Thom Yorke and Trent Reznor are similar icons, self-serious heroes from a decade of high irony, perfect vessels for teen angst—dystopian young-adult novels made human so they could cringe on MTV. In recent years, both have tried to escape that image, busying themselves with other projects, cobbling together new bands to express themselves in different ways. Now, after long gestation periods, Yorke’s supergroup Atoms for Peace and Reznor’s How to destroy angels_ both have debut albums ready to drop within a week of each other.
Every song on Atoms for Peace’s AMOK is at least a minute too long. It’s a rhythmically centered record drawing on skittering, turn-of-the-21st century IDM plus krautrock and Afrobeat. Its grooves often feel static though, a treadmill left on. Yorke's singing is high and mumbly—stretched, downcast notes that never cohere into memorable melodies. The lyrics often voice clichés. “I made my bed, I’m lying in it.” “The will is strong, the flesh is weak.” “A penny for your thoughts.” He makes himself the project’s focal point, then refuses to say anything compelling from the spotlight.
Yorke’s had this band, with the Chili Peppers’ Flea on bass and alt-rock veteran Joey Waronker on drums, together for three or four years now. Why? To finely hone a unit of seasoned professionals until they sound indistinguishable from one man’s laptop jazz noodles? More than anyone, Yorke legitimized the idea of a rock band “going electronic.” It’s tempting to make Atoms for Peace that story’s end, the moment where future sounds become uninspired, old hat (“vintage fedora,” if you prefer). That makes it sound too consequential.
How to destroy angels_ is a similar project on paper, but Trent Reznor’s prominent work as an Oscar-winning composer makes him better at establishing an evocative mood and then getting out of its way. He and collaborator Atticus Ross are a perfect match for David Fincher’s flicks, evoking lavishly photographed, rain-slicked streets at midnight. Welcome oblivion sounds unsurprisingly industrial and gloomy but with lush three-dimensional arrangements that feel especially dynamic and alive when considered against Atoms.
Reznor’s wife Mariqueen Maandig, formerly of the undistinguished LA rock band West Indian Girl, sings. She’s easy to dismiss, sounding like an artifact from the nanosecond when Portishead was bankable enough to have alt-radio imitators. The record restlessly finds new ways to use her voice, though. Vocal manipulation has been a constant in electronic pop music, everyone using the push-button tools at their disposal to pitch shift up, Auto-Tune out, and sound like lady robot ghosts. Reznor’s production avoids that pat dehumanizing. He combines her sorta-blank sheen with his own menacing whisper until they blur, then he’ll cut one of them out of the mix suddenly, unsettlingly. It sounds physical and real, but also legitimately trippy.
Welcome oblivion shares some flaws with AMOK. Songs drift on longer than they need to, lyrics are just too on-the-nose to be surprising. But Reznor’s still interested in taking you somewhere besides his own head, at least.