Review: Welcome Oblivion – How To Destroy Angels

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Released: March 4, 2013
Rating: 78/100

I had the opportunity to see How ago Destroy Angels a few weeks ago at the Coachella Valley Music Festival. I had a most of my days mapped out in terms of who I wanted to see and where I wanted to be but the final time slot on the first day presented an interesting set of conflicts: Blur, Tegan & Sara, Earl Sweatshirt, How to Destroy Angels, and Bassnectar. I was interested in seeing all of them but didn’t have a strong desire to see any one in particular. So when the time came, me and my buddies decided to watch a few songs of each and sample the whole lot. This plan worked perfectly until we arrived at the Mojave tent where How to Destroy Angels was playing. We were all immediately drawn in by the electronic soundscape of industrial music mastermind Trent Reznor, the accompanying visuals and the fact that they had the smallest crowd of any stage.

I hadn’t listened to any of their music before arriving at the stage but like any project featuring the Nine Inch Nails frontman, I had a general idea of what I was getting into. They sounded like a less aggressive version of NIN with a female singer and their set was a futuristic amalgamation of transparent sheets that worked as a screen for abstract projections. After about 2 minutes we were hooked and decided to cancel the rest of our late night sampler. For the rest of the weekend, I couldn’t wait to get home and purchased the album.

Now having spent some time with Welcome Oblivion, I have found that while the studio material doesn’t quite live up to the live performance, it certainly doesn’t disappoint me either. I could probably end the review right here and just say that if you enjoy any previous material from Trent Reznor/NIN then you will enjoy this as well and if you haven’t, then just skip it. Personally, I usually enjoy but only occasionally love his catalogue of work. Certain tracks have really captivated me though I have always been deeply intrigued in his style. Welcome Oblivion is a dark and heavily textured electronic experience that benefits greatly by having a delicate female vocal presence. It’s by no means a pop album but it is one of the more accessible collections of music released by Reznor.

Welcome Oblivion takes a little while to really get going. The first few tracks emphasize the electronic textures and atmospherics more than anything else and while interesting, the don’t exactly hold my full attention. Then track 5 (“Ice Age”) comes on and takes the album in a radically different direction. I’ve struggled to classify exact what the song sounds like but “acoustic industrial folk” is the best I’ve come up with. It’s angular and meticulous like the rest of the album but its driven mostly by the soft, melodic vocals alongside acoustic guitar plucks with grittier electronic textures slowly entering the soundscape. It’s weird and unexpected but also really interesting and enjoyable.

After that Welcome Oblivion returns to the electro-industrial sound but with more focus and clarity. “Too Late, All Gone” has some great digital percussion that leads into a memorable and pulsating hook. “How Long” is one of the best songs on the album with a big chorus of harmonies laid over bit-crushed beats and a verse section that is sexy in a dark and mechanical way.
The song “Recursive Self Improvement” is a repetitive escalation of different synthesizer sounds that strongly reminds me of Amnesiac era Radiohead. It’s an exercise in build and break down that has a few interesting twists along the way. But more than anything “Recursive Self Improvement” is a lead in to the best track on the album “The Loop Closes”. Like much of the album “The Loop Closes” is all about building layers of sound and it even challenges you to dance a little bit a long the way and when the song hits its zenith there are no soft female vocals to take the edge off, just Trent Reznor growling the words “the beginning is the end, it keeps coming around again” louder and louder until the track peaks and tapers off. It’s aggressive, rhythmic, bleak and delightful in its own right.

I wouldn’t recommend Welcome Oblivion to everyone but I have certainly found it to be an interesting album worthy of numerous repeat listens. Trent Reznor is a captivating and ceaselessly creative musician and How To Destroy Angels is not a departure from his style but rather a new phase of his progression. As the name sugggests, Welcome Oblivion can be pretty bleak but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun in its own unique little way. The spotlight of electronic music is currently focused on wobbling dub step drops or euphoric house riffs and while I certainly enjoy those I’m reassured to know that no matter how far Skrillex and Swedish House Mafia push EDM into the mainstream, Trent Reznor is out there somewhere making aggressive, brooding electronic music with such skill and artistry that he has virtually created his own genre.

Long live Trent Reznor.

Top Tracks: “The Loop Closes”, “Welcome Oblivion”, “Too Late, All Gone”, “How Long”

PS I strongly recommend purchasing the Deluxe Edition of this album. It includes 6 more worthwhile songs including “A Drowning” which appeared on one of their earlier EPs and is probably their best song to date.

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