or maybe they’re just connecting with a parallel universe.

(This review originally appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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