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EP Review: How to destroy angels_ – An omen_ [Columbia]



It seems like a much longer period of time, but it’s only been about 2.5 years since we last heard from How to destroy angels_. What has the band been doing in that gap? Well, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have been creating the soundtracks to The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for starters. Progress with Htda has been slow to say the least, but at least there’s a good excuse as to why. Their 2010 self-titled debut EP wasn’t exactly a bold statement of originality, but there were some solid starting points that they could have worked from to build something fantastic and wholly worthwhile. What’s surprising about the new An omen_ EP is that they seem to have forgotten about that earlier material completely. You’re not going to turn this on and confuse it for another band, but subtle changes have been made to their approach that change your expectations for the project. Most specifically, they seem to be moving away from energetic songs with danceable rhythms that are ripe for remixing, and instead working with calm but very dark atmospherics that feel much more emotionally draining. For better comparison, the first EP was like Nine Inch Nails hit singles “The Hand That Feeds” or “Only,” while this new EP more crosses NIN’s Ghosts record and Reznor’s work with fellow Htda bandmate Atticus Ross on the soundtrack for The Social Network. So you’ll not get anything as fun as “Fur Lined” or The Knife-like as “BBB” appeared to be. The closest thing to a single An omen_ has is opening track “Keep it together,” which rolls past on a minimalist arrangement that’s one part skittering beat and another part bass vibration. The song title is the chorus hook, which gets chanted over and over by Mariqueen Maandig and Reznor until it sticks with you. Just because it’s the most memorable song on the EP doesn’t mean it’s the best though, because that honor goes to what immediately follows it – the seven minute “Ice Age.” The song takes this band to an entirely new place, but filters it so well most people won’t even notice. Peel the track down to solely the banjo and Maandig’s vocal, and you’ve got a very slight country song. With percussion, loops, static and electric guitar it becomes an ambient and precariously balanced musical thinkpiece that subtly challenges our preconceptions about this band and our expectations from Reznor.

By contrast, the rest of An omen_ falls into very familiar territory. “The sleep of reason produces monsters” and “The loop closes” are both primarily instrumental tracks, though Reznor does chant, “The beginning is the end and it keeps coming around again,” a bunch of times in the final 90 seconds of the latter song. Those words may remind NIN fans of the song “The Beginning of the End” from the Year Zero record. There is no direct correlation to it, but it serves as a good reminder of Reznor’s fixation on endings and beginnings. As he pushes his old band and previous work into the background and tries to start fresh, it’s nearly impossible to avoid looking back and making comparisons. This unending loop is both a help and a hindrance to How to destroy angels_, because unless they try something completely wild and unexpected, there’s a built in fan base both latching on and harshly judging at the same time. If you’ve been having trouble liking Reznor’s post-NIN work, this new EP isn’t going to win you over. Though they don’t sound too similar to one another, the two EPs Htda have put out so far share one common flaw: Maandig’s vocals. She doesn’t have a bad voice and can certainly hit all the notes as needed, but she falls short when it comes to injecting emotion into the songs. Most often she comes off like an actor that gets cast in the wrong role. These are dark, grimy and brooding arrangements, and her lilting voice has an innocence that doesn’t quite get to that same level. Reznor’s already proven himself in that regard, which is why his less frequent vocal work more often than not shows how great this band could be when firing on all cylinders. Since Reznor is married to her, Maandig isn’t likely to leave or get kicked out of the band, so it’s best just to accept her shortcomings and hope that with time she improves. The band’s debut full length set for 2013 would be a great place to start.

How to destroy angels – Keep it together

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EP Review: How to Destroy Angels – How to Destroy Angels [Null/Self-Released]

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.

Download the “How to Destroy Angels” EP for free, or pay $2 for the HD package

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