Tuesday, June 1, 2010

How to Destroy Angels - EP

Those readers who have followed my blog or who know me personally will know that I am a diehard fan of both Nine Inch Nails and its key member, Trent Reznor. This week, How To Destroy Angels, Reznor's first project since declaring Nine Inch Nails to be on hiatus, released its debut online, a free six-song EP. The band features Reznor along with his new wife Mariqueen Maandig (formerly of West Indian Girl) and longtime colleague and multi-instrumentalist Atticus Ross.

Early clips and suggestions from the band's members suggested that HTDA would at least be influenced by Reznor's musical signature, but differences in sound were evident from the start. Most notable of these is the introduction of a female vocalist in Maandig, whose undulating whisper provides an intriguing change to the sound that Reznor more or less perfected in two decades of Nine Inch Nails. The first single, "A Drowning," finds Maandig at her most aggressive, breaking over the song's mix of fuzzy electronics and distorted guitars to lend a firm foothold on a song that focuses mostly on atmosphere. The song is unique in this way, because for the majority of the EP, Maandig's vocals are mostly used for texture, rarely rising above a soft lilt.

Thankfully, the combination of her voice and Reznor's signature electronics seems to work, at least for a short set like this. Though the EP certainly isn't short on atmosphere, its greatest strength lies in its percussive hooks, most of which are reminiscent of late era Nine Inch Nails. Computerized distortion blares in tandem with the more organic sounds of keyboards and occasional strings, creating a synthesis acoustic and electronic that recalls tracks from Reznor's masterpiece, "The Downward Spiral," while incorporating the harsh soundscape of "Year Zero." The EP's final single, "The Believers," represents the most complete fusion of these elements. The song's acoustic elements lend a tribal feel to the heavy percussive beat, punctuated by bursts of the static and fuzz that made "Year Zero" memorable. Maandig's vocal restraint also contributes here, an almost instrumental sigh that intones, "We are the ones who still believe." Focused without being constrained by its own direction, "The Believers" is the strongest number of the set. Indeed, it seems that Reznor has found inspiration in this new project, in which he is free to explore sonic realms outside the darkness embodied in Nine Inch Nails. Likewise Reznor, and the musicians around him, truly do seem to believe that they are on the road to capturing something musically unique.

Despite this, it occasionally feels that the group loses direction. "BBB" commands, "Listen to the sound/ Of my big black boots," a line that seems ridiculous by itself, let alone repeated ad nauseum as it is. It's an unfortunate lapse, because musically, "BBB" boasts one of the tightest, sexiest grooves on the album. It's certainly a hook worthy of Reznor's extensively sexual canon; it's just a shame that the chorus line comes off so hackneyed. Fans will easily forgive the oversight, though, and it remains one of the set's only weak points.

On a large scale, "How to Destroy Angels" accomplishes exactly what it intends, introducing a new brand of industrial pop backed by the genre's undisputed master. Fans of Nine Inch Nails will undoubtedly seek to locate the record within the NIN catalogue, but this EP really needs no history lesson. It knows its strengths and plays to them well, drawing on powerful contributions from each member (Atticus Ross' bassline on "Parasite" is one of the best in years), and it inspires hope for the band's future. In the past, Reznor was at his best when he sought to construct cohesive, complex albums without shying from the power of a great hook. A short collection like this, successful as it is, makes us wonder what the trio plans for its first full-length release, presumably later this year or early next. If nothing else, let it be said that "How to Destoy Angels" shows great promise, and it proves that age and marriage, at least for Reznor, are not creative obstacles in the least.


Get the album here.

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