Founded in 2010 by multi-award-winning electronic rock legend Trent Reznor after the breakup (for the time being) of his iconic band Nine Inch Nails, How To Destroy Angels began as a three-piece unit, with Reznor's wife Mariqueen Maandig fronting the band on vocals, with instrumental duties divided up among all band members, including long-time creative collaborator Atticus Ross – who collected a Golden Globe award along with Reznor for the stunning score to David Fincher's film The Social Network.
Since HTDA's hauntingly sexy self-titled debut EP dropped in 2010 (check out our review here), their bloody, surreal promo clip for “The Space in Between” made FEARnet's list for creepiest music video of that year, their cover of Bryan Ferry's “Is Your Love Strong Enough” (from Ridley Scott's epic film Legend) was heard in the Hollywood remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the second film Reznor and Ross scored for Fincher), and now groundbreaking graphic artist Rob Sheridan, who has contributed to over a dozen Nine Inch Nails multimedia projects, has now become an official member of the team for their sophomore EP An Omen, which finds the band exploring the same dark terrain, but from a more intimate point of view.
Before we get down to it, you might recall me mentioning that last year would have marked the arrival of the band's first full-length album (which is still untitled as of this writing), but as you've probably figured out, those release plans have been altered quite a few times since then, with the record now tentatively slated for an early 2013 release. But this six-track EP is a tasty preview of what's to come, suggesting that the musical direction will remain dark, but with more emphasis on a sensual, dreamlike mood than its predecessor, which created an underlying sense of dread and despair.
The opening cut "Keep It Together" was released last month as a single (and music video, which you can watch at the end of this article) and has the same threatening synth undercurrent that drove the previous EP, but with a more subdued, drifting soundscape beneath Mariqueen's vocals – which I must point out are superior on this release, both in delivery and recording technique. The vocal multi-tracking (which includes Reznor's voice as well) is superb, often soaked with so much reverb and delay it becomes a synth-like element beneath the cleaner central whispers. "Ice Age" is based mainly on layers of mandolin (or a similar instrument) reminiscent of the eerie plucked rhythms that can be heard on the NIN instrumental epic Ghosts, with a sweet and clean folksy vocal that is uniquely dramatic in its purity and simplicity. Pulsing synth rhythms return for "On the Wing,” which plays extensively with filter and auto-tune effects on Trent and Mariqueen's vocals, pushing them further back in the mix as icy keyboard washes and distorted NIN-style piano fill up the sound space.
The EP's second half is much more experimental, with no conventional pop or rock structures: "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" takes its title from a nightmarish self-portrait by renowned Spanish artist Francisco Goya – a concept that plays into many horror themes – and Mariqueen's trance-like voice, freed from lyrics (except the whispered words “wake up”) does an excellent job of simulating a drift away from sense and logic and into a netherworld of ominous shadows. After the infectious head-bobbing groove "The Loop Closes,” which closes with a group vocal chant of “The Beginning is the End/Keeps coming around again,” the record ends on an ultra-spooky note with the tribal rhythms, distant ghost wails and whispered chants of "Speaking in Tongues,” a strong return to the darker atmospherics of the first EP, as well as a nod to the chaotic production structure of NIN's mammoth double album The Fragile (my personal favorite, haters be damned).
To my ears, An Omen is a vast improvement over the first HTDA release, proving beyond a doubt that the band can balance hooky, sexy electro-pop grooves with eerie, ominous experimentation, and suggests that the forthcoming album could be a quirky, sensual masterpiece if those elements remain in balance as they are on this EP. Needless to say, I'm gonna go nuts waiting for the damn thing to finally come out.
While you can buy the mp3 download of An Omen from the usual vendors like iTunes and Amazon, the highest quality version is only available directly from the band's web store. Unlike the previous EP, this one's being distributed by a major label, so alas, the band's not giving the music away this time. There's also no physical CD release, but there is a limited edition vinyl (it's getting harder to find now, but it's still out there in a few stores) which really shows off Rob Sheridan's creepy glitch artwork, created in part by degrading VHS images and photographing them. There are many more examples of his designs at the band's official site, but before you pay them a visit, check out this video for "Keep It Together"...