Just last month, we were excited to learn that industrial rock icon Trent Reznor will be re-assembling his legendary band Nine Inch Nails with an all-new lineup and a tour kicking off this summer. But that's not the only Trent event this year: this week, the experimental band How to Destroy Angels – a project Reznor founded with his wife Mariqueen Maandig, his fellow Golden Globe-winning composer Atticus Ross, and acclaimed visual artist Rob Sheridan – finally released their long-awaited full length album debut. After teasing us for two years with singles, EPs (the first self-titled release in 2010, followed by An Omen last fall) and some beautifully spooky music videos, they've made good on the ominous promise of those earlier experiments with a truly monolithic record that is equal parts ambient experimentation (in the vein of NIN's epic 1999 album The Fragile or their instrumental collection Ghosts I-IV) and dark, sultry electro-pop.
While Reznor's own vocals take a back seat here, as with HTDA's previous releases, his latter-day sonic fingerprints are all over this record – which at times feels like a more lyrical extension of Ghosts or Reznor & Ross's award-winning score for The Social Network, with the same loose, free-form approach to songwriting and production. Maandig's mostly hushed, breathy lead vocal delivery (with one exception) parallels the dreamy instrumental style of that record, and the combined effect is both haunting and sexy.
Four tracks from An Omen – "Keep It Together,” "On the Wing," "Ice Age” and "The Loop Closes" – and the single “How Long?” are carried over here, and while they're all excellent songs, I've already covered that ground in this review. But that still leaves eight new cuts, which run the spectrum from melancholy melodic daydreams to jarring heavy-beat nightmares. Ironically, the brief opening track is titled "The Wake-Up,” and toward the end Maandig's vocals seem to be fighting to reach us through a swirling dark haze of distorted, echoing electronic textures and beats, but the chaos wins out and her voice collapses into a glitchy loop, suggesting that the dream is taking control. "And the Sky Began to Scream" is a collage of digital cut-ups and a Tangerine Dream-style flute loop offsetting a gentle, mostly clean main vocal with soft harmonies and a background chant from Reznor that creeps in and takes over. Speaking of screams: the moment I mentioned earlier, where Maandig breaks out of her soft, sexy croon, comes with the album's title track, which is the closest this band comes to Nine Inch Nails' unmistakable electro-rock style, recalling some of The Fragile's more thumping tracks.
A stripped-down Ghosts-style beat drives "Too Late, All Gone,” which gets its heat from intimately entwined male and female vocals, making this the sexiest offering on the album, and one of the band's all-around best. "Strings and Attractors" is all lo-fi blips and choppy, tinny beats, contrasted with a warm lead vocal that slides from clean to fuzzy and many phases in between – almost overwhelmed at times by electro noodling. A wobbly, distant piano line gives a hypnotic edge to "We Fade Away,” which starts quietly urgent and grows surprisingly intense, with some vocal harmonic tricks that will make your short hairs quiver; this one's another strong repeater. "Recursive Self-Improvement" is a fun old school analog synth-fest – the vocals are manipulated in similar ways to the instruments – that should get your pulse racing before you ride out on the surging “The Loop Closes.” I know I said I wouldn't get into the tracks from An Omen, but it's worth mentioning here, as its closing refrain (“The beginning is the end/Keeps coming around again”), sums up the album's cycle of waking and dreaming states. After that, the seven-minute closing drone "Hallowed Ground” is a bit anticlimactic, but it stands up well enough as a callback to Ghosts.
While Welcome Oblivion doesn't swing the same industrial hammer that pounded Nine Inch Nails into some unforgettable singles, it's often every bit as dark and unsettling... and with a full album's room to explore, the band has now grown into a more distinctive and memorable shape. Even when it's slightly off the mark (and let's face it, not even NIN's legendary output has always been dead-on), this record is still a compelling experiment and a chilling lights-out listen.
Speaking of chills, if you missed last month's debut of the creepy music video for “How Long?” now's your chance to catch up...