Last fall, Trent Reznor bid goodbye to the touring version of Nine Inch Nails. He also got married to West Indian Girl singer Mariqueen Maandig and said he wanted to take some time away from making music. Reznor promised that when he did return to music he’d be doing so under a different name, as he was looking to explore some new ideas and concepts that wouldn’t ordinarily fit underneath the NIN umbrella. We already saw him dabbling with instrumental work when he released the “Ghosts Vol. I-IV” album in early 2008, which he described at the time as a “soundtrack to daydreams”. Compared to the industrial rock NIN had become known for, that was definitely a change of pace, and something Reznor has indicated he might do again sometime in the near future. In the meantime though, this past April it was announced that Reznor’s new project would be called How to Destroy Angels, and he’d be working on it with his new wife Mariqueen and his old friend Atticus Ross. Days after that announcement, the first song from HTDA appeared online with the promise of a 6-song EP to be released this summer. It’s been under 2 months since then, and things are speeding along much faster than most anyone expected. The self-titled EP was released digitally this week in the form of a high quality mp3 download made available to everyone for absolutely free. You also have the option of paying $2 and getting the EP in an HD format, which includes lossless audio versions of all the songs plus the music video for “The Space in Between” in 1080p and 480p. A physical CD version of the EP will be released on July 6th and a vinyl version is currently TBA.
At first glance, the “How to Destroy Angels” EP is exactly what you might expect from Trent Reznor. The guy has long specialized in making moody and atmospheric music, and things haven’t changed just because he’s got a new band. The comparisons to his work in NIN will be many, and that’s completely understandable given he’s done very little to dispel that notion, even admitting as much in a Q & A session. Granted, you’re probably not going to get any fast-paced and relentlessly loud songs like “Mr. Self Destruct” from How to Destroy Angels, but a number of the slower, more run down NIN songs provide a much more fitting basis for side-by-side analysis. Heavy drum machines, skittering and buzzing electronics, mixed with some rumbling electric guitar mark the foundations for many of the songs, and it’d only make sense Reznor would use them given these are all tools in his studio and he’s more than aquainted with how to use them. But listen to opening track and first single “The Space in Between” and try not to recall memories of “Hurt” or “Me, I’m Not”. A song like “Fur Lined” might as well be an easy reworking of “Only”, while “BBB” has it’s sonic match with “A Violet Fluid”. “The Believers” bears an eerie reminiscence to “Eraser”, among other things. By now you get the point. Instrumentally speaking, there’s familiar markers everywhere for NIN fans. There’s only one thing missing, and that’s Reznor behind the microphone.
Given that West Indian Girl wasn’t a very popular band, even among indie standards, chances are this is many people’s first introduction to Mariqueen Maandig. In addition to looking really good, Maandig definitely does have some vocal chops, though they’re not quite on full display across this HTDA EP. On most tracks, she maintains an even-tempered and calm demeanor, but it’s the music that surrounds her vocals pushing the suggestion that there’s something sinister lurking underneath. While it is somewhat tragic that Reznor’s only vocals are backing up his wife on a couple tracks, Maandig brings more depth and range to these songs than her husband would have, and that’s a key difference between this new band and Nine Inch Nails. Were this a NIN record, chances are there’d be a fair amount of Reznor’s trademark yell. The lyrics are angry, and the instrumentals are morbid, so it makes perfect sense to express that outrage with some loud vocals. Maandig’s resistance to that gives these songs a subtle beauty that forces you to work at uncovering the emotions rather than hearing them plainly laid out in front of you by an angry voice. The music video for “The Space in Between” echoes this sentiment quite well, with Reznor and Maandig both bloodied on a bedroom floor while a fire rages around them. Maandig barely moves her lips to get the lyrics out of her mouth as the look of hopelessness is all over her face. The world around her is crumbling, and she’s just lying there watching it all go to waste. That’s the secret weapon How to Destroy Angels are able to employ, and it works out in their favor more often than not.
The most important thing to remember about the “How to Destroy Angels” EP is that it’s a new beginning for a man who’s already given 20+ years of his life to music. To expect him to do something completely different from NIN, like moving into indie pop or alt-country, would be like asking a leopard to change his spots. Sure, Trent Reznor has made his reputation and living off of his own misery, but now that he’s married and much happier, that doesn’t mean the world’s problems just go away. And aside from that, if you’re the highest profile member of a new group, alienating a fan base of your old NIN fans probably isn’t the smartest move. So Reznor knows where the sweet spot is at and makes sure to pay appropriate attention to it. The good news is that while this EP may be a great introduction to How to Destroy Angels, by no means does it have to dictate where the band will go from here. Their sound is ever-evolving, and what sounds like NIN one day may sound like something completely different the next. Think of this FREE EP as a method of feeling things out and seeing where all the chips rest. Now that there’s a lay of the land, HTDA can determine the best path to take en route to their first full-length album. This might not be the best or most impressive start for this band, but it shows significant promise for the future, and a world in which Trent Reznor continues to make excellent music even when he doesn’t have a microphone in front of him.