How to Destroy Angels at Paramount, 4/21/13
If you came into the Paramount Theatre last night halfway through How to Destroy Angels' first show in Denver, don't worry: It was the same as the first half. Trent Reznor's new post-industrial-electro-goth-whatever project, expertly executed and so chill as to induce comas, could hardly have sounded more even-keeled and consistent -- but it was also kind of boring.
What the show lacked in aural excitement it more than made up for visually. This was a set designer's wet dream and a stagehand's nightmare, with its movable curtains of translucent fiber that both absorbed and reflected the bizarrely ethereal computer imagery projected onstage.
Lead Angel Destroyer Mariqueen Maandig (also Reznor's wife -- and time-stoppingly beautiful) stood at center stage wearing what appeared to be a billion-dollar silk dress. Her backing musicians -- including Reznor and his Grammy Award-winning The Social Network collaborator Atticus Ross -- all wore light, monochrome suits and stood hunched over their synths and screens. It was like seeing Clinic (the band) and seeing a clinic itself. These looked like the lab-coated guys who input drug orders at Walgreen's pharmacy.
How to Destroy Angels' anti-hits -- as you will never hear these songs on pop radio stations -- came quickly. Early entries like the plinky "Ice Age" (fake banjos!) and "The Believers" (one of many NIN retreads) sounded like perfect little packages-in-song. This was a performance, not a concert. The difference is that there was no connection with the audience at this gig; you were there as a witness, not as a participant.
The band could have been playing in Omaha, in fact, and it would have been the exact same. Granted, the all-electronic format did not allow for experimentation or improvisation. Yet even on songs I'd never heard, there was an unmistakable sense that the songs were being played onstage exactly as they sound on record.
The band burned through what appeared to be its entire catalog last night. Since that catalog consists of but one full-length album (Welcome Oblivion), that means the set lasted right at an hour. Highlights included "Big Black Boots" and "The Loop Closes," both of which, like the entire set, featured Reznor skulking at the back of the stage while doing a whole mess of whisper-singing. When the act reemerged for its encore, the quintet played three more, including "Strings and Attractors." Everything seemed so calculated, which is so weird considering Reznor's proclivity for going apeshit crazy in live performances. Where's the beef?
That was the biggest strength and weakness of HTDA's performance. At once, the group held the audience's attention with its expert playing and Maandig's peerless (and obviously professionally trained) vocals, while at the same time, the decidedly unremarkable, dispassionate music left audience feeling, well, like sitting down through most of the show.
Maybe it was just my expectations: Having listened to Nine Inch Nails since sixth grade, when I first heard Pretty Hate Machine, it was hard not to wonder exactly what the genius who made that could be doing now, an entire generation after the fact.
The surplus of Tool and NIN T-shirts in the audience last night suggests that I was not alone in this; there were at least a few fellow '90s rock fans who were half-expecting or hoping to hear an updated version of "Closer." Judging by last night, the answer is: Our hero's making sexytime music for the goth set, and letting his wife handle the singing.
Personal Bias: Considering how I've grown up with an entire generation of kids who've spent the equivalent of a small country's GDP on Nine Inch Nails albums, it's kind of hard not to be biased towards wanting this band to rock.
Random Note: Reznor's one bit of stage banter: "We touched down in Denver in the middle of your marijuana fest yesterday. I forgot how fuckin' weird your city is."
By the Way: Reznor collaborator Atticus Ross went to school with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron. Who knew?
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