Aural Impressions: Nine Inch Nails, Add Violence

It’s not been that long since we’ve had a new Nine Inch Nails release; just seven months ago, Trent and company put out Not The Actual Events EP, which was a mixed bag of retro-industrial NIN and noisy, experimental-ish direction.  It feels like an eternity ago, for various reasons.  Now, with the shiny new Add Violence EP, revealed in a surprise announcement barely over a week ago, they’ve basically put together a new full album since late last year.  Like Events, this one is kind of a hodgepodge of new and old, including a few eclectic new-retro sounds.  You’ll see what I mean.  Like the band themselves, let’s not waste any time getting to the new music:

  1. Less Than:  Holy 80s, Batman!  We’re off to the races with bright synths and heavy drums equipped with spacey reverb.  Nine Inch Nails has never really sounded like this before, even in the Pretty Hate Machine days where their music was far more electronic.  It’s slightly unnerving at first as the pitching slides around, but once the vocals come in things start to feel more typical.  There’s a wandering bass synth, harmonizing vocals, and shrieking guitar noises filling out the background through the verses.  At the choruses, a rigid distorted guitar squares in, giving the song a slightly more vibrant The Slip-era feel.  A bridge of noise leads into an escalating series of guitar explosions; the chorus repeats in a crescendo, then silence.  Very energetic and driven by a solid rhythmic pulse, this is a great way to start a part-two EP.
  2. The Lovers:  In complete contrast, we start here with quiet mechanical noise and a low, galloping electronic drum beat.  Bleep bloop.  The hit of a hi-hat.  Half-whispered, half-growled spoken words.  A clean, off-key guitar comes in to remind me of the gloomier tracks on The Fragile.  Always building and growing, but never getting loud.  In fact, this is almost a perfect meld of all of the softer styles of Nine Inch Nails at once.  Everything is here: a dark piano, a somewhat dissonant, somehow uplifting chord progression, a lightly wailing chorus chock-full of falsetto.  This song hits me in a nostalgic, angsty, moody spot.  Something about it just feels right even as it tries its hardest to feel off.  This is my low-key favorite track on here.
  3. This Isn’t The Place:  This is a waltz.  The grumbling of a deep fuzz bass, combined with the simple 3/4 beat makes me immediately think of Massive Attack and their 90s trip-hop ilk.  These drums are extremely compressed, giving them a sharp attack as the music above begins to flourish.  It starts with more bleep-bloops, but soon piano comes in and a pitch-shifting synth starts to wail beneath it.  String-like sounds enter from the outer reaches of the soundscape, while vocals come in from the middle.  Exactly halfway through appear the first lyrics, sung partially in a light falsetto.  The smooth environment flowing between the steadiness of piano and drums continues to build and swirl as the vocal line fades toward the back.  The bass pops up and down, in an almost Radiohead-esque way, while the piano turns into a single quarter note on repeat.  Actually, this song sounds very much like a Nine Inch Nails take on “Nude.”  I kind of love it.
  4. Not Anymore:  Glitching, overwhelming distortion and dissonance bring us immediately into the next track.  Aurally, it doesn’t bring much pleasure to listen to.  There’s a plodding beat, sparks of guitar, and a chorus that’s a sudden, even harsher blast of noise, screams, and live drums.  Toward the second half, we fall back into Hesitation Marks territory, in a brief interlude reminiscent of the sounds underneath “In Two.”  This isn’t my favorite, though at least it’s short and ends rather abruptly.  I’d consider it a structured version of “Tetsuo: The Bullet Man” with lyrics, pretty much.
  5. The Background World:  To close the EP, we’ve got the longest track by Nine Inch Nails by nearly two minutes.  It takes up nearly half of the run-time of the EP alone, and begins with slow quarters-on-the-kick as syncopated electronics flutter and buzz.  It’s very Year Zero/Ghosts/The Social Network.  The atmospheric pads moan and soar as they’ve done for years.  Short, synth strings fill in the space between beats.  As the song takes a new shape (one of several), a delayed percussive-sounding synth takes over the rhythm as the strings flatten and linger.  Fuzzy bass pops in to bring us back around to the start.  Then the darkest, deepest, crashing piano notes reverberate below.  As we’ve heard so many times before, the steadiness is gradually overtaken by an ever-growing assortment of sounds, all of the previously introduced instruments and melodies forming into a maelstrom of polyphony.   It cuts out briefly into an awkwardly moving fuzz, the sound of a cross between a nuisance bee and a weed whacker.  It’s only there for a completely jarring second but it needed to be noted.  The steady returns, but each bar is cut off by an extra half-beat of silence, just enough to completely ruin the timing.  This is an interesting maneuver, as the song starts to devolve into static and fuzz over the course of the remaining minutes — the rhythm is broken and now the melodies are fracturing.  Somewhere in the middle of this collapse, the sound quality hits a sweet spot that reminds me totally of the music of Terminal Velocity, which is a soundtrack that had always stayed an arm’s length away from Nine Inch Nails in my musical spheres.  Eventually, there’s no trace of tone or beat, just an ever unifying cascade of crashing noise.  Naturally, it ends with a flip to silence, which is almost more disquieting after six minutes of noise.

Whereas Not The Actual Events felt more like a revival of The Downward Spiral amid a swirl of electronics and noise, this feels almost like an inverted take on the latter, while conjuring up the The FragilePretty Hate Machine, and the styles of the early 2010s.  Musically, there’s not a ton of cohesion here, like there hadn’t been previously, and taken together with Events as a 10-track album, there’s even less.  But that doesn’t matter as much.  The sounds here are fresh, yet nostalgic, which is pretty much all that I want out of Nine Inch Nails these days.  It’s somewhat more straightforward as a whole than the difficult-to-penetrate noise of Events, but on the other hand the five minutes of extra length that it has on its predecessor is filled entirely by just that.  It’s frantic, diverse, and solid.  Given my expectations for more new NIN after the last release, I’m completely satisfied with this as a follow-up.

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