One of the least celebrated albums in the extensive discography of the late, great Coil is called Gold is the Metal (With the Broadest Shoulders). It is the scrap heap left in the wake of the brilliant Horse Rotorvator album. It is at turns ridiculous and sublime, frightening and uplifting, impenetrable and accessible. It is a microcosm of everything Coil was and could be, even as it would never be confused with one of their grand, sweeping artistic visions. Even the detritus of Coil’s catalog means something, you see. Even the outtakes ooze significance.
This is the legacy you evoke when you name your band after one of Coil’s most recognizable works. It is a risk probably not worth taking.
The Coil song “How to Destroy Angels” was subtitled “Ritual Music for the Accumulation of Male Sexual Energy”. It was the first vinyl release ever officially attributed to Coil. The title is significant, because it lent the weight of religion to a piece whose inspiration is rooted in homosexuality, as much of Coil’s music was. Coil’s music was very much a matter of not just breaking taboos, but of allowing those taboos so much airspace as to become mundane. It did not push an agenda so much as it allowed its creators a forum in which to explore the human psyche, and all the sex and drugs and dirt and grime and death embedded in it.
The two members of Coil, John Balance and Peter Christopherson, are dead now. Their legacy is no longer evolving. It is wrapped up in concrete. It just is.
In theory, I have no problem with Trent Reznor, Mariqueen Maandig, Atticus Ross, and Rob Sheridan calling their new project How to Destroy Angels. Christopherson and Balance had a long-standing relationship with Reznor, one that manifested itself musically in some pretty brilliant remixes of Nine Inch Nails tunes (the rework of “Gave Up” on Fixed is astounding, especially for an early-’90s cutup) and one of the most notorious bits of aural vaporware from the mid-’90s, Coil’s never-released Backwards, which was supposed to show up on Reznor’s nothing records label. Apparently, Reznor even asked Christopherson if he was OK with the name choice, which, I mean, I honestly can’t imagine Christopherson giving a shit one way or another.
The problem is that when you pick a name like How to Destroy Angels for no other reason than that it sounds like a badass name (with maybe a teaspoon of experimental music history cred thrown in for flavor), you risk competing with that legacy. When your body of work under that name is utterly underwhelming, you risk that it comes off as insulting.
The debut self-titled EP sounded like a group of people getting its feet wet, which was fine. It wasn’t the sort of thing that lasts; it was more like an experiment, a group finding its sound. An Omen is where the group actually does find a sound, and it is not all that unlike the quiet moments of Reznor and Ross’s brilliant soundtrack to The Social Network, except with Reznor and Maandig whisper-crooning over the top of it. The point is a funny sort of layered minimalism, where the mix always sounds wide open but the players involved just can’t help but keep throwing more ingredients into the pot.
There is nothing offensively awful here. Opener “Ice Age” offers a muted acoustic loop and icy background atmospherics beneath the most straightforward of Maandig’s vocal contributions. It’s a slow-burning song that actually has verses and choruses and everything. “Keep it Together” is all skittery percussion and bass synths underneath more of Maandig’s musings, until some ghostly noises round out the mix with Reznor and Maandig singing together but not in sync. “The Loop Closes”, perhaps the strongest of the tracks here, plays almost like an extended coda for The Downward Spiral‘s “Closer”, offering a little funk, some well-programmed buzzing, and a mantra: “The beginning is the end, and it / Keeps coming around again”.
“On the Wing” sounds like a transitional Nine Inch Nails track, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” is, yes, sleepy and strange, a wash of sounds without percussion or words (aside from the the song-ending “wake up”) to interfere, and “Speaking in Tongues” crawls along with more of the muted acoustics of “Ice Age”, except this time with lots of buzzing and Reznor and Maandig whispering as evilly as they can. The last of these is the only track on the EP that could conceivably be called dense, as it sounds perilously close to imploding in a sea of buzzing on more than one occasion, but even as it assaults the ears, it sounds remarkably lightweight.
The entire EP, as a matter of fact, is a lesson in ephemerality. It slowly passes, never really ingraining itself into the listener’s consciousness, never really surprising the listener with any of its musical choices. While it at least maintains a consistent mood, its menacing melancholy carries with it no insight, no true reason for telling us what it does.
Perhaps expecting How to Destroy Angels to live up to the legacy of Coil is too much weight for a project that is by any account still trying to figure out what exactly it’s trying to be. Still, it should not be lightweight. It should not be forgettable. It should challenge us, or delight us, or enrage us, or confuse us. It does none of those things. It simply exists, thirty more minutes of sound unleashed into our crowded headspace. The angels won’t even blink.