I had a pretty long drive coming home from Portland after Thanksgiving; it’s about a fifteen hour trip in tolerable traffic and the traffic I was in, especially south of San Francisco, was all kinds of intolerable. But I had plenty of music to listen to and plenty of time to think about it, so I gave the How to Destroy Angels EP (and a bunch of other albums) a couple spins (note: if you’re ever on a long road trip and traffic starts to make you feel murderous, put on Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade followed by the last two Screaming Females albums. That’s some sanity-saving shit right there) and tried to decide if I got my money’s worth from something I got for free.
How to Destroy Angels has been dismissed by some as “Nine Inch Nails with a girl singing”, but I wasn’t bothered at all by that concept. It was one hundred percent just fine with me if Trent Reznor wanted to put his wife, the awesomely named Mariqueen Maandig (her name gets points for alliteration and for having the double “a”), at the forefront of his new project. The only question was whether or not the endeavor would be analogous to Charles Foster Kane encouraging his wife to pursue a career in theatre. Of course, Maandig has some experience, having sung for West Indian Girl (a band to whom I’ve never listened); so the bar is a little higher for her.
Is How to Destroy Angels a bad debut EP? No. But it is boring. But the fact that I got the album for free from the band’s website (you can too – or you can pay a bit of money and get it on vinyl or on CD, bundled with T-shirts and various whatnot, all for pretty respectable prices) should sort of make me more willing to forgive its shortcomings, right? Actually, no. Because the price has nothing to do with how good the music is. I’m not saying I feel like I got ripped off or anything (in fact, I’m going to make a bold declaration and say that anyone who purchases an album and then feels ripped off is full of shit. There are roughly infinity ways to preview records before you buy them – if you spend your hard-earned shekels on a record and it blows, take it like a grown-up. No one forced you to buy it), but I can certainly applaud the way a band chooses to distribute its music and not really like the band. The trouble for me, with How to Destroy Angels, is that I really want to like them because I like Trent Reznor (especially his attitude toward the record industry, which can best be summed up in the phrase, “fuck those jerks”) and, when he’s at his best musically, he’s fucking brilliant.
But I can’t say I entirely like How to Destroy Angels. I don’t really dislike them either. “The Spaces Between” has actually grown on me quite a bit, but it kind of ends right where you think it would want to build to something awesome. In fact, there’s a lot of excess noise on How to Destroy Angels (I know Trent Reznor used a lot of noise in Nine Inch Nails, but he also used this weird thing called “melody”), some of which sounds like someone is live-sampling an old dot-matrix printer. If you think that’s something you would want to hear in a song, perhaps you might also enjoy having needles jammed into the notches of your spine. Because that’s how the stupid printer noise feels on “Parasite” (it reappears on “The Believers” as well), although that song also hints at what might happen if Maandig and Reznor employed more interplay between their two voices. “What might happen” is “something awesome.” They don’t have to become a Sonny and Cher for goth kids or anything, but they shouldn’t shy away from singing together at a volume slightly above a whisper.
On their Facebook page, How to Destroy Angels has promised some big things for 2011 and I hope that’s true. Their eponymous EP hints at the possibility of awesomeness without really delivering much. The band seems to be enjoying a good studio wank on How to Destroy Angels, which is actually okay, so long as they follow it with something more exciting on their first full-length album. Perhaps Reznor, Maandig, and bandmate Atticus Ross (seriously, though, everyone in this band has a totally awesome name. How many Atticuses – Attici? – do you see running around these days?) should consult The Downward Spiral and every Nine Inch Nails album that preceded it to gain an understanding of how you can craft awesome, catchy melodies and still be all noisy and pissed off.
Pitchfork called How to Destroy Angels “an inadvertent argument in favor of Reznor as a vocalist” (and then they gave it a 7.0 out of 10.0! There were Greek gods less capricious than the Pitchforkers and their precious, meaningless number system), suggesting that Maandig’s voice lacks the character to properly color these songs. But Maandig’s voice is fine. I actually like it a lot; the problem is that it gets too frequently buried under a lot of noise masturbation (noiseturbation) and never really gets a chance to shine. Album closer “A Drowning” starts to reverse that trend (only slightly) just in time for the EP to end.
If Trent Reznor has read the internet in the last couple years (and there’s ample evidence to suggest that he has, given his on-again, off-again affair with Twitter), he has probably stumbled across the popular idea that happiness in his personal life has dulled the edge of his music. How to Destroy Angels seems like, perhaps to answer that charge, it errs on the side of being dark and noisy and in so doing, it shuns any pop sensibility that might creep into the works. Like it or not, Nine Inch Nails fanboys (and girls), Reznor’s best stuff has always just been broody, angry pop music. Why do you think his cover of Joy Division’s “Dead Souls” is so spot-fucking-on? Again, I don’t think Reznor has to remake “Head Like a Hole” or anything, but I don’t think How to Destroy Angels is served very well by ignoring a major strength of one of its members. At the end of the day, How to Destroy Angels shows in almost equal parts everything the band should and should not do as it proceeds to making a full-length album, which might make it a better learning tool than listening experience.