Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Reznor sideproject How to Destroy Angels delivers crushing gloom

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails has always had a thing for dreary soundscapes, but one would be hard pressed to think of a time when he's sounded this apocalyptic. After testing the water for his latest side project, How to Destroy Angels, with a pair of EPs dating back to 2010, he now has his grand unveiling with the group's first full length, Welcome Oblivion, which features wife Mariqueen Maandig on lead vocals.

The biggest difference is that HTDA does not bear the same sense of aggression as NiN. There are no hint of the pulsating industrial guitars and drums, rather, HTDA does their damage by delivering a dark, brooding atmosphere delivered by heavily layered electronics and keyboards. It never gets in a hurry, taking the time to allow its eerie keyboard synths and washes to build up and reach its full effect. The outcome is that many songs deliver a painstaking sense of isolation and a suffocating sense of oppression.

The other key difference is, of course, Maandig, whose clear, smooth voice is dripping with sensuality. It's no secret that Reznor has espoused many sexual themes over the years. But with songs like "Big Man with a Gun" and videos like "Happiness in Slavery," he beats you over the head with it. Maandig, on the other hand, has a voice that sort of makes you think about sex, but she can do it without having to directly mention anything sexual.

But Welcome Oblivion really isn't about sex anyway, It's about delivering a crushing sense of Armageddon, whether emotional or literal. And while Welcome Oblivion is sprawling, it also gives Reznor and crew time to line up several different avenues of attack. The first four songs give a good idea of the album's motif. "Keep It Together" builds to an off kilter climax that features Reznor's and Maandig's voices overlapping one another, while building a sense of tension and despair. The title track, meanwhile, tempers Maandig's muffled shouts with a slinking, pulsing noisy electronic backdrop.

But far from being a constant gloom affair, Welcome Oblivion also showcases breathtaking beauty. Songs like "Ice Age" are much more pop based in structure, featuring mellow guitar and what sounds like gentle calypso drums, while Maandig's stunning vocal carries the day. The closing synth line of "Too Late, All Gone," is the most starry eyed section on the album, but "How Long?" is the most obvious bonafide pop hit. This is one of the few upbeat tracks, anchored by a big chorus that sounds like 80s Genesis Autotune, but in the best possible way.

And of course there are songs whose central feature is built around drawing us in with a mesmerizing production quality. "Strings and Attractors" twinkles and bounces all over the place, while providing an angelic ambiance behind the chorus. "The Loop Closes," with its NiN like title, also manages to sound the most like a Nine Inch Nails song with its lurching and lumbering electronics. Lastly, instrumental closer "Hallowed Ground" tries to end the album on a conciliatory note, with its gentle piano keystrokes and breathy, wordless vocals. It closes to the sound of falling rain.

Welcome Oblivion  is certainly a massive, sprawling album. At 65+ minutes it's a lot to take in and would  have benefited from some trimming. And it's certainly an album's album; there aren't many tracks that would work well in a random playlist aside from perhaps "How Long?" or "Ice Age." Yet Reznor and company succeed once again with stunning production and in delivering a creative vision. Welcome Oblivion evokes feelings of running across a barren, scarred earth, desperately pursuing a light in the distance but knowing you'll never quite get there. If that doesn't stick with you, odds are there isn't much that will.

Score: 80/100

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