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By David King

How to Destroy Angels

How to Destroy Angels

How do you feel about Nine Inch Nails karaoke? Are you particularly attached to Trent Reznor’s broken wail, his sinister hiss? Your answers to these questions could very well determine if you can stomach the new EP by Reznor’s new project, How to Destroy Angels, the band fronted by his new wife, West Indian Girl lead singer Mariqueen Maandig. Reznor may have retired NIN as a touring act and professed a desire to lose the trappings that band bring with them, but this release does little to separate him from his past work.

Musically, the six tracks (released for free on the band’s Web site) sound like something Reznor was brewing for the next proper NIN release—he seems to have penned a version of every one of his past hits for his wife to meekly coo over. Maandiq’s voice isn’t exactly terrible, but it isn’t really much of anything. And the lyrics sound suspiciously like Reznor’s: Themes present in his last few recordings (irrelevance, the desire to disappear, repetition) are all here, along with his vocal patterns. Absent are his despair, rage, and his newfound, self-aware goofiness. Instead, Maandig drones on, seemingly afraid to use her voice. Reznor even sings backup on tracks like “BBB” (short for “Big Black Boots”), and when he does, his whispers overwhelm Maandig’s slight vocals.

The “Closer”-like thump on “BBB” sounds eerily familiar to work by KMFDM, another industrial guitar band who use female singers to add flair (and have sung about boots before). Opener “The Space in Between” and closer “A Drowning” both sound like Reznor’s attempts on recent albums to remake “Hurt.” Some of the key work is too close for comfort to Year Zero’s “In This Twilight” and The Fragile’s “Underneath It All.” Highlight track “Fur-Lined” is a direct sequel to NIN’s “Only”: A familiar, robotic disco break opens the track, creaking synths follow up, and then the jagged guitar breaks set things loose. Finally, some awesome zombie-movie moog synths creep in and Reznor gets what he wanted: a little mystery, a little sexiness. But the moment is fleeting.

The only discernible difference between How to Destroy Angels and later NIN releases is that the production is immaculate. All sorts of cool noises spew forth, gnawing at your ears. It sounds like Reznor cares again—he is producing for his wife, after all. But it’s surprising Reznor even bothered to give up vocal duties, as Maandiq’s quiet vocals are processed into oblivion. On “Fur-Lined,” she sings, “Everything is echoing/Is this really happening?” Sound like Reznor? It does to me, but (excuse the pun) without teeth.


Phyllis Chen

UnCaged Toy Piano

Toy pianos conjure such a specific sound in our minds that it’s easy to forget that more can be done with them than improvisational childhood pounding. The title of Phyllis Chen’s debut is a sly reference to John Cage, whose 1948 “Suite for Toy Piano” is the centerpiece of this set. It was 50 years after Cage’s piece that Margaret Leng Tan’s toy-piano works appeared, bringing the suitcase-sized instrument back to the concert stage. (During those barren intervening decades, the band NRBQ kept the banner flying, utilizing a toy piano for a delightful solo on their 1972 Scraps album.)

Chen’s album is remarkably varied, an issue that she dealt with both in terms of the compositions she played and the manner in which they were recorded. The instrument’s microtonal quivers shimmer, but there’s also a surprising resonance in the lower register. Cage’s five-part suite embraces the childlike character associated with the toy piano, starting off with repetitive scale-like phrases. From there it becomes more purposely angular, evoking a sort of passage from the simple world of a child into the daunting complexities of adulthood. Several pieces judiciously employ an additional sound source or two. Julia Wolfe’s “East Broadway” has a rhythm bed created on a toy boombox, while Chen’s own “Memoirist” finds her playing a music box, bowls, and a frying pan.

On UnCaged Toy Piano, Phyllis Chen’s modernist inclinations come across as reasurringly traditional. She’s managed the rare feat of being both daring and friendly.

—David Greenberger



Diamond Eyes

If you have even a fleeting interest in the Deftones, you probably know their album White Pony. The single “Change (In the House of Flies)” dominated rock radio, but the true gems of the disc were too raucous and artsy (in a nu-metal way) for radio play. It seems that perhaps the Deftones were relying on that fact when they recorded Diamond Eyes because the album sounds like a song-by-song re-creation of their breakthrough disc, despite one important fact: they didn’t come up with a sequel to their radio smash. For instance, vocalist Chino Moreno’s vocal pattern on the raging “Royal” directly recalls his vocals on White Pony track “Korea.” But the mimicry here isn’t actually a bad thing. For the first time in years, the Deftones have delivered a record that is worth listening to in its entirety. And unlike on White Pony, where the band’s constant struggle with heavy and light gave in to the lighter side of things, on Diamond Eyes the band thrash and chug while delivering dark and dreamy compositions. It’s sort of like space rock for metalheads. The title cut features a soaring chorus reminiscent of “Change,” but it’s backed up with searing guitars. “Have You Seen the Butcher” has a bluesy, sleazy swagger that hits like “Passenger” (Moreno’s White Pony duet with Tool’s Maynard James Keenan) combined with a track by the Black Keys. The band have managed to pay tribute to their disparate influences—the atmospheric gloom of Mogwai, the undulating, polyrhythmic thrash of Meshuggah—while finally coming to terms with themselves. Hopefully, on their next disc, the band will be able to summon this confidence while delivering something new.

—David King

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