Aural Impressions: Nine Inch Nails, Not The Actual Events

One year ago, Trent Reznor posted a note to his scarcely used Twitter account.

Most of his tweets before this one had been erased, raising its apparent significance.  It had been a little over two years since the release of the fantastic Hesitation Marks, and having had a five year hiatus and return cycle before that one’s release, the promise of new Nine Inch Nails so soon was exciting and created much anticipation for the year.  Well, 2016 sucked, and as the year drew to a close, the lack of Nine Inch Nails releases came to mind.  As it turns out, the music did in fact exist, and Trent Reznor waited right up until the twelfth month to put it out.  Not The Actual Events is a five-track EP, announced almost one year to the day after that initial promising tweet.  It’s, well, it’s different.  It’s short, so lets just get right into it, shall we?

  1. Branches/Bones:  We get going right away with noise, fuzz, and a swiftly driving, yet minimal electronic beat, reminiscent of “Everything” from Hesistation Marks.  A warbling bassline enters.  Halfway through the first verse a classic Nine Inch Nails dirty guitar joins in to add to the already thick atmosphere.  A dip, then a wide blast of chorus.  Reznor’s vocals are distorted and multi-tracked.  He screams, but his words are cut off with the start of the next verse.  The song wastes absolutely no time setting a tone for this EP.  A second chorus features a steadying crescendo of noise and distortion, cutting off suddenly.
  2. Dear World,:  Yes, everyone seems to be asleep.  Well, not anymore, not with this drum beat and electronica going, and what a beat it is.  A lonely quartered hi-hat sit atop a chaotic flutter of toms and snare while blips and bleeps bounce.  A low drone lies beneath, while various harmonics float.  The lyrics are half-sung, blending in with the noise.  Moving into the chorus, Reznor melodifies the vocals, a light, pining style that we’ve certainly heard before.  Synth pads continue in the background, completing the dark, yet hopeful progression.  There’s a drum break post chorus, wherein the sound drops out completely for a full measure.  Return to the ordered chaos of the beginning.  Vocals pan from channel to channel.  In a brief lull, an out of tune instrument that sounds like a combination of strings and mallets adds some texture.  “Dear World,” is an absolutely beautiful mess.  The electronica derives definite influence from Reznor’s and Atticus Ross’s work in film scoring.  The traditional rock elements are straight Nine Inch Nails, but the combination is something new entirely.  Perhaps my favorite track of the EP.
  3. She’s Gone Away: Distortion and noise begin here, with a smattering of reverberating sound effects and an echo-heavy drum kit playing a lumbering beat.  Staccatto bass enters to groove it up — the result is a mix of “Eraser” and “Piggy.”  This is the most “The Downward Spiral” song we’ve heard in a long time, though the structure of the verse vocals reminds me of “Into The Void,” with a bit less jump.  Reznor brings his own bass in the chorus, bellowing the song title in a lower register than we usually hear out of him.  The screams at chorus’ end sound almost like guitars, and the wailing thereafter feels, underneath the continuing noise, is almost Kid A-like, straight off of “In Limbo.”  After a repeat verse/chorus, “She’s Gone Away” trails off with an extended outro of continued wailing, guitar effects, and noise, including what sounds like a crying child and a vibrating cell phone.
  4. The Idea of You:  Exploding from the feedback of the previous track, we’ve got another blast from the past coming.  Continuing the Downward Spiral inspiration, “The Idea of You” features robotic guitar chords, a 6/8 drum beat, dark piano notes, and a vocal line mumbled, distorted, and inaudible.  It’s weird to hear a new song like this after all this time.  The chorus explodes open with a chant/screamed vocal mantra, stuttering bass, and crash symbols.  It’s short, though, and very quickly we’re back to the mechanical smoothness of the verse.  The piano varies itself a little, adding more dissonant notes to its limited sonic palette.  After a second chorus, a bridge brings in a Nine Inch Nails jam session, featuring a semi drum solo and controlled feedback effects.  The song’s outro features a descending synth/piano motif, as if the 1994 feeling wasn’t already strong.  I should probably check to see if this was actually a new song or if it were a previously cut B-side.  If not, Trent’s still got it.  Scratch what I said about “Dear World,” — this is my favorite from the EP going away.
  5. Burning Bright (Field on Fire):  Heavy distortion and a buried drum beat kick us off here, with the drums sucking down the mix they’re so overdriven.  A thick bass comes in to expand the sound as crunched open hit-hats plod along.  Reverberating, amplified spoken vocals are still not enough to break through the mix — at the chorus, the noise vanishes and out come the lyrics “break through the surface and breathe.” The  lyrical/musical symmetry here is on point.  Just as suddenly as it vanished, the full power of the wall of noise returns, featuring a mess of swirly guitars and a beacon of a high synth line, echoing the vocal melody into the next verse.  A quiet interlude of upwardly plucked strings lasts only a moment.  One final pre-chorus/chorus sequence closes out the song, not really building anything new on top of the others, but staying consistently dense.  Then, there’s a quiet, falsetto vocal line, and a maelstrom of thin guitars forming a storm of uncoordinated noise, much like the outro of “Mr. Self Destruct.”  It lasts only a few seconds, however, and the EP closes with a quick buzz of feedback.

Trent used the word “inaccessible” in his description, which is fairly accurate but a bit over-the-top.  It started more noisy and electronic than Nine Inch Nails had typically been: whereas Hesitation Marks had been a new interpretation and polishing of some classic NIN styles, this is separately taking some more obscure sounds and over-driving them, while simultaneously reaching deep into the catalog and creating worthy facsimiles of the early days.  Indeed, from the mid-point onward, we are treated to an unexpected revival of The Downward Spiral‘s auditory environs.  It’s not quite inaccessible, but it’s certainly worth repeated listens.  The songs overall are somewhat dense and require attention.  Thankfully, Not The Actual Events does get better the more one listens to it.  It’s a heavy, energetic, enigmatic little 22-minute blast.  I’m hoping this EP will tide me over for a little bit, but I also feel that it’s succeeded in whetting my appetite for more Nine Inch Nails.  Let’s hope there’s more coming on the horizon.

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