Saturday, June 12, 2010

How to Destroy Angels - How to Destroy Angels (2010)

In my angst-ridden teenage years, Trent Reznor was my hero. His songs were like totally about me and my relationships and my pain and my depression and blah blah blah. Everybody had that band in those years. Nine Inch Nails was that band for me. I still admire a lot of what Trent did musically too. When you look back on an album like 1999's The Fragile, you can put aside Reznor's angst-ridden lyrics and focus on the music which is actually damned impressive. The melding of industrial metal with hip-hop beats on that album is a stroke of genius. But since Reznor got clean, he's been stagnating. That's an old music industry cliche, but it's pretty much true in his case.

After The Fragile, his masterpiece and defining work in my opinion, NIN put out an incredible live album accompanied with a bonus disc of some impressive stripped down re-recordings of old NIN songs plus some new almost ambient post-rock sounding instrumental songs, which The Fragile had already somewhat hinted at but hadn't brought to fruition like Still (the aforementioned bonus disc) did. Then Reznor went into rehab. When he came out, he went from skinny long-haired gothy heroin addict to cleaned up muscled out shaved head bro. His music became more simplistic than it had been in years and his lyrics became, well, garbage. Even if you didn't like them before, they were honest. On With Teeth, the lyrics were completely hollow, reflecting the pure lack of angst in Reznor's life after getting clean. He could fake it well enough, but this was the weakest Nine Inch Nails release ever.

As if realizing that, Reznor shifted his focus and his sound on the follow-up. Year Zero was preceded by an elaborate game with mysterious websites showing up on the web and USB drives with songs turning up in bathrooms at Nine Inch Nails shows. It was a dramatic comeback, with Reznor's angst instead focusing on a bleak, Orwellian future he made up. It gave him new inspiration and it led to one of the best Nine Inch Nails albums ever. But afterwards, he stagnated again. Bush was almost out of office, the tide was turning, and his fictional future wasn't so much a certain thing anymore.

Stripped of his newfound inspiration, Reznor's music took some strange turns. The first NIN release we heard after Year Zero was a four disc album of instrumentals which followed up on that ambient instrumental sound I mentioned before that he had already explored on The Fragile and Still. However, he did it to much greater effect on those albums. Ghosts ended up being an aimless "look what I can do with these pedals" project and was quickly overlooked. Then came The Slip, a follow-up of sorts to Year Zero lyrically and artistically, but sounding more like a melding of Year Zero and With Teeth and ultimately just being a disappointment. It was a mediocre EP and it was sadly the last thing NIN released before Reznor decided to pull the plug on the floundering project, after a lengthy farewell tour.

That was what happened to Nine Inch Nails in the aughts. But it's 2010 now, a new decade. Where is Reznor now? Where is Nine Inch Nails now? Well, around the demise of Nine inch Nails last year, Reznor got married, and yes, she's a singer. So what happened to Nine Inch Nails? It changed its name and became How to Destroy Angels, featuring Reznor, long-time Nine Inch Nails collaborator Atticus Ross, and, of course, Reznor's new wife Mariqueen Maandig. The result is essentially a repeat of the last Nine Inch Nails EP, The Slip, but with Mariqueen singing instead of Reznor. To call it a disappointment is an understatement.

For a year after Nine Inch Nails was effectively killed, Reznor hyped the various studio projects he was working on. We got teased about a possible soundtrack for a Tetsuo movie (turned out to be one song), we got teased with a possible Gary Numan collaboration, we got teased a follow-up to Ghosts, we even got teased with a new Nine Inch Nails album (because Reznor only really wanted to kill the live entity of Nine Inch Nails). What we got instead was Reznor's Yoko Onoing. So happy and in love is Reznor that he's now writing the same stale music he's been writing for the past few years but now it's designed for his wife to sing on instead. Gag me. She's not a bad singer and Reznor isn't a bad songwriter, but this sound has been done to death in recent years. If not on The Slip, then look back a few albums. The opening of "Fur Lined" is straight out of the minor With Teeth hit "Only" and all the noisy distorted guitars have lined every Reznor work of the last decade. It's not that this is bad music, it's just unoriginal. It sounds like Reznor wrote it in his sleep. Furthermore, there's really nothing that Maandig singing adds to the mix. Reznor could be singing over this and we could call it a new Nine Inch Nails EP. It would be just as disappointing, but it would be less misleading. In fact, you could tell me that Reznor used a computer to make his voice sound like a woman and I would believe it. That is the extent to which Maandig contributes and that is to say that she contributes nothing. This is pure self-indulgence by Reznor.

I'm happy for him that he's happy with his wife, but my advice to him would be to quit pandering to her desire to sing on his music, quit putting out the same album over and over again, and maybe try a little experimentation. It's not going to hurt his career to think outside the box, he's giving all this away for free on the internet and he knows we'd just steal it if he did try to do a conventional release. In general, artists tend to try new things when finally free of record labels but apparently marriage (and pending fatherhood) have stripped Reznor of his experimental desires. Well, it's a new decade and I suppose this is the one where Reznor finally slips into a comfortable sound that he can keep churning out to a dwindling fanbase for the rest of his career. You'll always have your diehards that will eat up anything that sounds like Nine Inch Nails but I personally want a little more than the same old Trent. I know what he can do when he pushes himself and that's what I'm looking for. This is the farthest thing from him pushing himself. (D)

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