On a technical level, we can discuss Welcome Oblivion as How to Destroy Angels’s first album. But realistically speaking, we all know that’s not quite the proper way to put it. How to Destroy Angels came from the ashes of Nine Inch Nails when newlyweds Trent Reznor and Mariqueen Maandig teamed up with NIN holdover Atticus Ross and visual artist Rob Sheridan to make a self-titled EP in 2010. An omen EP_ dropped in late 2012 as a taster for the project’s forthcoming album. Of the EP’s six tracks, four of them can also be found on Welcome Oblivion. Mariqueen Maandig had already been singing for West Indian Girl for about five years while the musical partnership of Reznor and Ross goes back at least eight years and boasts one Academy Award and a Golden Globe (for their soundtrack work on The Social Network). So yes, Welcome Oblivion is How to Destroy Angels’s first long-player. But when you take a step back, it’s just another album for Reznor, Ross and Maandig – and that’s probably how history will remember it.
If there’s one thing that rubs a died-in-wool cult member the wrong way, it’s thrusting the new work of a seasoned veteran under the harsh glare of past glories. With every new release from Reznor since the doubly-vicious The Fragile, alternative/industrial/metal fans the world over would jump to their keyboards to proclaim that this new thing was no The Downward Spiral, Pretty Hate Machine, or Broken EP. But the dedicated NIN following knows that you just can’t do that. That’s not very healthy. How can you expect anyone, especially a volatile experimenter like Trent Reznor, to push the same product for more than 20 years? It’s at times like this that I like to bring up the biological theory that your body’s cells replace themselves over a seven-year period. You can’t blame Reznor for not duplicating The Downward Spiral because that was almost three Trents ago.
So comparisons between How to Destroy Angels and Nine Inch Nails may be inevitable or annoying, depending on your opinion, but let’s get one thing straight: Welcome Oblivion is more informed by Reznor and Ross’s recent work than anything else. By which I mean their soundtrack work on The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in addition to the NIN all-instrumental double album released in 2008, Ghosts I-IV. The last one mentioned received mixed reviews, as though critics were looking for a 36-track, 110-minute album of numerically-titled instrumentals to be a demonstration of cohesion. The practice of building these vignettes have certainly sharpening Reznor and Ross’s compositional chops to fit the silver screen. But when it comes to making music without a context, the pair has demoted themselves from industrial architects to musique concrète construction workers. It’s not a hard, painful fall from the bold to the workmanlike, but it’s still noticeable. Welcome Oblivion stands where the fine art of establishing mood with looped cues just a few shades shy of crossing into tedium; a soundtrack in search of a film.
Welcome Oblivion is very long. At one hour and five minutes, I realize it’s not the longest album to exist, not by a long shot. But when you listen to it straight through, it feels longer than it is. One explanation for this is that the collective’s 2010 EP had just a little more variety, and consequently, personality. You had your downtempo industrial dirges (“The Space in Between”) sharing space with dance-inflicted mope rock (“Fur-Lined”) with a nice sampling of things that neatly fell in the middle. On most of Welcome Oblivion, the tempo and dynamics are uniformly restrained. The overall mix treats Mariqueen Maandig’s voice as another instrument in the band to ride alongside all the other components, not unlike bands of the shoegaze variety. The one exception to the rule of dynamics and Maandig’s compressed vocals is the single “How Long?”, with a introductory chorus designed to announce the arrival of the album’s centerpiece. But to refer to the song as such is misleading since it seems to artistically stand outside the rest of Welcome Oblivion. Not that its appearance derails the album, it just seems a little on the obligatory side.
But the filters and compressors through which Mariqueen Maandig emits her soft moans and groans aren’t a deal-breaker either, especially on “Too Late, All Gone”, where the platitude of choice for the chorus is “the more we change” … wait for it … “everything stays the same.” And rounding out the choruses of “On the Wing” with “I don’t believe in anything” would sound dubious to say the least had the happy couple been singing into a dry mic. Though it give us some mighty good elephant-like blares from the keyboards, “We Fade Away” also becomes Maandig’s excuse to chant disputable poetry that would not go over well around a camp fire. Perhaps it’s best for everyone involved to say that the lyrics are window dressing. Otherwise, “The beginning is the end / Keeps coming round again”, but “How long? / Can we keep holding on?”
As the lengthy instrumental passages slowly conclude Welcome Oblivion, it’s evident that Trent Reznor has not lost his attention for detail. Instead, it has gently slipped through the cracks and out of sight, off to fight another day. Whether you look at this as Reznor, Ross and Maandig’s “first” album or not, Welcome Oblivion depicts How to Destroy Angels as a little adrift, mixing road-weary maturity with rookie mistakes. But hey, if experience is the best teacher, Trent Reznor should have a PhD in something by now.