Aural Impressions: Nine Inch Nails, Bad Witch

At long last, the trilogy is complete.  Nine Inch Nails, whose return to releases after a several year hiatus back in late 2016 has seen two EPs out in that time, have released the third.  Or, at least, it would appear that way if this latest record Bad Witch were an EP; instead, this 30-minute, 6-track collection is being called an actual album, the first since 2013’s excellent (and long) Hesitation Marks.  A quick glance at the track list, and it appears were in for some profane, angsty music.  We’ll see how well these tracks tie back to the preceding EPs, which had loose ties of their own to each other.  Is this the wrapping up of a true concept trilogy, or the start of something else entirely?  Let’s find out:

  1. Shit Mirror:  Quickly pulsing, noisy bass leads us off here.  The vocals are sunken in the mix.  As the chorus hits, the song widens with the right amount of hair-raising synth and a stomach-churning chord progression, yet the vocals fall even deeper.  For all of its messy charms, this song is fairly smooth through its first half, flowing easily from one extremely different section to another.  A sudden cut into a full second of silence leads to a percussive, chanted bridge, ending the aforementioned smoothness rather abruptly.  As the guitar re-enters, we shift around to a heavy, new riff in a totally different key.  Then the mix starts to swirl and overwhelm in a disorienting conclusion.  Bizarre, but interesting at least.  I really like the first half of this song.  The ending will take some getting used to — it’s not the musicality, but the production that makes me feel slightly physically uncomfortable.  For a three-minute song, it feels awfully short.
  2. Ahead of Ourselves:  This sounds so familiar.  The tight, rapid drum beat combined with the scratches of noise and throbbing bass recall in my mind some video game soundtrack.  Add another distorted, staccato vocal, and I’m thinking about robots.  Blasts of loud noise, screaming vocals, and quick shifts of two bars totalling 12/8 bring us straight back into The Downward Spiral territory, as has been flirted with across each of these latest EPs.  Post-chorus there’s a two note guitar riff to add to the otherwise non-melodic environs.  Like last song, this one also features some production tricks in the second half, as the sounds start to clip and the stereo is widened even further.  And as before, this swiftly paced song ends before it feels like it’s even getting started.
  3. Play the Goddamned Part:  I love bass riffage, and amidst the cacophony of endlessly reverberating percussion, this is awesome.  With droning, wailing synth and a crescendo of brass, this feels almost Radiohead-esque — “The National Anthem,” specifically.  Of course, what Nine Inch Nails instrumental would leave out a creepy, detuned piano?  Not this one.  It goes on like this for awhile, dropping instruments, adding new ones, all to add to this swirling vortex of awesomeness.  There’s a circular piano riff, drum rattles that remind me of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo soundtrack, and even occasional bloops.  It’s a beautiful mess, and by far my favorite of the first three, which is an absolute shock considering it’s an instrumental.  More of this, please.
  4. God Break Down the Door:  More brass and a breakbeat kicking off this song has me immediately in a trip-hop mindset.  The bass continues to wub a la Radiohead (thinking very much of “Ful Stop” this time), but the vocals are floaty and rich with an uncharacteristic vibrato — they’re delivered camly and slowly in contrast to the frantic pace beneath.  It’s very weird.   One continuing feature of this record seems to be a consistent lack of typical song structure, as each track has numerous divergent sections instead of anything resembling a verse/chorus/bridge structure.  This one just blasts along at high speed, carried along by the aforementioned breakbeat.  Twinges of electronics, distortion, and feedback fill out the crowded sonic space above.  As earlier, the low chanted vocals at the song’s climax are widened and brought loud to the point that it sounds like there’s a Trent Reznor on either side of me.  I dig this one, even though it, like a few earlier, feels like it could have kept going for awhile.
  5. I’m Not From This World:  Slow and light, low and pulsing.  Subtle scratching weaves in and out, with a creeping sense of dread.  A brief crescendo cedes into the void, but it just starts back up again after a short lull.  In the distance, a machine shudders to life.  The environment is mechanically lush, a screaming field of cyborgs under a dark grey sky.  There is again quiet before the storm, but again the electronic pulsing is unstoppable.  It grows and multiplies, getting closer and more threatening.  An unnatural trill sends shivers down my spine.  Staccato, crunchy strings signal the end for us, as they fade down with a low pass.  Apologies for the flowery prose, but this is honestly what the song evoked for me.  It’s an instrumental rush, full of edges and turns — a dynamic six-minute epic, to be interpreted as one sees fit.  It’s a curious choice to put a second lengthy instrumental on a six-track “album” and I can’t help but feel there must be more to come soon after Bad Witch.
  6. Over and Out:  But not before we get this, a dance-able, almost funky piece.  The brass is back, joined by a xylophone and an incredible, jaunty bass line.  For the first two minutes, this feels like it could have been the best song on Ghosts I-IV.  Like previous entries on this record, it has its phases and distinct parts.  As it slows down and enters a aura of softly-affected chimes, Trent’s vocals reappear after a long absence, in the same vibrato-laden style as earlier.  And again, it’s weird.  Hiding behind the bass, electronic drums, and bloops, is a steadily wavering feedback, the same kind we’ve heard on probably every Nine Inch Nails record for the last 10 years.  So it’s not entirely foreign.  Once the vocals end, the third act of the song brings us back to the soft chimes, albeit surrounded in a haze of clean synth, where it converges to a single note.  It lingers until it dies out, almost a full minute later.

I’m not sure exactly what I think about Bad Witch.  It’s super short and feels even more so with its uptempo pacing and oddly structured songs.  There are of course numerous stylistic and musical ties to previous Nine Inch Nails records, but the most striking aspect of Bad Witch is how much outside influence there is.  There are infusions of brass, funk, and soul totally unlike the NIN of old.  While the influence of the two preceding EPs is omnipresent, it feels so much different.  Underneath the wail and maelstrom of the industrial distortion and feedback is a lush palette of new sounds, well integrated and manipulated.  I can’t get enough of the instrumentals — they are perhaps among the best Trent Reznor has created.  That said, and as I mentioned above, this record feels like it’s missing something.  Thirty minutes of music does barely a record make.  After two EPs with not-much-shorter runtimes, I feel obligated to consider this new music a third EP.  I hope there’s more here — I like where these new sounds could take Nine Inch Nails moving forward.

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Aural Impressions: Courtney Barnett, Tell Me How You Really Feel

Courtney Barnett is one of those musical acts that basically dropped on me from heaven one day.  A simple coincidence led to an interest piqued, and one album listen later, and I was hooked.  Just two years ago, I sat outside enjoying the late spring sun to her optimstic, laid-back, yet energetic stylings and I haven’t let that feeling go since.  Hell, the catchy, escalating narrative of “Avant Gardener,” from her second EP, inspired me to get out of the house and do yard work.   As soon as she announced a show in town last year, I didn’t think twice about snagging tickets, even if they were fairly expensive.  I caught Courtney Barnett in Oakland with Kurt Vile and the Sea Lice in the fall, and then again in San Francisco earlier this month in the first real show of her latest tour.  To begin this show, she played through the entirety of her newest album, Tell Me How You Really Feel.  Ironically, I couldn’t really get a feel for the album live, as the sound at stage front was somewhat difficult to make out — the venue had opened only a day earlier and I don’t think the room was quite tuned yet.  However, I recall very much liking several of the new songs, especially the closing tracks of the record.  Whether or not my live impressions hold up will be determined — right now:

  1. Hopefulessness:  Detuned and grim, this is a dark start for a second record.  I adore the guitar riff though — it’s grungy and resonant.  A stark contrast to the jounce of “Elevator Operator,” this song is mute, claustrophobic, and trance-inducing, with an extremely slow crescendo adding stiff percussion and transient production effects like synth pads and, ultimately screeching feedback.  A spacey guitar solo struggles to stand out in the cacophony by the end, but that only adds to the tight, closed-off feeling we started with.  And I’m pretty sure that’s a tea-kettle whistling there at the end.  This is a great opener for what aims to be a fairly different album than we’ve heard from Courtney before.
  2. City Looks Pretty:  A burst of energy after a slow climb, we’re back in that Sometimes I Sit… area of liveliness.  The song pushes forward on the back of a steady guitar-drum mix, sprinkled with blasts of distorted guitar and climbing bass riffs.  The chorus is so uplifting musically that I can see the sun coming out in my mind’s eye.  At the midpoint, we take an abrupt turn into 3/4 time at half speed, with the drum instrumentation being reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” and playing alongside, the same sort of bluesy clean guitar riffs and solos that had been prominently featured on Courtney’s first album.  This song is pretty fantastic as is, but honestly it could have been longer.  That second half could have lingered for a few minutes more and I would have loved it.
  3. Charity:  There’s something supremely nostalgic buried in that syncopated chord progression, whilst I find that pre-chorus riff screaming of a Sleater-Kinney-style polyphonic-guitar riot grrrl sound, if only for a moment.  Courtney’s singing is a bit subdued given how lively and bright the music is, but that’s kind of her thing, isn’t it?  Musically, it’s fairly simple, although the chords take a few neat unexpected twists and turns throughout the boilerplate sequences, specifically during the choruses; those changes create incredibly satisfying transition points between stanzas and verses.  This might be my early favorite for the album; I can see myself putting this on repeat for a while.
  4. Need A Little Time:  With a slowly strummed minor-key guitar and little to no flourishes in production, this feels a little bit enervating in the wake of the last few rockers.  It reminds me a bit of the feel of the first EP and its stripped-down pieces, though; it’s rough around the edges, for better or worse.  Twice during this plodding affair, we’re treating to rockin’ solos, the first one shattering the first half din, whilst the second, a repetition at a lower octave, finishes off the song suddenly.  While okay, this song doesn’t really have a hook that would bring me back to it over and over, unfortunately.
  5. Nameless, Faceless The opening single from the record, this was a bit of a different sound to bring us into this new era.  A crunchy, dissonantly descending guitar riff leads into a lightly upbeat ballad with sarcastic lyrics pointedly directed at every angry young man who chooses to take out their frustrations on women.  The chorus features vocals sunken deep into the mix, which get raspier and more strained as the choruses repeat, especially when performed live.  It’s a rather simple, repetitive song that harkens back to that early ’90s grunge sound that’s been flirted with a few times so far on this album.  It’s not a bad lead-off single, but it’s not my favorite either.  It does have the propensity to get stuck in my head though, so it’s got that going for it.
  6. I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch:  As the title implies, this short interlude is ferocious.  It’s noisy and conflicted, flipping between crashing chords, slimy guitars, and disjointed solos.  Basically, the twisted sequel to “Pedestrian at Best,” or if Courtney Barnett did a less energetic interpretation of Sleater-Kinney’s “Surface Envy.”  A killer track, for sure.
  7. Crippling Self Doubt And A General Lack of Self Confidence:  Now this sounds like it came straight from her early works — the staccato dual chord that kicks it off, echoing the beginning of her song “David,” is all it takes for me to put myself back in that space.  The upbeat jumpy guitar through the verses is basically the sound of her debut album, so this song is an updated remix of the general Courtney Barnett essence.  Given the title, I wonder if that was a conscious choice.  Joining Courtney on this track are Kim Deal from the Pixies and her sister Kelley, providing layered backing vocals through the mantric choruses.   This one is also short, but sweet.  I like it.
  8. Help Your Self:  Groovy!  Solo drums lead off here, into a thick, undulating, multi-tracked guitar and bass riff.  Is that a cowbell I hear?  Vocals are clean and upfront in the mix.  The lead guitar, as has been common all record, treads into Carrie Brownstein territory once again.  Toward the end, it bursts into a shrieking, fuzzy solo, featuring the kind of clashing scales that are common on The Woods, while also reminding me a bit of latter-day Muse, if that’s possible.
  9. Walkin’ On Eggshells:  As I mentioned up top, this begins the set of two songs that I recall most liking at the show.  More than any other on the record, this captures the feel of her first EPs.  Backing vocals from the guys in the band make their first noticeable appearance on this album, along with a piano in accompaniment.  There’s a slight twang  in her guitar, creating an intentionally unpolished feeling.  Drums on the quarters during the chorus are classic Courtney.  I was right to have liked this song live — it’s chill, lovely, and an easy favorite.
  10. Sunday Roast:  According to Courtney at the show, she wrote this song when she was very young.  It, like the preceding track, is chill, but in an extremely polished, nebulous way.  The wide, floating reverb, heavy bass, and tom-laden drums immediately bring The National to mind; it’s melancholic with purpose.  I find myself liking the first half mainly because of my affinity for The National, but Courtney’s vocals too excel in this environment — this just makes me want the two to collaborate now.  As the second chorus comes in, the foggy shroud is blown wide open.  In its place are an extremely optimistic verse and happy guitars.  It’s a decently strong conclusion, even if I far preferred the first half of the track, and also considering that it fades out in the end.  As a whole, it’s solid.

It didn’t really take a lot for this new album to grow on me.  I had gone in with lowered expectations — I caught some mixed reviews before release, and the first three songs put out didn’t necessarily grab me the right way.  That said, the remaining tracks that fill out the album are pretty wonderful.  It works much better as a whole, and boy, if I could go back in time and see her again, having heard the album first, I would have appreciated it way the hell more.  What’s not so good is okay, and what’s good is great — despite some extra melancholy and ferocity compared to previous records, there’s still a ton of sunny vibes here to get me through the summer.

The Not Quite Last Jedi

In what has now become an annual tradition, I found myself once again taking in the spectacle of a new Star Wars film on a Sunday in mid-December.  The first time I did this was a bit unique in that I then hopped a plane to Peru that evening, the memories of the film dancing through my mind during a trip through the jungle.  Last year’s experience had little of the build-up, nor the memory; Rogue One is a fine movie, it just doesn’t really make an impression on its own given that it’s solely in service to a greater film.  Now, The Last Jedi is a film I’d been trying to temper my expectations for since the moment I walked out of that theater in 2015.  The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite film of all time, so this new middle chapter had quite a challenge facing it and a bit of sequel-driven history to live up to.  Let’s just say, it’s complicated.  As I walked home from the screening, I was somewhat torn.  There’s a lot of really awesome things that happen in The Last Jedi.  There are also an excessive amount of minor things that really shouldn’t be in the film at all, or at the very least, odd decisions that should be toned down a smidge for the sake of tonal continuity.  But most importantly of all, in direct response to the main criticisms of The Force Awakens, it doesn’t clone a previous film, but rather attempts to subvert its spiritual predecessor at every turn.  Does it work?  Let’s walk through it together and find out.

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