Trent Reznor is undoubtedly a Renaissance man, but he’s not always creatively successful. One of the most musically and economically influential artists of the past two and a half decades, especially through his work with Nine Inch Nails, Reznor hasn’t undergone the same stylistic transitions as some of his contemporaries, but has delved into a variety of simultaneous mediums, from video games to film scores.
His most recent project, How To Destroy Angels, features his wife Mariqueen Maandig, his The Social Network and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo score partner Atticus Ross, and art director Rob Sheridan. After releasing an EP in 2010 and another last year, How To Destroy Angels finally release their debut full-length album, Welcome Oblivion, in 2013. While it never reaches the nadir of some of Nine Inch Nails’ most laughably bad tracks, the best songs on the album don’t reach the transcendent heights of classic Nine Inch Nails either.
Frustratingly, Welcome Oblivion is muddled and disjointed because it never really builds forward from its ideas. The album is cohesively boring; its sound is static, robotic, and strikingly unemotional. Sequentially, its lack of change, or arc, results in malaise. From the start it sets up an aesthetic that never really shifts; on opener The Wake-Up, we’re introduced to Maandig’s voice, one that’s essentially a microcosm for the album as a whole – sonically pleasing but neither dangerous nor fun, and entirely cold. The Wake-Up transitions into Keep it Together, a song that’s initially creepy and interesting when Maandig sings and when she harmonizes with her husband, but eventually loses your attention when Reznor takes over on vocals. Later, Maandig’s cheerleader screams on the album’s title track’s transition into a light airiness that’s reminiscent of, but ultimately not as captivating as, Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel.
Occasionally a wildcard pops up, like the Maandig-led Ice Age, a minimal, acoustic hymnal banjo track that makes the next track, the skronky, piano-and-string-laden, vocoded On the Wing, that much more interesting, simply for reasons of variance. The krautrock of Recursive Self-Improvement is certainly a change too, but Recursive Self-Improvement sounds like a music student’s attempt to create a piece inspired by a Kraftwerk deep cut. Overall, after any interesting sequence, Welcome Oblivion retreats back into its musical shell. Its closest thing to an accessible song and a potential hit, auto-tuned lead single How Long?, is certainly catchy and will find itself on alternative rock radio stations, even if it is neither particularly creative nor risky.
Nearing the end of Welcome Oblivion, one is not in the mood to listen to its longest track. But therein lies Hallowed Ground, a slow, seven-minute track that calms the panic you never experienced. It doesn’t work on its own either, because it’s so repetitive. In contrast, some of the songs on Welcome Oblivion are good on an individual level. Together, however, Welcome Oblivion’s songs don’t function as a collective artistic statement.
If How To Destroy Angels continue to make music, EPs might work better than full-length albums, lest they are remembered as a side project at best and forgotten at worst. Simply, Welcome Oblivion might have worked with some edits, but ultimately fails as an LP. Instead of a transformative listening experience that allows you to wallow in your own bleak thoughts, it’s is a disappointedly depressing one. At least it might motivate you to get over your ennui. Or to listen to The Downward Spiral.