After Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor waved goodbye to the band’s live incarnation, he took on How To Destroy Angels, a new musical project with his wife Mariqueen Maandig, fellow Oscar winner Atticus Ross, and longtime visual collaborator Rob Sheridan. Coming two years after the band’s surprising 2010 debut EP is their second effort, An Omen EP, carrying the obligatory, breathless anticipation from NIN fans on its shoulders. While it’s clear from the get-go that HTDA has evolved into a more easily identifiable entity, the resulting changes made to the group’s sound weren’t all for the best.
The timeline behind the EP’s production is a bit cloudy: despite claims that How to Destroy Angels’ full-length record was reportedly finished earlier this year, it got pushed back to 2013, leaving An Omen to fill the gap before that release. Given the time it’s been in development, one could reasonably expect their second offering to be much more fleshed out – especially after Reznor stated that HTDA’s self-titled debut sounded a bit too much like their first experiment. Positive results do come to fruition here, but crucial aspects of the music aren’t taken as far as they could, and wind up creating room for setbacks.
Opening number Keep It Together, the first cut unveiled from An Omen, remains an alluring affair. Its warm synth bass pulses all the way through, providing a solid bottom-end for the track, bound to linger like an earworm along with with the simplistic chorus “I can’t keep it together.” Although it doesn’t entirely fit conventional structure, it works surprisingly well as a proper song – much like some of the best tracks on the band’s debut, and like the one that follows on this EP.
Out of all the music that Trent Reznor’s been involved in making, the beautiful, refreshing Ice Age arguably sounds the least like what anyone would expect from him. Mostly led by acoustic strings (we’re tempted to say it’s a banjo being picked), track number two is a surprise and a standout right away. While Reznor and Atticus Ross had already implemented plenty of acoustic instruments on their co-written NIN album Ghosts I-IV, it’s Mariqueen’s singing on Ice Age, pushed to the front and with no post-processing effects to aid it, that truly make this one special. If there ever needed to be a statement against claims that all her vocal melodies were starting to sound too similar, this is it. The fact that it goes on for seven minutes without overstaying its welcome only strengthens it.
Unfortunately, that strong impression begins to fade away when On The Wing hits, letting an uncomfortable amount of repetition start to settle in. The electronic beats and loops return to stay, and it wouldn’t be a bad move at all, were it not for the slowly diminishing focus on more noticeable song and melody progression. The instrumental The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, which begs to be listened to with headphones more than anything else on the EP, features endless layers of sound gently emerging and intertwining. Along the main synth line, eventually comes a bass, a muffled beat, a distant guitar – then, suddenly, it’s all gone with an abrupt cut, and it feels as if there was barely enough progression to justify the piece as more than an experiment.
The final two cuts (and Speaking In Tongues) act as amalgamations of Reznor & Ross’s soundtrack works for A Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – except featuring vocals, of course. The Loop Closes, the most similar to something you can actually bob your head to on this EP, still goes on for too long with the repetition of the unimpressive verse “The beginning is the end / Keeps comin’ ’round again“, over and over again. Speaking In Tongues, with its odd use of percussion and disturbing synth, could’ve been stellar, had it not gone for a couple of minutes too long, totaling seven.
From a technical standpoint, An Omen is undoubtedly impressive, and can cause jaws to drop among those well-versed in whatever equipment the band is using. Most everyone else might be unable to shake a feeling of aimlessness, very early on. It takes dedicated listens to actually reveal new textures – and they’re still subtle, hardly noticeable. The sounds that were created and looped here are rich, to say the very least, but the songs lying underneath aren’t strong enough to carry it all.
Two years after HTDA’s selft-titled debut, there’s nothing here that’s quite exciting like the menacing bass line and guitar of Parasite, the memorable chorus of BBB, or the danceable beat of Fur Lined. Even if that release came off as simplistic at times, there was a clear sense that the group could hardly contain the amount of ideas they were having and put them in one place; with An Omen, it’s as though simpler song ideas are pushed through walls upon walls of impressive craftsmanship. In the end, less attentive listeners will be hard-pressed to actually remember what most of these six tracks sound like after the first few run-throughs, since very little sticks to the memory besides the obvious hooks of the first two tracks. For all the time the group spent making An Omen (and how comparatively little time their previous effort took to make), it’s more like a debut EP than their debut EP, and brings up concerns regarding their upcoming full-length record.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.