The long-awaited debut LP of Trent Reznor’s new band How to destroy angels_ is finally here. Formed in 2010 by Reznor, Mariqueen Maandig, longtime collaborator Atticus Ross and graphic designer Rob Sheridan, the industrial band have already released two EPs in anticipation of this momentous event. And now that it’s arrived, what’s the verdict?
It’s… okay, I guess. The music is brilliant, as expected; it’s resonant of Nine Inch Nails’ cold, distorted, and often glitchy production. “The wake up” is a brilliant opener and a taste of what’s to come, and there are some devastatingly sinister synths on “And the sky began to scream”. Reznor’s sonic treatment of the acoustic guitar on “Ice age” is intriguing enough, and the unnerving air raid signals of “We fade away” arguably make it the album’s best track. But that’s about where the compliments end.
If the music is relatively unchanged from Nine Inch Nails’ previous work, then the biggest difference is that Trent has handed over lead vocal duties to his wife, Mariqueen Maandig. Not that he’s completely out of the picture; he still sings backup. Their dual vocals on “Keep It Together” feel awkwardly layered on top of each other, with the chorus stumbling out and sounding more like “I can’t k-keep-to-to-gether” than anything. And when it’s just Maandig singing, it feels a little underwhelming. The power of the music is let down by her lackluster voice; and the times when she does let rip and screams at you are few and far between. It’s safe to say this doesn’t sound like anything Trent couldn’t have done on his own—and better.
This album also falls flat when it comes to songwriting. Some obliquely dissociated lines pepper the album, like “You know what you have done / Welcome oblivion” and “All his words keeping echoing / tremolo”, that last one especially feeling like an unwarranted “…tadah!” for something completely irrelevant. And then there’s meaningless drivel like “The beginning is the end / Keeps coming around again” that features way too heavily here. The album’s best enjoyed when the vocals are either filtered so much that they’re incomprehensible, or when the captivating instrumentals are played by themselves.
The fact that the hour-plus runtime doesn’t feel too long is a feat in itself. The dark ambient qualities of this album make it quite easy to get through in one sitting – but the question is whether you’d want to in the first place. There are clear comparisons to be made with Third-era Portishead, especially when Maandig’s voice sounds so much like Beth Gibbons. But it goes without saying that Maandig has nowhere near as much emotion in her delivery. It all goes to make Welcome oblivion feel like low-grade stuff; it’s overshadowed by so many groups that came before it, not to mention Nine Inch Nails itself.
How to destroy angels_ sure know how to build tension, but there’s no “I wanna fuck you like an animal” payoff; nothing to warrant you coming back to this album. The atmosphere is fantastic, if disrupted mostly by Mariqueen’s bland vocals. But, since NIN haven’t released anything under that name since 2008, this may well be what we have to make do with for now.