Is Anybody Listening? A Review of How to Destroy Angels

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“Is anybody listening?” ask the Reznor Family Singers in the song “The Wake-Up,” and the truth is that there were times during How to Destroy Angels’ set at Boston’s House of Blues last Saturday night when it seemed like the answer might be “No.” But those moments were short-lived. Even those in the audience who were there only because of their undying affection for Trent Reznor’s other band were eventually won over, whether by the songs themselves, the force of the bass shaking their bodies, or by a light show that was orchestrated as carefully as any instrument.

The moment that shit got real was three songs in, during “Parasite,” a cut from the band’s 2010 debut. The bass was cranked so high that it shook you. When people online say, “You have see this show; the videos on YouTube don’t do it justice,” they’re only getting at half of what you missed. The physical feeling of the sound mix washing over us was as much a part of the experience as the stellar light show. Between “Parasite” and “And the Sky Began to Scream,” my body was their captive as much my ears.

Right around then is when the fiber-panels obscuring the band opened up to reveal them in full for the first time. Mariqueen, the lead singer, stepped forward to perform “Ice Age,” a track that sounds like what would happen if Nine Inch Nails covered a Stevie Nicks-fronted Fleetwood Mac song. And that’s when she really started to win over the skeptics. By the time the band got round to “How Long?,” the single released alongside one of the most haunting (and awesome) music videos I’ve ever seen, she had us all in the palm of her hand.

The panels closed up again for “Welcome Oblivion,” the title track off of the band’s first full-length and that was the highlight for me. Mariqueen played with the panels throughout the song, doing everything from lightly brushing her fingers through the fibers to grabbing hold of them during the more intense moments of the track. At one point, she nearly stepped through the fourth wall and back to her now adoring crowd.

This was the moment I’d been hoping for ever since hearing Trent first hint at working with a female lead singer someday, whenever it was that he first mentioned it all those years ago. I have always found the female voice to be a more compelling instrument than the male, and to pair that instrument with the musical sensibilities of my favorite popular musician... I didn’t know quite what to expect, but I expected a lot, and this band has delivered for me.

The moments that won over the most people were predictably the songs that sounded the most like Nine Inch Nails. “BBB,” with its plea to listen to the sound of the singer’s “big black boots,” had the people around us dancing, and “Fur Lined,” though not executed as well as I would have liked, grabbed the crowd too, with its allusions to “Closer” (“I am just an animal / Just a fucking chemical”). The songs they recognized from the radio or from their heavy viral presence (“Keep It Together,” “A Drowning,” and “The Loop Closes”) also went over really well.

But the truth is that the visual component of the show—ranging from abstract washes of light to projections of geometric shapes—was so mesmerizing that even those who weren’t listening, as the singers asked them to do at the top of the show, were still there, in the thick of it, with the rest of us.

I saw more than a few people backing off of their initial plans to see How to Destroy Angels once it was announced that Nine Inch Nails would be touring later this year, but those people who didn’t go to the show for that reason really did miss something. This is not the same band, with a chick up front the only difference. HTDA live was a slower, more ponderous experience, something that asked you to keep your brain on instead of turning it off, and it was the sort of thing that a video (or even these words I’m typing to you now) could never quite capture.