Like a supergroup of the damned, How to Destroy Angels is a new collective of L.A. audio agitators led by Nine Inch Nails ne'er-do-well Trent Reznor. His partners in woe on debut LP Welcome Oblivion — a jarring, unsettling but often quite captivating experiment — include femme fatale wife Mariqueen Maandig, film-score partner Atticus Ross and graphic artist Rob Sheridan.
Reznor's glum gang is like Brit group Gorillaz — if their hit was called Feel Bad Inc. instead.
Zoloft aside, Reznor is incapable of making boring music; he's a distinctive, captivating buzzkill, obsessed with dystopian futures and organic seeds trying to grow in synthetic soil. And yet he's not such a freako that he forgoes hooks and melodies.
Although the entirety of How to Destroy Angels gets credit for having "written, arranged, programmed, performed, produced and packaged" its work, this is Trent's anti-party, the whole thing sounding like a lovelorn computer dying in the shadows on the moon. Some people think it's all oddly beautiful — this critic included. But to be sure: This is NOT for everyone.
The hippest selling point here might be the Reznor-Ross creative coupling, which has won Oscars and Grammys for its film-scoring work on The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Those soundtracks were gauzy, jarring, bleak. And yet underneath the unrest were curious strains of heart and relief — trying to find solace in a world gone mad and so on — beautifully twisted minds writing music for beautifully twisted minds (Mark Zuckerberg, Lisbeth Salander).
How to Destroy Angels (jeez, can we at least call it HTDA?) constructs its 13 tracks in much the same fashion as Reznor-Ross and Nine Inch Nails: prickly building blocks, one at a time, that grow into a looping tower of unrest. Opening track The Wake-Up sets the stage: drums, fuzzed claps, a droning hum, a wall of menace then an agitated synth blast. The mood? Something really, really bad is about to happen, gang.
But the key difference between NIN and HTDA is the presence of, well, a woman. Maandig's deceptively sweet vocals range from pillow-talk (Strings and Attractors) to warning coo (Keep It Together) to, well, Sheryl Crow singing along to a broken ukulele. That cut, called Ice Age, is oddly sweet and seemingly out of place, a borderline pop song. But listen closer: "Sometimes the hate in me is keeping me alive."
Yep, Trent and Mariqueen were meant for each other. On unlikely duet And the Sky Began to Scream — an aggressive technotic rager that would have fit fine on the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack — she sings peacefully before hubby barks orders to "Tear it down!" First single How Long? is cleaner in approach, almost Alan Parsons-ish in its pop-prog intent, but the titular question is apocalyptic. How Long? has the makings of a hit, and yet I'm not sure what that says about our collective sanity if it becomes one.
Reznor and Ross let it all hang out on the album's closing tracks, a hive of found sounds, but that's where the album lost me a bit, perhaps because at more than an hour, this isn't the easiest of continuous listening.
That said, upon hearing How to Destroy Angels playing in my car, my two preteen daughters — normally wailing for their One Direction fix — were rendered somnambulant. When I noticed their hyperosity had chilled, I asked, "Do you guys like this?" "Yes," they answered, mesmerized. Trent Reznor as soothing, calming babysitter? Go figure.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.