How to Destroy Angels offers a refined take on Trent Reznor’s signature sound


How to Destroy Angels offered both sonic and visual splendor at Fillmore Silver Spring. (Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)
May 1, 2013

During the ’90s, Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails was an alien presence on grunge-laden airwaves. The producer, frontman and goth guru used electronic and industrial sounds as a platform for radical self-examination — venting bilious lyrics about damnation and salvation (or lack thereof) that exuded tension and often necessitated parental advisory stickers. He made music with machines, but he wanted to do things like an animal.

On Tuesday night, Reznor’s new group, How to Destroy Angels, performed to a crowded room at the Fillmore Silver Spring. Though still strange and alien, his music is no longer a sonic or cultural outlier.

In 2009, Reznor decided to temporarily disband Nine Inch Nails, but he kept busy. Working in collaboration with musician Atticus Ross, he composed music for two films directed by David Fincher — “The Social Network,” which won an Oscar for Best Original Score, and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” He also founded How to Destroy Angels with singer Mariqueen Maandig (his wife), Ross and designer Rob Sheridan. In March, they released a full-length record, “Welcome Oblivion,” and have since embarked on their first tour.

How to Destroy Angels isn’t a huge departure from Reznor’s signature sound. There are churning electronic rhythms, low-frequency pulses and growling synthesizers, but the new band is more delicate in its delivery of his brooding themes. Partly, this is because Reznor is no longer the front man. On Tuesday, he mostly ceded mike duties to Maandig, who delivered the songs in an icy, controlled croon. Reznor took a secondary role, performing backups and playing guitar. The music is also slower and more deliberate, never creeping over a modest, head-bobbing tempo.

For the first 30 minutes of the set, the band — in a live setting a quintet featuring electronics, guitar and electric bass — performed behind a translucent screen and were only intermittently visible amid blocky, geometric animations. The visuals augmented the music’s cinematic sweep, but also made the band seem distant, as if beamed in from HAL’s boudoir in outer space, rather than live and present in the room. The songs are stronger than much of Nine Inch Nails’ later output. They have slow, languid builds and strong melodies that seem to have slid over from Ross and Reznor’s film work.

Many of Nine Inch Nails’ alternative-era peers have been relegated to the oldies circuit, but Reznor still plays to a fairly young crowd. In the past decade, he has maintained a forward-thinking attitude toward digital music, experimenting with file-sharing as a direct conduit to fans and even giving away How to Destroy Angels’ debut EP as a free download via the band’s Web site. And it helps that popular contemporary electronic artists, such as Skrillex and DeadMau5, have taken heavy inspiration from the dark and squelchy tones he pioneered.

How to Destroy Angels probably won’t get the chance to inspire its own generation’s worth of knob twiddlers, though. Last year, Reznor announced that he intends to head back to center stage, firing up a new version of his old band.

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