Album Review: How to destroy angels_ - Welcome oblivion

Album Reviews
Gerrit Feenstra

Welcome to a start new vision of the apocalypse. Nick Cave may have soundtracked the movie adaption of Cormac McCarthy's The Road back in 2009, but with Welcome oblivion, Trent Reznor gives us a glitchy concept album realization of a similar internal battle that will keep you up at night with just as many chills. Reznor has kept quite busy since he waved goodbye to Nine Inch Nails for a hiatus. He soundtracked two award-winning David Fincher films and started a new band - namely, How to destroy angels_. This time around, he's joined by wife Mariqueen Maandig of West Indian Girl, along with long time collaborator Atticus Ross and long time art director Rob Sheridan. Welcome oblivion gives us the full nightmarish experience that last year's An omen EP forebode. Rest assured, Reznor isn't going soft in his old age or perking up anybody's spirits. Welcome oblivion is as ominous as the name implies - it's a psychic journey through the dark, lonely corners of the human mind that will leave you at the end of a good book begging for more.

Pick any album in Reznor's catalogue and guaranteed, you'll here two things above all else: atmosphere and story. Over the course of almost 25 years, he's been perfecting the art of creating a journey without pictures or - as is the case with much of Welcome oblivion - without even words. How to destroy angels_ takes Reznor's creepy talent to a whole new level. This time around, the concept is futuristic dystopia - think The Road written by Isaac Asimov. But where McCarthy would ask the question "Am I human or animal?", How to destroy angels_ ask "Am I human or machine?". We already know four tracks from An omen, the oblivion preview we got late last year. If you know these tracks well, you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect here - they serve as conceptual guides through the record. And believe me, if you want to catch all of the conceptual goings-on here, you'll want to have a pretty good handle on An omen before you dive in.

After the epic introduction of "The Wake-Up", "Keep It Together" remains the creepy beginning to a thought process - the day the lights went out, in a sense. Here, Trent and Mariqueen echo each other's thoughts of loss and disorientation to set the stage for the confusion and darkness to come. Where the title track is a blistering anthem to the new world older of nothingness, "Ice Age" is a slight retreat into a quiet corner to gather thoughts and prepare for the journey ahead. Mariqueen gives us a soliloquy of sorts here, highlighting the difference between a new and old humanity - one with empathy and one without. It's an age old question, but its relevance remains all the same. And with a soundtrack that makes you feel every inch of your humanity amongst an overwhelmingly electronic landscape, the dichotomy is all the more obvious.

How to destroy angels_ "The loop closes" (2013) from How To Destroy Angels on Vimeo.

The album continues with a definite story arc as our main characters slowly watch their humanity deteriorate into a series of economic decisions regarding empathy. "How Long?", perhaps the most accessible track on the whole record, asks a question relevant to both the story of the album and the state of our world. How long can we hold on to love in a world devoid of it? The excellent Shynola-directed video for the track highlights this question perfectly with a moving tale of its own. "Strings and attractors" boils the entirety of the soul down to a wiring problem. After the album hits the emotional low point at "We Fade Away", the mood turns mechanical. Recursive self-improvement describes the process by which artificial intelligence learns over time based on trial and error, and the tune of the same name is a driving force that highlights perfectly the shift from human to machine. Maandig's vocals get choppier and choppier until her voice is hardly recognizable. Then, for the final push of energy before the end, An omen's most danceable track "The loop closes" echoes over and over "The beginning is the end and it keeps coming around again". This begs the terrifying question of where to draw the line between humanity and otherwise - Reznor and crew give us the truth that no one really wants to hear: it's all a continuum.

"The loop closes" is the second to last track on both An omen and Welcome oblivion. What's interesting, though, is how different the ending of both records is. Where An omen's "Speaking in tongues" went off the mechanical cliff into terrifying post-Terminator territory (the EP is an omen, after all - not a promise) "Hallowed ground" gives mankind a choice. The track is 7-minute slow burner, in which Mariqueen's vocal melody harks back to the theme begun on "Ice Age". This choice is not by accident. "Ice Age" is the mental turning point of the record - it's the point where a choice is made between two paths. Welcome oblivion should not by any means be taken as purely science fiction. Back in 2007, Reznor looked at the state of the nation and wrote a satire about what would happen should the United States continue down a similar path. The piece was called Year Zero. It's unsurprising that in the world's current state of affairs, Reznor and crew should return to similar means to give us an updated message. In a world where each generation's empathy is slowly drained by a pervading influence of media indoctrination where violence is sexualized and celebrities are worshipped for their depravity, it is inevitable that western culture eventually reach a point of saturation. Maybe if we take some advice from How to destroy angels_, this tipping point won't be a breaking one.

Welcome oblivion is out March 5 through Columbia Records on CD and double vinyl, and what a stunning major label LP return it is for Reznor (especially considering its conceptual content)! Pre-order the vinyl through the band directly and you get a sweet white label CD of the vinyl version (album is two tracks longer) along with it! The band will make their live debut at Coachella and then play a short string of shows afterwards. Unfortunately, there is no Seattle date planned at this time, but check out the full list of dates over at Pitchfork.

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