'Welcome Oblivion' a fleeting portrait of Reznor's musical transition

Review: The debut album by Trent Reznor's collaborative project 'How To Destroy Angels' is a flag planted in his new creative path.

As accomplished and groundbreaking as Trent Reznor has been while presiding over his industrial day-job Nine Inch Nails, there’s a startling irony to the fact that his most riveting work in recent years has been created while working completely outside that box.

Credit for getting that ball rolling goes to director David Fincher, who aggressively pursued a previously on-hiatus Reznor to score his 2010 Facebook origin drama The Social Network. The resulting record, made with longtime collaborator and creative right hand man Atticus Ross, netted the duo universal critical accolades, a Golden Globe and an Oscar for best original soundtrack. By the end of the deluge of awards, the public and music press’ perception of Reznor morphed from a cage rattling and synthesizer bashing ‘90s icon to a celebrated modern virtuoso of ominously exquisite noise. Suddenly, the man who once seemed at home in the pages of Metal Edge magazine was now the darling of the Pitchfork-reading indie crowd.

Enter How To Destroy Angels, a new band that grows directly out of this new phase in Reznor’s career. Welcome Oblivion, the group’s debut full-length album but third release, serves as the opening salvo of a project that has finally embraced an identity within Reznor’s other high-profile endeavors. The collective rejoins Reznor with his film score collaborator Atticus Ross and NIN creative director Rob Sheridan, but pushes Reznor’s wife, former West Indian Girl singer Mariqueen Maandig, in front of the microphone.

Initially, that combination of talent would lead you to believe that this new endeavor would simply sound like NIN with a female vocalist (and on their self-titled 2010 EP, they absolutely did), but two years of sonic experimentation have helped the fledgling group carve out an aural signature all their own. This isn’t an entirely new machine; anyone familiar with Reznor and Ross’ work on The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo will recognize the subtle synthesizer work and layered textures that runs through every track. However, these elements have been reassembled and recontexualized under the How To Destroy Angels banner, taking those atmospherics and injecting them into a pop context.

Unlike NIN, How Destroy Angels shares atmospheric DNA with moody trip-hop contemporaries such as Massive Attack, Portishead and Recoil rather than the industrial and post-punk roots of the former. Maandig’s vocals play no small role in this differentiation, although the prevalence of her part in the proceedings can sometimes work to the group’s detriment. All too often, her voice seems overpowered by the cacophonous production she’s singing over. Whereas Reznor’s deep growl and shrill screams are sturdy enough to sit atop his multilayered production, Maandig’s voice has a thinner, somewhat wispy quality. The character of her vocals is served well in the more spare production of tracks such as the banjo-picked track “Ice Age,” but songs with more aural density consistently dominate her voice. Duets with Reznor, especially on tracks such as the beautiful XX-sounding chorus on “Strings And Attractors,” do wonders to help buoy her vocals in the mix, but one can’t help but wonder if a singer with more powerful pipes would be able to more aptly push through the walls of noise that Reznor and Ross consistently conjure up.

The “glitch art” that serves as Welcome Oblivion’s visual aesthetic - created by Sheridan - obscures faces and renders figures into nothing more than garbled silhouettes, the output of identities lost in digital translation. This aesthetic treatment serves to reinforce many of the album’s themes of personal disintegration and the erasure of selfhood, with everything from the alphanumeric characters that make up the track listing to the band’s own promotional photos degenerating into their core components. It is no coincidence that an artist so notorious for his meticulous perfectionist tendencies is adopting such a faceless, inexact aesthetic at this time around. Even though the album establishes a definitive sound for How To Destroy Angels, Welcome Oblivion is a transitional record for Reznor himself, a fleeting snapshot of an ongoing personal creative evolution.

Welcome Oblivion can be purchased at the How To Destroy Angels' official website here.

Photo: Rob Sheridan

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