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How to Destroy Angels, ‘Welcome oblivion’ (Columbia)

How to Destroy Angels
SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: March 05, 2013
Label: Columbia

“Trent Reznor” and “Nine Inch Nails” are synonymous precisely because his rotating cast of supporting MVPs — Danny Lohner, Charlie Clouser, Robin Finck, Adrian Belew, Josh Freese — keep rotating, no one name ever sticking around long enough to steal the spotlight. So, on the heels of another big NIN reboot, it’s tough at first to even regard How to Destroy Angels, his new band, as a separate project with its own distinct identity — even if this one features not only Rob Sheridan and recent film-score cohort Atticus Ross, but also Reznor’s own wife, singer Mariqueen Maandig. Despite the outlandish band name and typesetting (the band’s name is offically stylized as How to destroy angels_), Welcome oblivion is instantly identifiable as a Reznor affair — or more precisely, as a stop on his own personal route, the arc of which is increasingly becoming more important than any point along the way.

Reznor’s trajectory over the past few years has been a series of endearing near-misses. For starters, look to 2008’s maddeningly meandering, four-volume, instrumental studio-masturbation journal Ghosts I-IV, released as a post-In Rainbows tantrum, or The Slip, the collection of more straightforward rock tunes that seemingly sprang up from <Ghosts’ remnants just two months later. There’s also his recent film-score work with Ross for David Fincher, crushing and appropriately malevolent as backdrop for both 2011’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and 2010’s The Social Network, but considerably weaker as stand-alone entertainment once the house lights come back up. It’s not as though HtDA represents a major break: Welcome oblivion and the EPs that preceded it mostly add additional loops to Reznor’s increasingly complex Venn diagram, newly discovered exoplanets orbiting the same dying sun as all the others.

The aspirations here are lofty, as always, if less reflective than your average NIN lament; the songs swell, bobble, and even leak from the seams under the pressure. It’s not just that Maandig’s petite vocals always feel incidental; Reznor himself and his signature tortured whispering are dwarfed as well, because the real star is his production expertise, which reaches new heights of maturity here even when all else fails. The songs may be weak at times, but they aren’t actually necessary. Entire melodies — legitimately catchy ones — are built from sounds closer to the hums and buzzes of unplugged speakers than to any conventional pitched instruments. Even “Ice age,” far and away the most predictable song here, sounds like the drip of thawing icicles because the strings are deliberately out of tune. “The loop closes” and “Recursive self-improvement” start to seem more like structural footnotes than song titles; Reznor fans are long acclimated to long stretches of recklessly abstract instrumentals, but having endured Ghosts, it’s hard to again champion that approach now. So where does that leave us?

Ultimately, Reznor should be forgiven for his inelegance. Trailblazing is rarely pleasant, and you’re likely to get lost along the way. For years, he’s been trying to lead by example as he illustrates something intangible about the places where digitally enabled rock starts to become fuzzy, both sonically and metaphorically; the problem with Welcome oblivion is that oblivion accepts the invitation. But whatever Reznor’s ultimate goal turns out to be, we could do worse than to periodically digest a new record as he spirals toward it, leaving behind beacons and contrails for the rest of us to stare up at from below, and occasionally parse into constellations.