LIVE: The Soft Moon @ The White Hotel

WORDS BY PATRICK PRESTON      PHOTO BY ANDREI MUSAT

It should have been obvious straight away – treading through the barren industrial backstreets of Salford and traversing a jumpy security Doberman, with the imposing Strangeways tower looming overhead – that this is no ordinary polished gig venue, especially with The Soft Moon headlining. A few fenced-off smokers herald an unassuming, dingy white building, and I cautiously step inside; no hand stamps or anything like that, so when ‘you’re out, you’re out’.

Then through a final tatty wooden door, and it’s pretty striking – a harsh red mist cloaks the high-ceilinged main room, with only a ramshackle corner stage, numerous blurry, black-clad figures and a caged-off sound-desk being roughly discernible. I crack a can and try to ignore the persistent ember aroma, but I’m mostly just glad I’ve found a gig venue cold enough to keep my coat on. A DJ pumps some experimental, discordant noise, but as this evolves into a long, thrumming drone, the crowd’s disaffected hum becomes an impatient chatter. Suddenly, Chicago’s HIDE violently manifest into existence, dredging up some jump-scare strobes, apocalyptic drum sounds and hellish looped screaming; vocalist Heather Gabel’s anguished vocals and tall, tattooed, utterly demonic stage presence lift the thunderously repetitive beats and thick, bubbling tones, while beatmaker Sean Sher skulks in the background, poring over an intimidating array of gear.

The impenetrable mass of sound then slows into a scratchy, nausea-inducing soundscape, rich with texture and rhythm, before being met with a last terror-pulsing house beat. Gabel carries this energy into a reverse-Exorcist spider climb up a pillar, which just about puts a capper on this bewildering spectacle; just as quickly, the noise comes to an end, flooding the room with a sudden respite. “You can turn the lights on, we’re done,” she says, cutting through the atmosphere with a charming bluntness.

We’re running half an hour late by this point, and the crowd has carved even further into the room, fidgeting nervously to a bizarre interlude tape of sparse piano, lo-fi synths and a ticking clock. The lights have faded to an eerie, calming blue, and the members of Luis Vasquez’s The Soft Moon gingerly take to the stage. Its three members instantly snap into action with a propulsive, tribal post-punk rhythm, with Vasquez layering additional parts from a carefully-placed drum pad. “What’s up, Manchester?” he delivers in a languid Californian drawl, adding a welcome slant to the evening’s chilly proceedings. Alongside repeated enquiries of who’d win in a fight between a grizzly bear and a silverback gorilla, Vasquez’s personable stage banter is both unexpected and on point – which makes sense, considering the role that naked, raw emotion plays in the project’s aesthetic package.

 

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After picking up a guitar, the crowd grin with anticipation, and are led through a series of chronological tracks through the band’s history, starting from the earlier, more primal, robotic and (mostly) instrumental; this culminates in Burn, the opener to this year’s truly excellent record Criminal, which showcases Vasquez’s invigorated confidence for densely-layered melodies and impassioned vocals. This reaches a fever pitch, with skittery percussion matched to frantic strobe lights and distorted shrieks, and the band’s busy presence doesn’t let the energy waver – instead channelling it into something more subdued and ethereal, like a slow pulverising death marches, with searing lead guitar lines and a dreary, winding bass forming entrancingly beautiful melodies from their turbulent surroundings. Some inevitable technical trouble doesn’t throw off any momentum, blurring some more visceral tracks from the most recent album with motorik jamming and a thumping drum pad duel, with one of the more blistering cuts of Vasquez’s back catalogue, ‘Die Life’, bringing the crowd into a final jerking, whipped-up frenzy – acting as an ultimate catharsis for a night of exhilarating, fractious tension.

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