Content warnings: Abuse, harassment, misogyny, mental health, some strong language.
Wow. What a sound.
Softcult is sisters Mercedes and Phoenix Arn-Horn. They’ve been self-recording, producing, and releasing songs consistently throughout this past year, packaging up five of them into April’s Year Of The Rat EP and releasing three more since then, no doubt in anticipation of next year’s scheduled EP, Year Of The Snake.
I was instantly hooked by this band’s time-warping brew of 90s shoegaze, alt rock, and dream pop. Their current 8-song catalog is a highly satisfying callback if you’re old, like me, and a solid revival for the youths, borrowing from the likes of Veruca Salt, Lush, Nirvana, and Slowdive to create a beautifully fuzzed-out DIY aesthetic. It’s so good, y’all.
Interestingly enough, these stylistic choices are partially a result of the sisters’ vocal limitations. They regularly talk about Bikini Kill as a primary inspiration, and originally planned to pursue a sound in a similar vein, but found that their voices didn’t mesh with that hard-and-fast riot grrrl sound. Instead, they have found (mostly) softer ways to convey that riot grrrl ethos.
As you can see from the content warnings, the music may be dreamy but the subject matter is as real as it gets. The sisters draw from their personal lives, experiences in the music industry, and social issues to write songs that run the gamut from introspective to socially conscious. “Gloomy Girl”—with its ocean of reverb and breathy melodies—snaps a beautiful still frame of the inward struggles of anxiety and depression, while “BWBB” can’t help but be much more aggressive. The sisters wrote that song the night that they learned about the assault and murder of Sarah Everard, and it is justifiably jagged.
That song, and others like “Bird Song” and “Take It Off”, address the uniquely messed-up experiences of being a woman in a man’s world, from the the trauma and survival of assault to the objectification of women. That’s the primary thread running through most of this music. The band’s name is a prompt for the listener to think about the “soft cults” they may unthinkingly belong or subscribe to, and whether those associations may have damaging effects on women and other underrepresented and marginalized groups. They’ve also been putting out a monthly zine, each issue dealing with an aspect of the struggles brought to light in their songs. There’s some really heartbreaking stuff in there, but there’s also hope and support.
As much as Softcult is a band, it is a vehicle for activism. They are only two voices, but they have greater ambitions. The zine is just another vehicle for reaching out to anyone who will listen and amplify the message. In a way, the limitations to achieving a more hardcore sound may have turned out to be a blessing; the dreamier, shoegaze sound is much more accessible and has likely resulted in the band’s voice reaching more ears.
I love what this band is doing, both musically and socially. The subject matter may be at times uncomfortable, but at the heart of it all is a drive to bring awareness, empathy, and resolution to endemic issues. I admire the hell out of that.