Album cover, for "Welcome Oblivion" by How to Destroy Angels. (Columbia )
In spite of its name, How to Destroy Angels is Trent Reznor taking the violence out of his music, then examining in painstaking detail what remains.
The Nine Inch Nails frontman, who last month announced the upcoming return of that groundbreaking industrial-rock outfit after a four-year break, is still obsessed with control and how it functions. But in this project he's no longer dramatizing the struggle against it. The songs — cool and collected even when they carry titles such as "And the Sky Began to Scream" — suggest submission more than resistance. It's not music to destroy anything by.
Except maybe crummy earbud headphones. An L.A.-based quartet that also includes Rob Sheridan, Reznor's wife, Mariqueen Maandig, and Atticus Ross (with whom Reznor composed the scores for "The Social Network" and "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"), How to Destroy Angels demands close, committed listening on "Welcome Oblivion," the band's first full-length after a pair of earlier EPs.
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Unlike Nine Inch Nails' big radio hits, the majority of the songs here don't brandish catchy hooks or compact slogans designed to grab you in passing. They start out quiet and often stay that way, forcing you to lean in and immerse yourself — to submit to them in the same way that Reznor's characters seem to be doing.
Once you're inside the album, the meticulously crafted music holds your attention with a succession of striking sounds: the lonely two-note electric guitar riff in "Keep It Together"; the ping-ponging synth tones in "Recursive Self-Improvement"; the intricate grid of crosshatched machine beats that supports "Strings and Attractors." In "Ice Age," one of the album's more unexpected cuts, Maandig layers her airy croon over what appears to be the toy-sized plink of an African thumb piano. It's a lovely juxtaposition, and a reminder of some of the left-field acoustic textures Reznor and Ross used so effectively in "Dragon Tattoo."
Sometimes these sonic scraps gather into actual tunes, as in the menacingly funky title track and "How Long?," a kind of warped R&B jam equipped with the album's most immediate chorus. But How to Destroy Angels (scheduled to make its live debut next month at Coachella) doesn't sound any more invested in those larger-scale productions than it does in "Hallowed Ground," the drifting, stripped-down instrumental that closes "Welcome Oblivion" with a sprinkling of delicate piano notes (and not much else). Reznor's done plenty of fighting; now he's getting the feel of peace.
How to Destroy Angels
2 1/2 stars
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