Welcome oblivion, the first full-length album with Trent Reznor’s new band How to Destroy Angels, is both totally familiar and unlike anything Reznor has ever done. It’s dark, brooding and filled with angst, but the anger that drives Nine Inch Nails is mostly absent, replaced with a sense of urgent desperation, as if Reznor knows time is passing and he wants to explore new, challenging sonic avenues, much like his idol David Bowie.
At the end of “And the Sky Begins to Scream,” Reznor whispers, “I wanna tear it down to the ground and build another one.” The song follows this aspiration; it starts with a shower of fuzzy keyboard notes that flicker in and out as if emanating from a short-circuiting soundboard, before evolving into an alien soundscape of layered noises, and mid-paced beats and ethereal pop vocals by Reznor’s wife Mariqueen Maandig.
In part, How to Destroy Angels is the natural hybrid of Nine Inch Nails and the spacious, inventive film scores Reznor wrote with Atticus Ross for David Fincher. Ross is also a member of How to Destroy Angels, and he and Reznor continue to work with unsettling noises, ambient tones and dynamic arrangements. Yes, Reznor’s industrial arsenal is ever-present, but most of the songs are built around a haunting, almost meditative combination of syncopated electronic beats and deep keyboard bass lines. Comparisons can be made to Tricky’s 1996 album Pre-Millennium Tension and many of the ambient structures resemble Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts I-IV. But writing off Welcome oblivion as an amalgam of Reznor’s past work sells the project short.
The track with the most commercial potential, “How Long,” weaves a Peter Gabriel-esque chorus through a mélange of clattering beats and skewed melodic keyboard lines, while “Ice Age” balances picked, muted and transmuted acoustic guitar with Maandig’s soft, soothing vocals. While there are undercurrents of feedback throughout, the song maintains its twisted folk roots until five minutes in, when waves of digital noise — some of which sounds like an underground bagpipe — starts to infect the beauty of the melody. In “Too Late, All Gone” Maandig and Reznor sing together, “The more we change, everything stays the same.” Maybe it’s a personal revelation that regardless of how far he strays sonically, he remains the same brooding artist that wrote 1989′s groundbreaking Pretty Hate Machine. If he’s not happy with that for some reason, at least it wasn’t for a lack of trying.