Man, Trent Reznor is really not so sure about the future. The man's always been very interested in probing the things that make us weak as people and as a society, and this melted into a discernable sentiment of "Yeah, I'm really not so sure that good things are on the horizon" with Nine Inch Nails' 2007 album Year Zero. In the following few years, NIN put out two more albums, disbanded, and got back together. Trent Reznor, in the meantime, got real cozy with Atticus Ross and scored two films, then tossed his wife Mariqueen Maandig into the mix (adding real-time visual contributions from the brilliant Rob Sheridan) and formed How to Destroy Angels. Also, the band's name may or may not have an underscore at the end of it. In a lot of ways, HTDA's debut album Welcome Oblivion feels like a spiritual successor to Year Zero, and I'm not the first person to make that observation by any means. Of course, these similarities are largely thematic, as Reznor's anxiety about our arguably unsustainable way of living in the present boils over into a straight-up paranoia about what kind of future we might be setting up for ourselves. Lyrically, the album is about as lean as it gets. Reznor has always been a strong songwriter, and he works very well on a team with his wife. Throughout the album, the lyrics remain clean, simple, and clearly-delivered, never getting obscured by the mix or weighed down by unnecessary wordplay. By keeping it simple, Reznor and Maandig allow themselves to create deeply-layered, yet accessibly-structured songs that are as easy to listen to as they are to comprehend.
Reznor and Maandig share vocal duties almost equally throughout the record, with the former actually serving as a pad for the latter more often than not. Ross and Reznor are always a great pair, having shown that they work impeccably well together on the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Social Network soundtracks, both of which saw the musicians casting their eyes in directions that'd be fully explored by way of How to Destroy Angels' work.
Welcome Oblivion is a good debut, and a solid record overall. Reznor, yet again, shows that he's the master when it comes to blending his dark and angsty tendencies with surprisingly impeccable pop sensibilities. If there's one thing that really does this record in, though, it's a lack of variation. While there's not a single song on this record that really demands to be skipped, there are ones that don't quite stand out as well as others. The HTDA formula seems to consistently involve a heavy, propulsive beat; excellent use of texture and sonic space; and a killer hook. Songs like "Too Late, All Gone" and "How Long" see this formula utilized to its fullest effect. On the other hand, tracks like "On the Wing" and "Strings and Attractors" quickly remind the listener that, while the formula is a winning one, it can cause songs to run together a little too easily, and ultimately winds up making the album's journey seem like something of a short one.
The worst this album does, though, is simply fade into the background. At no point does it ease up with its forward-moving, kinetic beats; Ross and Reznor have proven themselves yet again to be masterful producers, crafting songs that blend soft ambience with hard-edged synths. Welcome Oblivion is a confident first record, which makes sense considering it's really not a first record for anyone involved. In their songwriting, Reznor and Maandig tackle big themes and heavy ideas, but do so deftly, never feeling like they're cheating their message in service of simplicity. Atticus Ross brings a lot to the party, and his work with Reznor is a wonderful stitching-together of sonic textures. Oh, and Rob Sheridan? Well, he designed one hell of a cool album cover. So there's that, too.