Review Summary: A great improvement over its predecessor, "An Omen" shows How to Destroy Angels evolving into its own entity.
We are at an odd time in the career of Trent Reznor, as it is hard to imagine any Nine Inch Nails fan prior to 2005 having even the slightest inkling of what he was going to accomplish over the past seven years. In that time period, we have seen Reznor sober up, betray his usual slow working, meticulous self by releasing four albums over the span of just three years, get married, put NIN on the back burner to start a side project with his wife, and win an Oscar with a score to a movie about Facebook- It’s been an eclectic seven years, to say the least. Whether or not this modern Reznor is as artistically accomplished as the one that was the poster boy for self-destructive musical carnage in the 1990s is still up for debate, but this current version is certainly more prolific, and generally successful in his work. If there has been any clear-cut aberration towards Reznor's legacy over these past couple of years, it is probably in regards to the original self-titled EP by How to Destroy Angels. Though it offered some enjoyable moments, it possessed none of the musical depth that made NIN such a success, often feeling flat and unaccomplished for a musician of Reznor's caliber. When you factor some uninspiring vocal performances by Reznor's wife, Mariqueen Maandig, on top of all that, the end result is a dud of an EP that sounded like watered down NIN with unimpressive female vocals.
All that being said, it is safe to assume that my anticipation for 2012’s “An Omen” EP was lukewarm at best- which makes the fact that it is a surprisingly competent and mature effort all the more appreciable. Ironically enough, this supposed omen is one that shows a great deal of hope and promise for the side project, and despite the fact that “An Omen” is not a fitting title for the future of the group, it makes perfect sense when describing the EP’s sonic landscape. The six songs present on this record are replete with foreboding atmospheres and textures which perfectly create a sense of unrest within the listener. Many of them bring to mind Reznor and company’s work in film scores, as well as NIN’s “Ghosts I-IV”, except now the once abstract, seemingly incomplete mood pieces have been structured into, for the most part, legitimate songs. Highlights include opener and lead single, “Keep it Together”, which prominently features a darkly sexual bass line and enjoyable, intertwined vocals from Mariqueen and Trent, the seven minute “Ice Age”, which conjures the more organic moments from Ghosts and The Fragile and juxtaposes them against soothing vocals and ominous electronic hums, and “On The Wing”, which utilizes muffled melodies that resemble “I Can See Clearly Now” and somehow still manages to sound terrific and original in the surrounding, synth-heavy context. The other songs on the record are satisfactory as well, and with a lot going on in each one, it makes for a record that is absorbing and holds a considerable amount of replay value. The biggest disappointment of the record is “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”, which slowly builds beautifully and intricately only to be cut short right on the verge of becoming something great.
“An Omen” may not be what fans craving a new NIN release were looking for from Trent Reznor, but it must be remembered that this is a completely new project with three band members not named Trent. While everything Reznor works on will likely have a bit of NIN flavor thanks to his distinct sonic fingerprint, “An Omen” allows How to Destroy Angels to step out of the shadow of NIN, and shows that it deserves to be respected at its own entity at this point. It has its rough edges, but it is successful for what it is, and if the full album due out in 2013 is good, it will certainly not be a surprise.