Softcult - See You In The Dark
Softly raging against the machine. 🤘🤘🤘🤘🤘
- See You In The Dark on Bandcamp, Spotify and Apple Music.
“Why do I like this?”
It’s a good question to ask yourself about anything, and the one I want to answer most when writing about any of my musical fascinations. I’m not interested in making music reviews, though that trap is all too easy to fall into. It’s more interesting to push to the center of that core question, because what’s there is inevitably personal, and—if I’m lucky—revelatory. The challenge is part of the fun; it’s often difficult to pin down or articulate the answer, or it’s embarrassing or uncomfortable. Introspection isn’t easy.
I wrote about Softcult soon after discovering them in 2021, and answered this question to the best of my ability at the time. Yes, the spirit of the 90’s is alive in the music, and for someone of my *cough* age, that’s naturally appealing; on a purely sonic level, it’s incredible. Yes, I very much appreciate the focused, anthemic quality of the songs and the way that they seek to take a very specific thought, pull the thread, and weave something greater. And, yes, I really like the overall aesthetic, attitude, and sincerity of this band. It could end there, and that would be fine. Sometimes music doesn’t travel any deeper.
But what about this music? Is there more left unsaid? The passage of time and the band’s continued, steady output has given me repeated opportunities to think about the question, and—yeah—there’s definitely more to say.
This is what Softcult makes: beautiful, barbed anthems enveloped in a style that calls back to 90s alt rock, shoegaze, grunge, and whatever-Deftones-are filtered through an acute pop sensibility.
I spent last year fully aware that I was using music as a coping and escape mechanism for *gestures everywhere*. As I sit here and look back, though, I’m now aware of something else: that this musical current I’ve been swept up in has also been about connecting. I realized that a lot of what I’ve been listening to has a common thread: discovering kinship and empathy in the musical stories of people of different cultures, languages, orientations, ages, and identities. Music can be a window into understanding more fully the hearts, minds, and truth of others. As music has moved me, I’ve sought to learn more about the people and stories behind the songs, taking that connection and using it to draw closer, particularly to the alien, the mistreated, and the marginalized. And to myself, too.
Softcult is easily the most meaningful contributor to this empathetic current. As music that shines a light into dim corners and fights for a more equitable future, that’s a big part of why I’m drawn to them. The songs have clarity & purpose, and although the band is always setting their sights on broader topics, the majority of their catalog to date speaks to the struggling, the anxious, the abused, and the harassed, and the behaviors that seek to damage people who are already fighting to keep their head above water. They’re absolutely the most pure embodiment of punk and riot grrrl ideologies that I know of right now.
This music encourages empathy and self-acceptance in a way I haven’t felt before, and that’s why I like it.
The band just put out their third EP in as many years, called See You In The Dark. It’s easily their best release yet, distilling the familiar pains found in earlier releases into more concentrated doses and reaching into new spaces. I had a draft of this article ready to publish weeks ago, though. Since the band releases most of their songs as singles every few months, the EP releases are more ceremonial events, celebrating and codifying the songs as a collection. The representation of an era.
But the band holds one song back for the EP releases. I was almost asleep when the Discord notification lit up my phone: the music video for the final song had just been uploaded to YouTube. I popped in my AirPods and clicked the link. Maybe it was the late hour, or the already-overwhelming feelings from having seen the band play live just a couple days ago, but I wasn’t prepared to hear a song that would make me feel something so strong as to scrap my emotionally-measured draft and start over. But here we are, at 1:30 AM, doing just that.
First of all, “Spoiled” is just an achingly gorgeous song, building from soft verses to soaring, pedal-heavy choruses. At this point, I don’t think it’s possible for the band to put out a song I’m not going to love deeply. It’s a weird feeling, because I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever experienced something like this in my life, and that it should happen at my crusty, cynical age has felt like an undeserved blessing, a steady tide slowly washing away what’s been weighing me down.
When I listen to this song, it makes me think about the the way we see or feel about ourselves and the effect that has on us and others as we move through the world around us. I can think of at least four or five other Softcult songs that explore different aspects of this same theme. What impresses me about “Spoiled”, though, is that it seems to acknowledge a certain duality; the lyrics refer to the subject of the song in opposites—“I’m water, I’m oil / I’m rotten, I’m spoiled”. Rotten and spoiled are obviously synonyms, but I realized that—since we’re dealing in opposites here—“spoiled” could easily be meant in the overindulged, pampered definition of the word. The song is melancholy enough as it is, but listening to it with this alternate meaning of “spoiled” in mind hit me like a ton of bricks; a sudden, vivid portrait of a fundamentally good person who can’t seem to fully resolve their shortcomings and love themself, or allow themself to believe that others could love them; this “spoiled”, privileged, blessed person who still sees themselves as “rotten”. I mean, damn. Watching them sing those words while floating in a pool of tears broke my heart.
The band always releases a statement about each song, so there’s a chance I’ll find out more about what makes this song tick, and if my interpretation comes anywhere close. In any case, this vignette in my mind is here to stay. The combination of that realization paired with watching the music video put it straight into core memory.
“One Of A Million” is another introspective song on this EP that I think pulls from the same cloth, folding the bitter resignation of individuality into woozy guitars and soft vocals that let the listener glide just above the knife’s edge without being cut. The dreamy, gentle vibe belies an uncomfortable proposition: that the individuality and uniqueness we believe to possess is so often a shared attribute. We sometimes fearfully guard our individuality and feel threatened when it’s compromised, but we can use our similarity as an advantage (as long as we’re not all similarly awful people). These are deep thoughts, and kind of a rarity in rock music. I’m just so incredibly impressed by this band, all the time.
This music explores the myriad relationships we have with ourselves and with others, and that’s why I like it.
“Love Song” comes right before “Spoiled”, a weighty, emotional track that I’m also hopelessly obsessed with. It’s an indulgently sweet, absolutely reverb-soaked confession that genuinely feels like that moment of surrender, when all caution falls away and leaves nothing standing between two hearts. That moment can be heavy and scary, a blissful threshold that carries with it the fear of losing it all. It’s vulnerable, touching, beautiful, and anxious—a mixture of contrasting emotions that makes it very much a Softcult song and steers it far from common love song tropes. “I get so carried away”, they sing, as the swell of the final chorus pushes out, lush and gorgeous, parting the curtain to the warmth of euphoria. Yeah, I may have cried. It’s quickly become one of my favorite songs. Like, ever.
This music is emotionally unafraid, and that’s why I like it.
I feel like I’m going to write about every song on this EP by the end of this. “Drain” and “Dress” are a couple more standout tracks that lean more aggressive. The older I get, the more I appreciate the unique power in being young and hungry and righteously pissed off; it’s possible to remain indignant well into adulthood, but the youthful energy is hard to maintain. It’s all too easy to get tangled in the system and let it wear us down, so it’s refreshing to see intensity undimmed by time.
“Drain” is the EP’s first track and immediately bares its teeth, tearing into the the rich & powerful for their part in plundering the planet and accelerating climate change. “What a privilege it is getting old; I hope I live to be so cynical” the chorus sneers—both a poetic burn and a scathing indictment of the ruin that careless industry has unleashed. The drop-tuned guitar makes the low end boil and the choruses crush, giving the song the highs and lows of resigned helplessness and anger that surround this issue.
This music puts abusers on blast and frames their damage in human consequences, and that’s why I like it.
This is what Softcult makes: beautiful, barbed anthems enveloped in a style that calls back to 90s alt rock, shoegaze, grunge, and whatever-Deftones-are filtered through an acute pop sensibility. It’s a delightful combination that lends itself to anything from fist-in-the-air battle cries to introspective explorations.
“Dress” sharpens the point of last year’s gripping Year Of The Snake track “BWBB”, marrying a bouncy—perhaps even jaunty—tune with an unequivocal rebuke of non-consensual acts. “It’s a dress, not a yes” 1 is a classic feminist rallying cry, first directed back at police who advised women to not “dress like sluts” if they wanted to avoid being assaulted. Set to music, it’s an unforgettable mantra that no presentational choice should ever be considered an invitation or justification for violence. Softcult’s statement for “Dress”:
“This song is about consent; it’s about saying ‘no’ and having it happen to you anyway. It’s about being followed while walking alone at night or being cornered in a bar when we’re just trying to have a night out with our friends. It’s about the lingering fear and trauma that haunts us long after these experiences have happened. It’s about how these experiences make us feel powerless and change the way we see ourselves.”
This music demands a universal change in the human heart and an end to hurting each other, and that’s why I like it.
All of this is compelling enough on its own, but add to it the band’s ingrained DIY ethic, and it becomes even more special. I’ve heard them describe their aesthetic as “purposefully shitty,” 2 which is both humble & funny, but I disagree. I mean, it is purposeful, but I think their brand—thick soundscapes, uncomplicated treatments, cut & paste photocopy collages, copious film grain & trippy effects, and self-produced tracks—makes the band feel really approachable. The siblings take on so much: songwriting, recording, production, video conception & direction, graphic design, and merch. None of that is remotely shitty, but rather a clear reflection of the closely-held, hand made identity of the band. Softcult is a monument to authenticity, taking control of your creativity on your own terms, and sharing a true representation of yourself. The “this is just us, and we’re doing it ourselves” vibe surrounding them is so vulnerable, encouraging, and refreshing. I love it to death, and wish there was more of it in the world.
Like I said, I just saw Softcult play live, so the dopamine is flowing more freely than usual. Still, I see their star rising and can’t help but feel excited that this combination of aesthetic, sound, and message is clearly resonating. Music can serve as both a bullhorn and a shield, exposing issues and gathering listeners into a safe space. Anyone can sympathize with the themes expressed in the music and many can empathize, having lived through some really hard things. It gives me nothing but joy to see the band’s monthly listeners and social media followers grow, and for the chance it gives every ear to reflect, understand, and work with whatever influence they have to make the world a more equitable and peaceful place for everyone.
We all have a voice, small as it may seem. Music can be a powerful amplifier, turning whispers into movements. We need more good hearts on display in this world, and I’m glad Softcult isn’t afraid to show us theirs. 🖤🤍
- Shira Tarrant, It’s a Dress, Not a Yes, Ms. Magazine
- The Peer Pleasure Podcast, Episode 313 – Mercedes Arn-Horn (Softcult) – [16:45]
Softcult at Dada, Dallas, TX
I’m going to be thinking about this night for quite a while.
I suppose I have SXSW to thank for this show; the band was invited to play a number of showcases last week, and made the prospect of this one additional Texas show a reality as the tour heads back toward Canada for its finale.
“The Soft Tour”—as the two bands are calling it—was unsurprisingly amazing. I’ve been following Soft Blue Shimmer ever since they shared an opening act slot with Softcult on last year’s tour supporting Teenage Wrist. They played a really good set, including my favorite song of theirs, “Sunpools”. I absolutely love their sound. 💜
Softcult didn’t disappoint, either. I never get tired of hearing familiar tracks rip in a live setting, turning them into a different animal altogether. I was hoping to hear “Love Song”, but it didn’t materialize. That’s okay; the setlist was thankfully quite long, and perennial favorites “Gloomy Girl” and “House Of Mirrors”—my first brushes with the band—came in hot and left no desire unfulfilled.
The centerpiece of the night was definitely the middle-fingers-raised-in-the-air rendition of “BWBB”, dedicated to the memory of Sarah Everard, the unfortunate muse for the song. “We’ve now segued into the heavy part of the set,” the band declared, blasting through a raft of second-half bangers like “Drain”, and “Dress”.
Mercedes (vocals, guitar) took time out of the show a couple times to talk about accountability and inclusivity, much to the delight of the crowd. My wife, who has only listened to Softcult as often as I’ve played them in the car, commented that she was glad to see a band using their platform to address women’s rights, safety, consent, and inclusion of the LGBTQ community. On the ride home, we supposed that some would call this “woke music”, but it’s really only calling for basic human decency. How twisted up some people have become.
Seeing bands live, it’s always fun to watch & listen to each member’s performance. Mercedes’ voice is so good, and I loved her soft-shredding before, during, and after select songs. Phoenix isn’t a flashy drummer, but they bring a stiff backbone and a lot of soul to the songs. And those harms! Chef’s kiss. I suppose twin siblings would have an advantage when it comes to vocal synergy, but it’s clear they’ve both worked really hard to sound as good as they do. Their touring guitarist is a staple in all of their shows, and has such a sweet vibe about him. I loved the layered guitar work he put alongside Mercedes’ rhythm. The bass player was a new guy, but he was metal as hell and made the show extra dynamic and fun. Please keep him around.
If I remember correctly, the band played a 13-song set— almost their entire catalog with the exception of “Love Song”, “Spoiled”, and “Bird Song”. I’m going to be forever grateful to myself for getting to see them play in a small, hole-in-the-wall venue, because I have a feeling they’ll be moving to much bigger rooms in no time. Dead center, less than 15 feet from the stage, pretty close to the PA’s sweet spot—I couldn’t have asked for better.
I’d been looking forward to this show for so long, and I feel lucky to have been there. There’s no way on earth I would miss them again if they come anywhere nearby. Neither should you. 🖤🤍
Songs played, in no particular order:
- Spit It Out
- Another Bish
- Gloomy Girl
- Take It Off
- House Of Mirrors
- Perfect Blue
- One Of A Million
Blushing at Andy’s Bar, Denton, TX
I went to see Blushing play in Denton this weekend. I’d casually listened to their catalog for a little over a year, especially their latest album, Posessions. It’s a really nice collection of tunes that leans into the more angular flavor of shoegaze and sounds a lot like a Lush/Cocteau Twins supergroup. They even managed to get guest vocals from Lush’s Miki Berenyi on the song “Blame”, which is pretty damn cool for a relatively small Texas band.
The show was really great. Some bands have a hard time translating tightly-produced studio tracks to a live setting, but Blushing killed it. I thought they sounded better live, to be honest. I’m not sure what their songwriting process is like, but I imagine they must work the songs out in pretty good detail live before recording. If not, they do a great job of working out the live versions. Either way, they sounded amazing and I’m a big fan now. I would definitely see them play again.
Andy’s is a pretty small venue, but I was kind of surprised by the lean attendance—maybe 40-50 people, including members of the 3 opening bands. Blushing definitely deserved a lot more ears to play to. I haven’t really been to any indie bands’ shows in the area, though, so maybe the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex is just not that into lesser-known bands? Anyhow: be less lame, DFW.
The opening acts were pretty good too, although they were kind of the inverse of Blushing in that their recorded material sounded a lot more nuanced and interesting than the live version. I actually didn’t find Hypnagogo’s music on streaming before the show, but they had pretty distinct songs—sort of emo/power pop with a splash of Rentals’ keyboard weirdness and some screamy vocals. Heavytrip was definitely giving Deftones vibes, and I liked what I heard from their split EP with Flowerbed. Speaking of which, Flowerbed was the band I was second-most-excited to hear because their EP sounded pretty cool. But, like I said, both they and Heavytrip didn’t seem to quite translate that studio goodness to a live sound. Still, I’ll probably revisit their EPs a few more times.
My next show is Softcult with Soft Blue Shimmer on March 21st and I am so freaking excited about it.
Unsolicited Feedback: Last.fm User Profile
Unsolicited Feedback is a series which explores design possibilities from an outsider perspective. These design exercises consider what could be while acknowledging that, inside organizations, there are complex reasons for why products are shaped the way that they are. We’re just having fun here.
I’m a longtime user and recent patron of Last.fm. If you’re not familiar, Last.fm connects to your music service of choice and—among other things—tracks listening activity, surfaces statistics, generates reports, makes recommendations, and shows you like-minded musical neighbors. Paying for a Pro account unlocks a variety of extras, such as the ability to revise song metadata (goodbye, junky “Remastered 2006” song title cruft!) and access to all past reports.
All in all, it’s a really great free service, and an even better paid service. From a feature perspective, there’s not a whole lot to complain about.
Could be better, though.
Problems & Proposals
I’m going to focus on the user profile, because it’s the page I use most. From here, I can see what’s currently playing, view my most played track (or use the same space to set a song that I’m obsessed with), check out my top artists, albums, & tracks, and quickly access a variety of other personal content. The goal of this exercise is to improve the digestibility & cohesiveness of all the page content and make it feel more welcoming & special—not just to me but to anyone coming to this page to check my vibe. Other pages have qualities that would make user profiles feel nicer and more appreciated, and I’ll be taking their cues. There are also a lot of styles—font and otherwise—that contribute to a sense of clutter and lack of cohesion. Lastly, trying to get a good amount of information “above the fold” is nice and all, but this page feels like it could breathe a lot more and still display reasonably compact content. I think here are opportunities to make this page feel personalized and more dynamic while remaining information-rich.
Clearly, the proposed header is a big change; it’s much taller, has a max-width, and less content. A user’s background image is an opportunity to express their individuality and taste. The Artist pages have much larger headers within which to display a photo, which obviously gives the page more personality and gravitas. I’d like to see the same care & prominence given to user profiles. Currently, the background image on user profiles is so skinny and oddly cropped that you barely see anything useful at all. The photo is automatically pulled in based on the user’s top track or obsession, but in this proposed design it could also be a custom image uploaded by the user (Last.fm already allows users to upload pictures to Artist profiles, so the functionality is already there).
One notable change here is the removal of playback controls in the upper left corner. I have a feeling that this is a controversial proposal, because the website is riddled with Play buttons, encouraging users to hook Last.fm into their streaming music service and use it as a front end playback interface. However, I think the playback controls feel unnaturally cramped and shoehorned into this space. I’d rather see it inhabit its own container—perhaps floating controls at the bottom of the viewport—and only display when music is actually loaded. Users aren’t going to miss all of the other cues that tell them they can play music here.
I’d also propose that the Top Track/Current Obsession be relocated from the header to allow more of the background image to display. Similarly, the user profile navigation is also moved out from this container to display more like the main navigation. This releases that space for other content (foreshadowing!) and makes it more obvious.
Lastly, I’d propose relocating the user bio to the header. It’s already limited to 200 characters, and I think it makes more sense to display it next to the profile picture and username than in the sidebar.
When visiting another user’s profile, the current page puts “Following” and “Follows you” indicators—if applicable—in the header, around the user profile image area. That’s fine, but their positioning feels clunky and—as related elements—they’re strangely scattered. Bundling them together into this bar makes the relationship clearer and easier to grok at a glance.
Currently, this content is titled “Recent Tracks”, but that headline is inaccurate if you’re looking at a user profile that hasn’t played anything in months or years. “Latest” feels more forgiving for account activity of any kind.
There are really only two changes to this area. First, I’d like to see the Now Playing track displayed much more prominently. It signals more strongly that this user is actively listening right now, and celebrates that track by providing extra space to share additional statistics about it: perhaps the first time the user played it, and how many time the user has listened to it. To me, it just makes the page feel more alive and dynamic by styling that top row as something special. Of course, when nothing is playing, the row would display like all the others.
For the “normal” table rows, I’ve also proposed scaling the song artwork to the full height of the row. Not only does it increase the size of the art, I also just think it looks cool and gives it some style. Subjective? Yes. Let’s argue.
Lastly, this is the first instance where we’re seeing the new proposed play buttons. They’re still the same, accessible size, but the circular background has been reduced and the gray outer border removed. They look so much less clunky to me. The increased size of the Now Playing area also allows the Play button to sit on top of the larger track art without obscuring it.
Top Albums, Artists, & Tracks
These sections stayed largely the same. The most obvious change is moving to pill shapes for the plays chart. There are so many hard corners on the page that this shape softens it up a bit and also makes the chart stand out a little more. I also increased the contrast to make it feel less like background content.
I’ve also made what I imagine might be a pretty controversial proposal in moving all of theses sections’ controls and actions under a single dropdown menu. I think it looks tidier, but I can conceded that it loses some utility. Again, let’s argue.
I struggled with what to call this sidebar, but landed on something I’m happy with. “Current Obsession” is proposed as just “Obsession”, and has the same size & styling as the Now Playing row. If no obsession is set, this falls back to Top Track, just like it does today. The statistics that used to fall under the header now sit in this sidebar.
I can appreciate the splash of color and interest that the current Listening Reports section is going for, but I don’t think it quite works. The imagery just feels randomly decorative instead of useful, and—honestly—more like an advertisement than content. I propose a visual treatment that represents the density of the associated report’s timeframe. This section looks more integrated now.
The current “Total Scrobbles” section has spawned quite the discussion on the forums. Most commenters there agree that it’s dumb to try to continually one-up your previous week/month/year play count, and this feature’s entire purpose seems to be to encourage exactly that behavior. Hard pass. Personally, I’ve hidden this content with a custom stylesheet, but figured it deserved a light redesign. The skinny progress bars felt pretty weird when there are bars under the Top Tracks section that look totally different, so I went ahead and aligned the styles.
I also tried to bring some clarity & purpose to the previously untitled “Mixtapes” section by pulling the descriptive title out of the hover state and into explanatory blurbs under each mixtape. I think it much more clearly identifies what these are and gives users a reason to care.
There It Is
Well, that was a lot. I really like Last.fm and wanted to channel that appreciation into a constructive critique. Of course, this page doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and these proposals signal changes across the entire website. That’s a lot of work suggested here, and I didn’t even touch the mobile version of this design. Still, I imagine that at least a light redesign will need to happen someday. It’d be nice if some of those things ended up making their way into a refreshed experience!
kurayamisaka - kimi wo omotte iru
You’ve done it again, Discover Weekly.
I get a lot of joy out of seeing kids pick up instruments and make a bunch of noise. The world can be pretty crappy, and it makes me feel a little bit better to see the youths getting on a stage, playing songs they wrote, and have fun doing it. Good, scrappy, DIY fun.
kurayamisaka is a relatively new five-piece alternative rock band out of Japan. kimi wo omotte iru (I’m thinking of you) is their first release, a 20-minute mini-concept album about two best friends reckoning with the separation brought on by going away to school.1 It seemed like there would always be time, that this moment was always far away, and yet here it is. It’s interesting to think about that, because the music is a noisy, distorted affair; with few exceptions, these songs are built with walls of guitar, making this parting of ways feel more tense than tender.
Opening track “theme” is only 58 seconds long, but what a way to start an album. The music is dramatic, heavy, and varied, planting its feet as firmly in 90s alternative rock as that classic, jangly J-rock sound. I’m partial to “cinema paradiso” and “curtain call”, both soaked in shoegaze pedals and walloping drums.
Based on what I could dig up, kurayamisaka may be a kind of side project for members of other bands. But, you know, side projects sometimes turn into the main event. This band has something special, and I hope they make more noise together.