An omen EP_ perhaps marks a new phase in the musical career of Trent Reznor, mastermind behind Nine Inch Nails, Nothing Records, most of the anxiety of David Fincher’s gloomier movies, and newest project How to destroy angels_. As a three piece (Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Reznor’s wife Mariqueen Maandig formerly of West Indian Girl), the band released their debut EP in 2010. The EP was released free through Reznor’s Null Corporation (here at the bottom of the page). How To Destroy Angels picked up where Nine Inch Nails and Reznor’s soundtrack for David Fincher’s The Social Network left off, both for better and for worse. While the EP was delightful news for any fan of Reznor’s work, it wasn’t anything terribly far removed from Reznor’s past work, minus the major difference of Maandig taking primary control of the vocals, rather than Reznor himself. But after a year of writing three hours of brand new music for Fincher’s next film The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Reznor announced that his band was working on a new EP and LP, which would both sound and feel dramatically different from their first offering. Now, An omen EP_ is here, out this week on Columbia Records (which is surprising if you know anything about Reznor’s history of hating record labels). With this EP, How to destroy angels_ reintroduce themselves (Trent’s long time art director Rob Sheridan is now the fourth member), with an appeal far removed from their previous EP. But the change is welcome with open arms, underscores and all.
Perhaps the greatest strength of An omen EP_ is that Reznor messes with his own formula. He’s built a career on the Nine Inch Nails sound - one that is unmoving, but found absolutely nowhere else. His blend of electronic, industrial, and rock is instantaneously recognizable and he’s built enough of a reputation for himself that he doesn’t really need to rebuild it to continue success. But by his own choice, How to destroy angels_ is pursuing a different path. Reznor’s movie score work for David Fincher (especially that for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) has shown amazing promise for ambience. Not that Reznor has ever had any issues creating an atmosphere, but without film to help, ambient music can be hard to make well. On An omen_, he uses ambient textures in greater ways that ever to stitch a patient and tedious piece of art that might take a couple listens to fully comprehend. Take the single, “Keep it together”, for example. It’s a pretty minimal tune. The bass-heavy ribbon synth and the spattering drums are the only constants. Everywhere else, between Maandig’s vocals, Reznor’s occasional guitar offerings, and Ross’s odd accents, the song keeps everything fresh, but ultimately makes very little distance. By the end of the song, you are left anticipating a build that never resolves. It’s a cliffhanger ending that dead ends into an unrelated second track. This happens again later, with the abbreviated death of “The sleep of reason produces monsters”. After four and a half minutes of ambient build, the song literally just cuts out - no ending, no fade, just gone. It’s not pop music, by any means, but Reznor’s love of the cinematic has definitely made its way full cirlce into one of his pop records. With How to destroy angels_, he’s created the most anxious thing he’s ever built, and if you know what’s good for you, that should scare you a little bit.
If all of this is deterring you from checking out An omen EP_, don’t worry. Trent Reznor isn’t trying to create something unenjoyable. Rather, by creating a cinematic arc and some nearly unbearable anxiety in between electronic masterpieces like “On the wing” and “The loop closes”. The former is perhaps the poppiest thing Reznor has written in some time. He and his wife harmonize for the majority of the song, but you almost won’t even hear it behind walls of filtering and heavy drum textures. Sure, he could have turned the vocals all the way up and made this song be the best Reznor sing-a-long since “The Hand That Feeds”, but instead, he’d rather leave you hanging by a thread, just waiting to see what happens next. On the other hand, “The loop closes” is a The Fragile era Reznor godsend. It starts out as a discordant mixture of clicks, beeps, and presumably tribal mallet instruments, but builds to a doomsday groove with as much dance in it as “Into the Void”. Finally, the EP closes with “Speaking in tongues”, which is as disorienting and epic as any of the best Reznor closers. “I am the end of it all” he whispers over and over. In his love for the ambient, Reznor definitely hasn’t lost any of his love for big endings or apocalyptic messages.
But most surprising of all the tracks on An omen EP_ is “Ice Age”. Brace yourselves here: this is a drumless Trent Reznor track that goes almost two minutes without a single ambient droning in the background a full four and a half minutes without a foreboding, massive bass floor shaking your stereo into submission. This is perhaps the most stripped down Reznor pop track we’ve seen in recent history since “Lights in the Sky” or the Still project. But the quiet isn’t the surprise here. The track is heavy on Maandig’s vocals, which branch far away from the minimal whispers we see elsewhere on the EP. “Ice Age” is a 70s-tinged folk track with a pretty complex vocal melody. But strangely, its placement on the How to destroy angels_ EP is perfect, and it reaffirms that while Trent is exploring new sounds and new territory, he hasn’t lost an ounce of his artistry in the transition. How to destroy angels_ is not a side project, nor a continuation of Nine Inch Nails. Rather, with this return to a major label and a fresh new direction, Trent is opening the door for exciting things to happen next year (namely, an LP and supposedly, a tour), and these things should not be ignored. Until then, An omen EP_ will keep you busy for a while.
An omen EP_ is out today on Columbia Records, available digitally and on vinyl (no CD this time around). Vinyl will be available at some local record stores. Grab it directly from the band to get it in full quality.