posted: March 9, 2013
Any suggestion that Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor has completely mellowed with age should be immediately put to rest.
In a recent “Ask Me Anything” segment on the popular Web site Reddit, the singer responded to one inquiry (“As millionaires, why did you sign up with a record label to promote your new album?”) in profanely hilarious fashion, writing, “Sorry, the wifi on our yacht is having issues, we can’t get your full question to load. Try sending me an email at email@example.com.”
Still, at 47 years old, Reznor’s music has certainly started to reflect his advancing age. As such, his outbursts tend to take place outside the recording studio these days, and songs project something closer to existential dread rather than all-consuming rage. This is true of both late-era Nine Inch Nails albums like Ghosts I-IV, and his award-winning film-composition work for David Fincher movies The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Such haunted vibes carry over into his full-length debut with How to Destroy Angels, a group that includes his wife, Mariqueen Maandig, and longtime producer/creative partner Atticus Finch.
The band, which first surfaced shortly after Nine Inch Nails went on hiatus three years ago—a break that, to the surprise of nobody, ended last month—is more collaborative than Reznor’s previous venture. Maandig, not Reznor, handles primary vocal duties. This, it turns out, is not exactly a good thing. As a singer, Maandig is pedestrian at best, and the tunes on which she’s pushed to the forefront (“How Long?”) are among the weakest. Conversely, the best work almost entirely dispatches of vocals. Witness the quietly simmering “The Loop Closes,” which piles on spiky synths and buzzing drums for three tension-filled minutes before Reznor and Maandig show up and start whispering cryptic asides (“The beginning is the end…”).
Fortunately, Welcome Oblivion is an album driven almost solely by texture and mood, and more often than not, Maandig’s voice is treated like another instrument in the mix. On “Too Late, All Gone,” a slinky number that sounds something like robots copulating, her breathy vocals inject the song with an air of humanity. Likewise, the singer acts as a flesh-and-blood foil to the crackling, animatronic buzz of “And the Sky Began to Scream.”
As time goes by, it seems increasingly apt that Reznor titled Nine Inch Nails’ 1989 debut Pretty Hate Machine, and it seems as though he’s spent a bulk of his career crafting a sound that neatly fits that image. Welcome Oblivion rarely strays from this template (the lone exception being the fractured folk of “Ice Age”), Reznor and Finch working in tandem to create a bone-chilling landscape of whirring, mechanized noise. It’s nothing new, sure, but it still functions as a nifty little placeholder for fans waiting on the next, inevitable Nine Inch Nails album.–Andy Downing