How To Destroy Angels - EP Review


After the media silent-running you've come to expect from Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor these days, news of his new project How to Destroy Angels – a band he formed with his wife Mariqueen Maandig and longtime collaborator Atticus Ross – exploded across the interwebs early this year with little to no warning, much to the puzzlement and delight of NIN fans worldwide. Before we had the chance to mentally process the first tantalizing video clips of the band in the studio, they promptly rolled out their epic debut single A  Drowning, followed shortly after by an unforgettably creepy music video for The Space In Between.

While we were still reeling from that apocalyptic audio-visual feast, the band quickly announced the June 1st release of their self-titled EP, containing six  tracks of early experimentation – little sonic sketches that serve as an early glimpse of the larger canvas to come next year with their full-length studio album. In the finest Trent Reznor tradition, this EP is a totally free download, so checking it out is a no-brainer... but for those of you who still aren't sure enough to take five minutes and download a zip file, I've got a little review below the fold…

According to Reznor, these six cuts originally began as “an artifact of the very first experiments we tried together,” as the band set out to define their sound, during which they discovered the resulting tracks stood up well on their own. “We were going to wait until we had a large batch of songs and then distill things down from there,” he continued, “but we liked this first collection and decided to release them.” After hearing the first snippets of material in the band's first promotional clips, I was expecting to hear instrumentation along the lines of latter-day Nine Inch Nails, and for the most part I guessed right. The foundation of these six songs incorporate the ambient tones of NIN's Ghosts series, downplaying the rock elements in favor of moody, pulsing beats and dense layers of analog synths and heavily-treated guitars, reminiscent of early-era industrial artists like Throbbing Gristle and Coil (it's no coincidence the band take their name from the title of a Coil piece).

“We kind of decided to use only drum machines/programmed drums leaning towards analog sounds as a starting point,” Reznor explained on a recent Tumblr Q&A. “From there I think we only used real analog synths as opposed to virtual ones.” This included vintage pieces like the ARP Odyssey, Korg MS-20, Moog Voyager and old-school modular synths. The band also incorporated some unusual custom gear, including the “Swarmatron” (which you can see Mariqueen operating in the band's first promo) and the “Rozzbox Oddulator.” The resulting low, throbbing and heavily-distorted undercurrents are more than just a textured backdrop for Mariqueen's deep, silky vocals; instead of sitting on top of the mix, her voice is often deeply integrated into the sonic weave of each song, sometimes multi-tracked with subtle harmonies (done particularly well in the opening track), or very lightly blended with Reznor's vocal contributions. Although there is a certain Trent-like tone and cadence to the lyrics, they were solely written by Maandig: “Seeing as how Trent is a veteran & Atticus is a fancy Englishman,” she commented, “I would consult with the boys from time to time to see if they liked what I had come up with. Lucky for me, they did.”

The EP kicks off with The Space In Between, a droning, slow-building terror piece that is definitely the most haunting track of the bunch – and the subject of an amazingly creepy video, which we've shared here a couple of times. According to Reznor's blog, the vid was shot in a hotel room set, using a combination of digital compositing and DIY practical effects – like chicken meat and a couple of department-store mannequins – to create a horrific crime scene that erupts in a violent inferno (and a very real one too: the entire set was ultimately burned to ashes).

The crushing guitar distortion of this track becomes the intro to Parasite – a wildly busy cut that splashes a multicolored electro palette of glitchy, old-school analog freestyle across a sturdy, beefy bass foundation. The comparisons to Nine Inch Nails are obvious here, but I doubt Trent and company tried to shy away from that comparison; in fact, the NIN Fragile-era vibe suits the new vocal element very well. The clubby Fur Lined is the most energetic, up-tempo and danceable piece here, and the harshly-filtered vocals ride high on that intense rhythmic wave. The energy stays in place for the following entry: thanks to the blocky font used on the EP's online artwork, I originally thought this one was named 888, but it's actually BBB, short for “Big Black Boots,” a playfully malicious industrial march that incorporates a lot of the cadence and punch of latter-day NIN material with a catchy (and kinda kinky) chorus from Maandig.

The more freeform synth structure of The Believers features dense, sometimes murky atmospheres punctuated by some inventive '80s arcade-style electronic noodling; according to Reznor, this comes from the iPhone “Bebot” application, processed through a tape echo to create a warped, wobbly lo-fi effect. The vocals – reduced to a soft whisper – play a minor role in this piece, which is highly reminiscent of the Ghosts project. Closing track A Drowning was the first single released by the band, and is comparatively the most conventional-sounding song here; both instruments and vocals are lush and eerie, but lack some of the tense, swirling energy of the preceding cuts... I'm betting that the material on the forthcoming album will diverge from this style even further.

The physical CD of How to Destroy Angels will be released on July 6th, but according to Reznor it will not actually be available through the band's official site. “I highly recommend buying it from your local independent record store (if there is one),” he added. Trent also hinted that the full-length album will be ready in the first quarter of 2011, and this upcoming material will be “a bit more focused as we discover more about our combined chemistry.” For what amounts to an early-stage experiment, this EP is a promising first glimpse at the larger-scale work, so be sure to download it and hear for yourself.