Everything is dark, blue and distorted on How To Destroy Angels’ latest record, An Omen. Even Rob Sheridan’s cover art design seems to evoke this feeling. The album sleeve is an image of an outstretched arm, which Sheridan had previously ran through an iPod onto a VCR and then, subsequently, photographed from a CRT monitor. After undergoing such severe processing, the arm now hardly seems able to reach out. It bleeds static. It is collapsing, and it seems to be fenced in and confined. All of this seems like such a perfect fit for Trent Reznor’s usually complex, affecting, and elaborate musical arrangements, and it is. An Omen, too, bleeds static, collapses, and is confined by its own aimlessness, but while Sheridan’s design was intended, How To Destroy Angels’ was not.
Trent Reznor is a mastermind at deconstructing and rearranging even the tiniest glimmer of noise in order to create something beautiful, haunting and original. His unconventional arrangements paint dissonant worlds mired in collages of sound. These engineered soundscapes can merciless awaken untapped sentiments and refuse to let go, forcing the listeners to saunter through this world in search of comfort, and sometimes even closure.
Over the years, following this grand design, Reznor has created the almost inexplicable “Nine Inch Nails sound.” It is hard to define it, but what can be said about it is that it is evocative, honest, and it is dauntlessly personal. It is also permeated by piercing instrumentation, which looms over the arrangements, and complements the trauma that each and every one of Reznor’s compositions evoke. This distinctive sound explicates Reznor’s proficiency in fostering catharsis, both for himself and for his audience.
With An Omen, the How To Destroy Angels collectivetry very hard to distance themselves from this form of sonic therapy. The record mistakenly perceives that it is the expressive and often cleansing element of Reznor’s music that should be purged in order for the band to sound unalike other projects under the Reznor-umbrella. Without this dynamic fervor, however, all the layers of noise, the vocal effects, and the instrumental arrangements begin to collapse under their own weight. They have nothing to hold them together. Without the underlying gravity, they are merely there for the sake of clamor. They linger and amplify and intensify and echo and scream and scream and scream, but all they are without this impassioned dynamic are mere layers of sound. An Omen lacks a vital element. It lacks spirit.
Bafflingly though, How To Destroy Angels seems nonetheless intent on retaining its squandered soul – so long as it is distinct from its former likeness. An Omen is discernibly not content to be just layers of noise and sonic discord, even though that is precisely what it is.
The mesmerizing “Ice Age” showcases the album’s yearning to be something more than mere automatonic machine music. Mariqueen Maandig exquisitely carries the often-static instrumentation of the seven-minute track to a hinted-at climax that never truly materializes, but a lot is revealed in those few minutes without the need for any sort of climatic conclusion: It is Maandig who is the soul of this entire collective. Her words are sensual and her croons are both piercing and heartening. It is just the cold and loop-ridden instrumentation that fails to catch up with her.
This is odd considering that the individuals accompanying Maandig are an Oscar-winning duo that scored one of the most groundbreaking accompaniments to date with The Social Network. But alas, every track seems to follow an identical and directionless pattern: affixed layers coated with infectious noise that build and build and build only to crumble at the very end. “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” forexample, following an outstanding four-minute build up, simply decides to end, with little warning and no payoff whatsoever. All of the track’s growth and development is abruptly abandoned for a seeming whim to generate sudden silence. “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” is the Goya etching it borrows its name from without the bats, without the owls, and without the nightmare itself. It wakes before it is even completed, and the whole dream molders alongside it.
What follows is the most agonizing track of the understandably short record. “The Loop Closes” is an excellent and far-reaching arrangement that grows and bolsters beautifully. It moves so fluidly throughout the song’s five-minute duration so much that one feels like the band has finally found its footing. It’s all coming naturally now. At least it seems like it. The track does not stop building, and it is menacing, and it is danceable, and it is sometimes even playful – all before Trent Reznor’s voice emerges from the perfectly orchestrated layers of sound. That’s where the entire tragedy lies. "The beginning is the end / Keeps coming round again," Reznor begins to repeat mercilessly over and over again, unaware of the preposterous and nonsensical words that he is reiterating. The lyricism is so risible that it almost derails the entire song. It adds nothing to the track and has the potential to subtract everything from it. All of the build up and expansion of this great song leads into a complete artistic devolvement in terms of verse – something that is just as crucial to a piece of music when it is utilized. Reznor repeats it again: “The beginning is the end / Keeps coming round again,” and by the time the song has come to a close, the lyrics have made this superbly multi-dimensional song into a near farcical wreck. Words do matter, and although Reznor’s lyric-writing abilities have often been cited as his Achilles’ heel, that is simply not true. This is a man who has written pieces as evocative and as afflicting as “Something I Can Never Have,” “Hurt,” and “Zero-Sum.” This is no Achilles' heel. It’s just poor taste.
Thematically, however, An Omen is undeniably the loop that the penultimate track hints it to be, because it ends just as it begins: with a complete lack of direction. The band, as well as the album, is clearly striving to distance itself from a previously established sound. It is in search of new ground, so as to explore novel and previously undiscovered soundscapes, but unfortunately, this constant and desperate perusal merely results in sheer gimmickry, and up until now, Reznor had never been one for gimmickry.
Even by the stylized typesetting of the “How to destroy angels_” brand, it is easy to discern that this is a collective that is trying very hard to clutch onto some sort of clear-cut eccentricity so as to distinguish itself and stand out, but they are trying too hard at something that should come quite naturally. How To Destroy Angels’ debut self-titled EP was impressive because of this very fact: It was natural. It did not try to be anything that it wasn’t. An Omen seems almost artificial in comparison – even dishonest.
Trent Reznor’s genius had always highlighted the cathartic power of music. His compositions and his words stabbed at its listener with content much weightier than loop-infested melodies and words-for-words-sake lyricism. The key to Reznor’s ingenuity and meticulousness was that his music was concise, calculated, and inspired, and An Omen lacks all three of these elements. Having single-handedly set the bar so high during his past several years of prolificacy, Reznor simply cannot be held down to the low standards that we are constrained to hold him down to with something as frenziedly haphazard as An Omen. There is certainly more to How To Destroy Angels than this loose and undirected effort. There must be.