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.

Aural Impressions: Dispatch, America, Location 12

Dispatch is a band I’ve followed for a long time, all the way back to the summer after I graduated from elementary school.  In those years, I associate their music with some of the best times of my life, mainly during the carefree summers of yore.  From the folk-influenced styling of Silent Steeples, to the broader roots- and rock-tinged Bang Bang, the stripped-down jamming of Four-Day Trials, and the diversely electric hodgepodge of Who Are We Living For?, their many sounds are in some way synonymous with a youthful happiness.

They entered my life at a time when the world was full of limitless possibility; when my hometown transitioned from the entire universe to merely its gateway.  I associate Silent Steeples with not-too-far removed memories of Hawaii; Bang Bang with New England summer; Who Are We Living For? with late-summer storms before leaving for college; Brad’s solo album Watchfires with that same time’s sunsets; Pete’s album Untold with freshman year of college.  Part of what makes Dispatch so timeless to me is their long hiatus.  They disappeared from the studio for over ten years, appearing only in a smattering of live shows during the span between albums.  In that time, improbably, their popularity only seemed to soar.

They put out an album in 2012, Circles Around the Sun.  By then, I was just recovered from the worst of times, albeit still living everyday in a psychological hellscape for still months to come.  That album never grew on me.  It felt more like a collection of solo material from each of the three members (some of it was, in fact), and not even their best.  Dispatch fell off my radar again.  Five years later, they’ve returned.  America, Location 12 is their latest offering, is an absolute treat, bringing back the harmonies and melodies I loved so much.  They make extremely good use of acoustic guitars, but also add some new production elements — not too much to distract, just enough to enhance and freshen.  But enough talking about it; let’s dive in, shall we?

  1. Be Gone:  Interesting that an album titled “America…” would being with a Celtic-sounding flurry of guitars, both electric and acoustic, that gives way to a chant-like vocal accompanied by a plodding drum.  The main vocal line is sung by Chad with harmonies from the others buried a bit deeper in the back.  At times it feels almost State Radio-like.  There are keyboards and several tempo changes, abruptly shifting dynamics and a wide range of guitar effects, from clean, to distorted, to a very subtle tremolo in the bridge.  A riff in the early middle of the song changes into 5/4 for four bars out of nowhere.  There are a few false endings, with the last one leading to an extended instrumental outro of guitar effects, blasts of distortion, bass, sustained vocals from Brad, and a closing sound of fading reverb.  Such an outro is definitely a curious way to start.
  2. Only The Wild Ones:  A jangly, syncopated clean guitar forms the basis for the next song. It goes at an apparently arrhythmic 4/4 until the picking straightens up in the chorus.  It’s slow and warm until the percussion comes in, adding a deal of clarity to the rhythm, as well as some additional movement.  It continues to build and build, bringing in muted guitar, a broader range of percussion, and multi-layered vocals — again Chad is here on lead.  The background harmonies are done well, as usual, though it sounds like at times like it’s a multi-tracked Chad instead of the trio.  I like this song.  It gets bigger as it goes, but not too big; overall it’s pretty chill.  Reminds me somewhat of a more energetic combination between “Bang Bang” and “Bullet Holes.”
  3. Curse + Crush:  This one begins with aggressive minor key acoustic guitars and reverberating vocals with a steady, chugging drum beat.  It’s somewhat militant, pushing forward with the strumming driving the rhythm.  The chorus features low vocals, a perfect blend of all three voices.  Like the previous track, this one builds and expands its sonic palette with electrics and broader vocals, bursting into a nice major key chord progression.  All three shine through in the elevated chorus all the way to an abrupt conclusion.
  4. Painted Yellow Lines:  Woah does this song move.  The drums are straightforward and quick, the bass dances, and the guitars lightly nudge it along.  There are handclaps and tambourines, used sparingly, but effectively.  And then it stops as soon as it gets going into a contemplative, vocal-laden chorus.  This cycle goes on and off a few times during the first few minutes.  We flip between indie and classic rock, evoking an effective mixture of the sounds of the 70s and 00s.  As clean electric guitars enter, we’re really pushing along here.  It sounds very unlike Dispatch, yet it works.  At certain times, the the rhythm and melody recall The Beatles’ “Two of Us,” but overall it sounds much more lush and smooth.  Our fourth Chad song in a row, I’m hoping the others take the lead within the remaining seven songs.  “Painted Yellow Lines” is definitely one of the standouts of this album.  It really doesn’t hurt that the lyrics talk about going to the beach; naturally, it fits right in with my existing impression of the band.
  5. Skin the Rabbit:  Crunchy!  I haven’t heard a riff like this on a Dispatch record ever.  Reminds me somewhat of Collective Soul or Soundgarden at first listen.  Vocal duties here are split between Chad and Brad.  At this point I’m starting to think I don’t really know what Pete sounds like anymore.  But this song is quite good.  The vocals are relentless in their push forward during the chorus.  The bass bounces and slides.  The chord progression is suitably dark, given the subject matter.  The bridge is wide and spacey, and by the end I’m getting strong Who Are We Living For? vibes.  Solid song, perhaps my immediate favorite.
  6. Midnight Lorry:  Another folksy riff with multiple acoustic guitars and/or a banjo.  This is the kind of bluegrass influence I didn’t know I’d been missing.  The synergy of the dueling riffs is wonderful.  Chad’s vocals are half-sung, half-rapped during the verses.  There’s a lovely upbeat sung chorus with a slight reggae-rock feel, throwing us back to Bang Bang.  In the middle we’ve suddenly popped into an almost electronic ambient environment — for a hot second it sounded almost like Air or something like that.  The second half is even weirder.  Beyond a repeat of the chorus, there are electronic effects, a dulcimer, an ever-changing key, and rising vocals, leading to a sparkling texture inside a blending choral melody.  It reminds me a lot of The Beatles or Elliott Smith, especially each of their latter works.
  7. Begin Again: Fast picked guitar and a low-sung vocal immediately brings to mind Joshua Radin and his signature style.  In the second verse we get a lead vocal in the verse from Brad, though it’s later shared with Chad.  Pete’s vocals appear in the background, understated and deep; a role he seems to have settled into on this record.  This is a short, hopeful, upbeat song featuring a mandolin, whistling, and a crescendo of brass, which I don’t think we’ve heard since Bang Bang.
  8. Rice Water:  Sublime picked guitars and a solo ride cymbal progress in a twisting, dissonant way, again making me think of mid-career Elliott Smith.  Musically, this album is far less straight-forward than previous efforts by the band.  This song is understated, with occasional falsetto vocals, and injections of energy at the first choruses.  Near the half-way point it leaps into a full-on sprint.  After that, it’s a different song, with full instrumentation, catchy, upfront vocals and a stutter-stepping pre-chorus.  The latter half’s energy is contagious when coupled with the minor chords, while the suddenly slow and drawn out conclusion feels almost psychedelic.
  9. WindyLike:  Bagpipes and a meandering bassline under bright acoustic guitars feels so much like a solo Braddigan song.  And like a solo Braddigan song, this mostly likely my favorite of the album.  It’s catchy, upbeat, and simple, with flourishes to bring up the mood including a stop-and-go rhythm, a soaring chorus with only a slight effectively deployed touch of melancholy, and an exceptionally warm atmosphere.  This is the kind of song that’s been missing almost since all the way back in the day of Silent Steeples, and it might make the perfect sound for a sunny day.  It’s a shame it ends with a fadeout, because the diminishing sound is almost as intriguing a bridge as the rest of the song.  I’d love to hear this song live among a stadium of singing fans.
  10. Ghost Town:  Can I just remark at how good the acoustic guitar playing is on this album?  It doesn’t take the spotlight, it just adds so much to the foundation to these songs.  This song doesn’t differentiate itself a ton from the album’s overall feel, however the later choruses have several overlapping and poly-rhythmic vocal lines from Chad, Pete and Brad.  I love when they pull this off so much, I wish there’d been more of it on this album, though that alone will keep me coming back to this song.
  11. Atticus Cobain:   Sharp electrics and heavy drums make this one a slight throwback to Who Are We Living For?, though again it’s just a bit different.  The crisp strums evoke Gold Motel to me, but in the Dispatch-realm, the verse is definitely influenced by years of Chadwick Stokes material.  Soon, it erupts into a lively sing-a-long chorus more indicative of an album closer, one that takes great pleasure in doing nothing other than celebrating life.  Those later-chorus chords are especially scintillating.   It makes me think of a song like “Railway” that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  It’s riff heavy, uptempo, and over before you know it.

I really like this album.  Upon first listen I was a little disappointed in the lack of standout vocals from either Pete or Brad, the latter of whom has consistently fronted my favorite Dispatch songs, but upon close repeated listening, they’re all definitely there, with their harmonies and backups as tight as they’ve always been.  Unlike Circles Around The Sun, this album is more thematically and sonically cohesive, sounding like a proper Dispatch record as opposed to an album of solo B-sides as mentioned fore.  It’s mostly chill; no one song gets too large, yet they’re all superb quality.  The fact that it, most of the time, fits immediately into their early sound is comforting.  The completely unexpected moments, like the clean energy of “Painted Yellow Lines,” or the entire second half of “Midnight Lorry” serve to keep it fresh and interesting.  Discounting Circles, it feels like it’s been years since I’ve really heard what the band can do when they’re firing on all cylinders.  What more can I say, Dispatch is back.

Aural Impressions: Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness, Zombies on Broadway

I’ve loved just about everything Andrew McMahon has created.  I knew Something Corporate before I even knew the name of its frontman.  I first heard Jack’s Mannequin not knowing it wasn’t Something Corporate.  I’ve been a fan of his for long time, and as such, every new release of his brings excitement and anticipation.  That said, I listened to his latest release Zombies on Broadway, the second album of his latest venture In The Wilderness, while on my returning flight from India last week, and, well, it’s alright. The band slowly released songs starting last year, and some took a bit of growing, as I’ll mention below.  One of them, however, rubbed me the wrong way enough to kill some of the hype.  I also just happened to hold my listening session during some pretty rough turbulence over the Middle East; this compounded my already dulling enjoyment.  Of course, I’m not one to write off music after one disappointing listen, so here I am again after a deep listen to give a real “first” impression.  Let’s do this.

  1. Zombies Intro:  A brief collage of ambient city noise, including a plucked string instrument, subway trains, and singing (busking?), that crescendos into the first song.
  2. Brooklyn, You’re Killing Me:  With a fast, treble-filled drum beat and a stuttering spoken vocal, we kick off a song that’s simultaneously fresh and nostalgic.  There hasn’t been a track this energetic since Jack’s Mannequin, and the half-rapped lyrics are a direct link to Everything in Transit.  A bouncing bass and reversed piano chords, soon topped with a chiming piano riff make this immediately my favorite song of Andrew’s in a long time.  The verse doesn’t hesitate as it breaks into a loud, sing-a-long chorus.  An anthemic bridge of multitracked “lalala”s is sure to be the sound of the next tour.  A clashing solo of hard piano chords, distorted guitar and bass lead into a brief respite without drums.  The production on this track is outstanding.  A third chorus lulls with all of the bass levels we’d missing, coupled with the high piano riff, blasting into the fully powered instrumental and vocal anthem from before until close.  This was the first song of the preview releases to sell me on this album, and I think it might still be my favorite.  Incredible.
  3. So Close:  This starts with a lot of production; staccato, reverberating sounds from an instrument I cannot identify, shifting into a chord progression that I did not expect, but reminds me of early Jack’s yet again.  However, the second shift into a rising structure coupled with heavy drums portends lesser things, and once we’re at the chorus, I’m lost.  It builds like so many songs on this and the previous album, into a loud, vocal heavy, yet lyrically weak, climax.  Handclap beat, a catchy funky bassline, and synths are fine; they’re just kind of played out at this point, and a bit more mainstream than I really want in my Wilderness.  This was the song that reversed my hype.  I want it to be a grower, but there’s not a ton of substance here for me to come back to.  There’s one chord change before the chorus that I really like, in addition to the first 15 seconds. There are also some very Jack’s Mannequin-esque screams over the end, which is nice; I fear that’s about all I like though.
  4. Don’t Speak For Me (True):  More heavy production, a squealing riff intro, and a low-key verse with deep drums and snaps, transition into a minimal pre-chorus with another upbeat piano progression and soon a quarter-kick beat.  Unfortunately, we’ve got another loud, dense, albeit short, chorus, wherein the squeal-riff returns and a falsetto vocal line dominates.  It feels very radio-ish, again.  I like some of the chord changes here, but it doesn’t have the instrumental complexity to really make me take notice.  It has less energy than “So Close,” and with the structure being so similar, I’m starting to get fatigued already.
  5. Fire Escape:  Chiming pianos, bells, and a teased sing-a-long response vocal start the lead single from the album.  A narrative vocal above a sentimental bed of sound almost makes this feel like more than a song.  When the vocals of the verse intensify, I’m warmed by the thought of Glass Passenger.  We’ve got another loud, anthemic chorus, though the production isn’t as thick, employing a typical rock setup with pianos, an acoustic guitar, a wall of drums, and some stuttering synths.  There’s a steady momentum to the verses as they push along; it’s a lot more natural than the last two tracks.  A brief bridge leads into a semi-solo vocal chorus, with instruments returning every few bars, where the full chorus once again returns, as expected.  I like this song, even if it is a bit of a continuation of the formula.  It works well as a single.
  6. Dead Man’s Dollar:  Minor key piano and vocal sound effects mark a downbeat shift we desperately need.  Quarters on the kick are the only drums we’ve got through the first verse, and into the pre-chorus we add only a layered vocoder on the lyrics.  Of course, we blast into a sudden and unnecessarily anthemic chorus.  I thought there were too many of this type of song on the self-titled album, and now that we’re here I’m hoping Andrew breaks this pattern soon.  That said, the verses here are really quite nice.  The second has a warm bass and a few new tracks of percussion, though these cut out at the pre-chorus again.  The bridge sounds a lot like a retooling of “Cecilia and the Satellite” from the last album, using the same piano and vocal rhythms.  We close on the chorus, yet again.  I’m going to need something amazing to really get these tracks to grow on me.
  7. Shot Out Of A Cannon:  Starting in the same key as “Dead Man’s Dollar,” I have the impression that this is some kind of continuation, however it diverges rather soon.  Solo piano and vocal are joined by another steady kick beat.  Here we go again.  The chorus is a bit subdued, though it maintains the same lyrical (title repetition) pattern as the not-so-good songs on the album so far.  The strength here is on the slow build, as elements are brought in to diversify the feeling and draw attention.  A dance-able hi-hat and a guitar riff lend to a smooth, bassy second chorus-half.   Falsetto vocals and hand claps bring this into throwback territory; edging against the mainstream.  It’s heavily reminiscent of any number of rock bands making dance music on the radio these days.  That’s not much of a compliment, except to say that if I were forced to listen to Top 40 hits, they would probably be the ones that sounded like this.  I’m sure this one is a grower.
  8. Walking In My Sleep:  Multi-tracked a Capella.  Unexpected.  The piano here is sustained, and the kick is irregular.  Good signs.  There’s a sharp transition to chorus, which is as usual, but it’s not overly grand.  This is another track that might be a good fit on a movie soundtrack.  It’s got that upbeat, yet cold feel.  That is, until the bridge.  The vocals take a backseat to the piano chords, where Andrew unleashes a striking frisson-filled E major chord.  It’s a passing feeling, but it’s an incredible one.  The song as a whole is okay, however that bridge will keep me coming back over and over.  Before the ending chorus (duh) we’ve got a quick shift from whispered vocals, to full layered a Capella, to full band in a matter of seconds.  It’s a jarring transition that feels a little bit unpolished, but you know what, I like it!  Besides, the album’s conclusion is comparatively very strong.
  9. Island Radio:  We begin with a de-tuned and echoing piano, sounding almost like steel drums and a galloping drum/bass combination.  There’s something different about this song.  It’s got yet another suddenly loud chorus, yet the piano riff and chord progression combination is soothing and takes some of the edge off of what would otherwise be tiring and bothersome.  It feels a bit like “Maps For The Getaway”at times, which is one of my least favorites from the last album; the somewhat tropical texture of “Island Radio” has this one in the opposite position.
  10. Love And Great Buildings:  A processed, toy piano flutters high notes.  There’s a lot of space here.  Vocals are slow and rested.  The verse grows slowly, adding guitar/synth to copy the piano, bass, a drumbeat and an acoustic guitar to cap it all.  The chorus is wonderful — like a real song.  There’s little transition, only good feelings.  An unexpected F♯m chord tickles my fancy.  A light, uplifting mood fills the choruses, only growing stronger as the song moves forward.  There’s a hey-o chant that sounds almost exactly one heard on Billy Joel’s “The Downeaster Alexa,” which must be a coincidence, right?  There’s a New York subtext to this whole album, so maybe not?  This is without a doubt one of the best songs on Zombies, if not the best.
  11. Birthday Song:  Or maybe it’s this, an epic tribute song, filled with allusions to what must be his family.  Solo piano and voice to begin a very sentimental verse.  The chord progression is completely reminiscent of later Jack’s Mannequin, and the chorus adds just enough movement and minimal instrumentation to elevate and drive the stretched vocal notes.  It’s somewhat ordered turbulence as electronic drums combine with reverberating acoustic toms, bass, and swirling organ-like pads.  It’s a big song without being too big or too obvious.  Andrew’s vocals shine at the end, loud and clear among the continued maelstrom of percussion and glimmering piano.  What a way to close an album.  I’m torn between this, “Brooklyn,” and “Love and Great Buildings” for best of — maybe a three-way tie depending on how I’m feeling.  To bookend the album, it finishes with a reprise of the noise collage, this time featuring what sounds like a rendition of “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes.  Interesting, and not the first time that song has come up in my listening.

So, that was something.  I’ve never had so harsh a response to an Andrew McMahon album before.  Granted, that’s not saying much since there’s still a lot of good here.  However, I’m a bit worried.  Many of these songs are formulaic, tap unnecessarily into modern trends, and when listened to all at once, don’t grab any interest.  When I first listened to the self-titled album, I was concerned when there were four songs in a row with nothing more than quarters on the kick as a drum foundation.  Here it’s the same thing, but somehow it’s less tolerable.  The quiet verse/sudden chorus explosion with high vocals thing is done far too much here, especially in the middle few tracks.  I’m reminded of Our Lady Peace’s formula on Burn Burn, which is really not that great of an album either.  I’m worried that, as they did, Andrew will lose what made his earlier works so great and timeless.  However, however, the songs on here that I love, truly love, are some of the finest I’ve heard from him.  He’s clearly still got it, despite all of the filler.  I’m less certain of what’s to come from him and his new (old) band, yet I can’t lose faith in the man.  Besides, I’m seeing him live again in May.  It’s been awhile since the days when he was seemingly ever-present in my life, and I’d like to recapture that magical feeling once again.