Published on March 7th, 2013 | by Chris Dando0
How To Destroy Angels – Welcome Oblivion
Summary: 'Welcome Oblivion' is very experimental and avant-garde, yet doesn't stray too far from the formula that made NIN one of the most successful electronic groups of all time.
How To Destroy Angels finally release their long awaited debut full-length album, ‘Welcome Oblivion’, after a couple of critically successful EPs in 2011 and 2012 respectively. They shouldn’t really be thought of as a band, more a musical collaboration between artists, namely Trent Reznor (the mastermind behind Nine Inch Nails), his wife Mariqueen Maandig, producer Atticus Ross and visual artist Rob Sheridan (both of which have previously worked with Reznor in Nine Inch Nails). Reznor and Ross also worked together recently to create award-winning soundtracks for David Fincher’s ‘The Social Network’ and ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’. ‘Welcome Oblivion’ joins the ranks of it’s predecessors in being very experimental and avant-garde, yet doesn’t stray too far from the formula that made NIN one of the most successful electronic groups of all time.
This album is incredibly dark, full of buzzing electronics, jarring, glitchy stabs and atmospheric textures. It’s moody, it’s introverted, it’s hypnotic and it’s most certainly not for everyone. The album features four tracks from 2012′s ‘an omen EP_’, and the new tracks continue in a similar vein, rarely adhering to typical song structures. They establish a beat or a texture and build on it over time, constantly evolving and shaping the music, inviting you to lose yourself in it’s atmosphere.
And that atmosphere is rarely pleasant, especially for the first 20 mins or so. This is bleak and apocalyptic, designed to put you on edge, not afraid to unsettle you with jarring, clashing notes and rumbling sub bass. In fact, the whole beginning of the album seems to have been designed to put listeners off. There are no memorable hooks, or catchy melodies to cling to. The beats are lively, interesting and certainly aggressive, but they’re not enough to carry the songs on their own. It strikes me as strange, because there are plenty of tracks on this album towards the end that feature huge hooks, and are much more easily accessible and would have eased listeners into the record. Indeed, on a second listen to these opening tracks, once I’d listened to the whole album and immersed myself in the sound, I was much more responsive to them and was able to appreciate their subtle nuances. It’s certainly an off-putting way to start the album, but then since when have Reznor & Co. ever played by anyone else’s rules?
The album really comes into it’s stride once it hits the mid-point. Track 5, ‘Ice Age’, introduces our first real taste of melody, and after the cacophony that came before, it is that much sweeter. Maybe it was completely intentional after all. Organic sounding ukeleles, altered by electronics and horribly out of tune stabs, add a more playful atmosphere and the repetition of the riff coupled with Maandig’s haunting vocals hypnotise the listener. From this point, the album goes from strength to strength. Vocoder-heavy ‘On The Wing’ and the trippy ‘Strings And Attractors’ personify chilled-out, electro tastiness and remind me slightly of Massive Attack. ‘The Loop Closes’ and ‘Too Late, All Gone’ feature buzzy electro grooves that keep your head nodding throughout. But truly, for me, the stand-out song is the lead single ‘How Long?’. Amazing vocals throughout, with a huge chorus filled out by intricate harmonies, and retro synths occasionally harking back to the glory days of Vangelis. All this whist keeping a keen sense of accessibility, without compromising their creative vision. There are still plenty of buzzing electronics and glitch effects, but you can sing along with it. It’s a shame there aren’t a few more tracks like this on the album, as this really is where How To Destroy Angels shine.
All in all, the album really isn’t too dissimilar to the material that Nine Inch Nails have released within the last decade, with the obvious exception of the female vocals. The aggression is toned down considerably, with barely any guitars or live drums on the album at all. Yet most of the tracks wouldn’t be out of place on a NIN album, as one of the quieter tracks. Then again, both Ross and Sheridan worked with NIN on albums since 2007′s ‘Year Zero’, so rather than being a brand new band with brand new ideas, they’re an already established collective, comfortable in what they do, yet freed from the shackles of what they have created before.
Sheridan adds an interesting aspect to How To Destroy Angels. Along with the audio, comes a series of images that give a visual counterpoint to the album, that when coupled together allow you to be completely immersed in their vision. He is also vital in crafting the concept behind the album, as he did with NIN’s ‘Year Zero’ and ‘Ghosts I-IV’. A dystopian vision where machines and technology have engulfed humanity, a concept that isn’t particularly original and has been used heavily in music and film for several decades, yet the blend of both music and artwork manage to keep things fresh. Complete dedication to the concept also sells it to the audience. It’s not tacked on, and the songs certainly work better in context of the album rather than as individual tracks. The music was created with the concept in mind, and once you figure out the intricacies of the concept for yourself, you hear the constant battle between the electronic and the organic within the composition of the tracks.
The production also has to be mentioned. One word: WOW! Probably the most impressive thing about the album is just how amazing it sounds. You really do need a decent sound system to fully appreciate the nuances of this record. Sub bass is everywhere and you can feel the rumbling in the pit of your stomach as the music ebbs and flows. Glitchy, electronic chirps and tweets litter the album giving a huge range of frequencies for you to take in, from the extreme lows to extreme highs. Maandig’s voice is wonderfully soothing when doused in tasty reverb, blending in with the airy synth lines, before becoming hauntingly and disturbing dry and close, almost as though she’s whispering in your ear.
It’s tricky to really know what to think of this album. On one hand, I praise the bravery of the artists to create something so audacious and unlike anything else. Their vision is uncompromising, and it’s rare to hear music nowadays free from the shackles of genre and commercialism. This isn’t music that you’d play in the car, or when getting ready to go out, nor is it music that you’d listen to for relaxation. This isn’t just music, it is art, and it requires you to think of it as such. On the other hand, it can be difficult to listen to in places. The lack of typical song structures, whilst sometimes beneficial, is also a major drawback. Many of the songs are repetitive and can often sound very similar throughout. The build-ups often don’t give you a satisfying payoff, and whilst that juxtaposition can be really cool at first, after a while you long for the massive hook it appears to promise.
I really want to give this album four or five stars, but I can’t. It deserves them for being so creative and original. It deserves them for having the guts to make something like this, in a time where creativity is being sacrificed and stifled in the search for commercialism and sales figures. It’s just that beginning! Those first four or five tracks that really do nothing to draw you in. The last half of the album is sublime, but there just isn’t enough killer material here to warrant a high score. Also, not only have Nine Inch Nails done pretty much everything that How To Destroy Angels do before, I personally think (with the possible exception of ‘How Long?’ and ‘On The Wing’) NIN did it better.
For fans of: Nine Inch Nails, Massive Attack, having your boundaries pushed