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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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.

Aural Impressions: Nine Inch Nails, Hesitation Marks

In 2009, Trent Reznor announced the Wave Goodbye Tour and the end of Nine Inch Nails for the forseeable future.  I was lucky enough to see one of his last shows, co-headlining with Jane’s Addiction that June.  It was incredible, but it left me wanting more.  As Trent began to score movies, I gobbled up his soundtracks, hungry for something to fill the void that was left.  The Social Network was a masterpiece and the awards were well deserved, yet it still wasn’t Nine Inch Nails.  Five long years I’d waited for new material.  Then, suddenly, and on my birthday no less, Trent Reznor announced a forthcoming Nine Inch Nails album, recorded in secret over the last year.  Surprise!  Well three long months later, it’s finally here streaming on the web, and I’ve gone to town on it.

  1. The Eater of Dreams:  The intro.  It’s a lot like 999,999 in that it’s empty, it features only a few notes punctuating its vacuum, slowly growing bass, and noise before climaxing with a pair of glitched screams.
  2. Copy of AKicking things off with a steady, simple beat and lots of synth, it shifts and changes its instruments, adding high frequency blips while manipulating the undercurrent.  The lyrics foreshadow the recycling of past Nine Inch Nails material throughout the entire album, though it seems to me that there are fewer instances of self-plagiarism in Copy of A than most other album tracks.  The chorus progression reminds me of The Downward Spiral, and the way the chorus features only a tonal synth and drums is reminiscent of March of the Pigs, but that’s about it as far as I can tell.  As the song progresses, more and more instruments and effects are added, exploding three minutes in with fierce noise and chaotic percussion.  It stabilizes to the chorus, repeating its same mantra until abruptly ending.  Definitely a good song to hook the listener into the album.
  3. Came Back Haunted: The first track released from Hesitation Marks, I was initially unimpressed after a single play.  However, many many repeat listens have enlightened me to the brilliance of this song.  Simply put, it’s entirely an amalgamation of past Nine Inch Nails material.  It begins with Pretty Hate Machine style synth over a beat taken straight out of The Slip or Ghosts.  The low-passed keys of the first verse could have fit on The Fragile, while the bass below sort of sounds like a vacuum cleaner running in an adjacent room.  The hazy chorus is a blast of Mr. Self Destruct mixed with Ruiner and let to marinade in Terrible Lie though not nearly as grim or heavy on all three counts.  The distorted guitar in the bridge has the same tone as several tracks on the first half of The Slip, though they could just as easily be from With Teeth.  Finally, the excellent outro brings in another distorted Pretty Hate Machine era sounding synth, reeking of Sin, while the guitar at the end plays a progression straight off of the second disc of The Fragile.  Even the chant of “just can’t stop” is common lyrical theme throughout90s Nine Inch Nails.  It’s a greatest hits album collapsed into one song, and I love it.  Came back haunted? Came back perfect.
  4. Find My Way:  It immediately sounds like a leftover from Year Zero, with a very bassy beat and soft pads coming and going in the background.  It’s quiet and sparse, with a light piano motif entering in the chorus reminiscent of Something I Can Never Have.  The atmosphere builds toward the second verse and through the subsequent chorus.  The chanted vocals “I have been to every place / I have been to everywhere” through the end of the song seem to be a bookend to the end of I Do Not Want This, specifically the lines “I want to know everything / I want to be everywhere.”
  5. All Time Low:  Strange guitar effects and distortion lead into a track that plods along rather quite like The Big Come Down off of The Fragile.  The dissonant clean guitar rides above a funky bass beat, while the vocals transition into something that rather sounds like Daft Punk’s Get Lucky.  I don’t think it would be weird to say that it wouldn’t be out of place in a cyberpunk nightclub a la The Matrix.  It’s catchy, rhythmic, and dare I say, sexy?  It could almost be a spiritual successor to Closer; I certainly get those vibes from it.  Possibly one of my favorites from the album.
  6. Disappointed:  A single quiet stretched bass note repeats below throughout its duration.  It adds an electronic beat complete with bleeps and bloops that wouldn’t be out of place in a Thom Yorke/Atoms for Peace song.  Sacrilege, I know, but listen to it and tell me I’m wrong.  Acoustic strings are plucked and fluttered sparingly during the verses, coming to the forefront in the bridge.  The chorus features what I think is a violin or a cello bowed and fed through a distortion pedal.  It has a decidedly Eastern feel to it, with a solo Haegeum playing the verse melody during the bridge, joined by a flowing orchestra and guitars around it.  Probably one of the weaker tracks on the album, albeit better in the studio than live.  The acoustic Eastern strings are definitely a unique addition to the Nine Inch Nails catalog.
  7. Everything:  The most divisive song in Nine Inch Nails history.  The reaction from fans has been totally polarized, with the negative side being pure vitriolic hatred.  Professional reviewers seem split between being revolted, and praising the unfamiliar upbeat sound.  I, for one, am still trying to get used to it.  I was initially turned off by the major progression and overall poppy-ness of the beginning, but the second half adds slightly dissonant guitars along with the dirt and fuzz we all know and love.  The vocals there are also unique; I can’t think of another situation where Trent harmonizes with himself like so and they sound so joyously optimistic, it makes me happy.  The heavy noise and stuttering, relegated-to-the-back vocals of the choruses remind me a lot of Elliott Smith and Heatmiser, which is a strange thing to say about a Nine Inch Nails track.  Musically and lyrically, it seems to reference other tracks like Closer‘s falling leitmotif and Lights in the Sky‘s “wave goodbye.” This one will take some more listens to adapt to, though I must say it sounds better to me in the context of the album than as a standalone single.
  8. Satellite:  The other track that escaped the Greatest Hits sessions with Everything, it’s interesting to say the least.  My first thought was 80’s Michael Jackson, but it boomerangs its way around that style.  The beat is heavy, but the instrumentation is ever changing.  I love the sonar-like beeps that enter with the first chorus, and the spacey Fragile guitar that grows over them is just fantastic.  It’s very smooth and polished, almost fluid like.  The environment changes shape in the second verse, and in the middle of the song after a percussive but atmospheric lull, a slap bass appears.  The end comes back around to a decidedly Nine Inch Nails-style dissonant chord progression before fading out.
  9. Various Methods of Escape:  Another bass heavy beat surrounded by scratches and whimpers, it widens up at the chorus with electric guitars before the instrumentation switches to an arrangement very similar to Intriguing Possibilities from The Social Network score.  Is that a celesta I hear in the bridge?  Its accompanying percussive plucking sound was a staple of the band’s sound in the 90s, and I’m overjoyed to hear it again.  The synth pad that waves up and down over it is straight out of The Social Network, while the chorus/outro as a whole reminds me a lot Every Day Is Exactly The Same.
  10. Running:  Starting with a singular, urgent, galloping beat not unexpected of a song titled Running, it layers an odd unsteady sounding synth around the chorus, breaking into sharp dissonant guitars a la (With Decay) which lead to a verse of multi-tracked vocals and more varied percussion instruments.  It almost sounds like a xylophone and woodblocks, but I can’t be sure.  It stays relatively low-key as a whole, not building up as large as some of the previous songs.  The whole thing gives off clear The Social Network vibes, almost as if it were a discarded soundtrack piece to which vocals were added.  It’s also, at 4:08, one of the shorter songs on the album and definitely feels like it.
  11. I Would For You:  The opening bass reminds me a lot of a certain track in Doom 2, titled In The Dark which is always a good memory to project onto a new piece of music.  While not samples, the synth/guitar that flares during the verses adds a definitive industrial / machinery feel to the song, something that hasn’t really been heard since Reptile and I freakin’ love it.  The chord progression steers into The Fragile territory, adding a characteristically Reznor-like piano motif at the end.  While the entire album has been heavily reminiscent of older Nine Inch Nails work, I’m not complaining at all; this style has been missing for far too long and I find its return more than welcome.  This song is spacey, ominous, and mechanical.  A definite standout from Hesitation Marks.
  12. In Two:  Cross-fading in from I Would For You, it lingers quietly for over thirty-seconds before breaking out with a crisp beat and choppy vocals, once again harkening back to the stylings of The Big Come Down.  Vocoder vocals in the pre-chorus switch to straight falsettos for the chorus and I think it fits well over the distortion and fuzz.  Ambient scratches of the sort heard on Ghosts and The Social Network fill the space behind the main instrumentation.  Halfway through the song, the noise cuts out to near silence with only clean bass and quiet vocals, similar to a number of past Nine Inch Nails tracks (The Fragile, With Teeth, etc.)  The noise builds, ever so slowly before completely glitching out with dirty dissonant guitar and a pressing beat, cutting straight into the next track…
  13. While I’m Still Here: …which begins with another empty, slow, bassy electronic beat under call and response vocals.  The sparse instrumentation evokes a lonely feeling, which is literally echoed in the vocal melody.  The percussive background sounds heavily influenced by the simpler Ghosts tracks, while the chorus progression could have been lifted from Year Zero.  It’s apocalyptic but somehow optimistic.  The track ends with a bass brass motif (a saxophone? I don’t know my brass that well), another first for Nine Inch Nails, I believe.
  14. Black Noise:  The outro to While I’m Still Here, it seamlessly takes its predecessors optimism and subtly flips it on its head.  Noise quickly builds and builds before it simply cuts out, back into the vacuum.  It’s actually rather frightening.

It’s old, but new; incredibly familiar, yet oftentimes foreign.  I really enjoy the unexpected deviations the record takes, notably on tracks like All Time Low and Satellite, though they took a couple plays to really grow on me.  The beginning half of Hesitation Marks features a lot of longer, less varied songs, while the second grows more chaotic and unpredictable.  The foreboding turn at the end, while perhaps somewhat melancholic, is certainly welcome; there hasn’t been a finale so unsettling since Ripe (With Decay).  Like The Fragile, the songs are a scatter both lyrically and musically; the common tie throughout the record is the ubiquity of the bass heavy, electronic percussion.  Many of the tracks are quite long, but they wax and wane enough to hold attention.  Hesitation Marks is the first full Nine Inch Nails release since 2008’s The Slip and so my expectations were rather high.  I don’t think it would be unfair to say it’s their best work since The Fragile.  Wave hello, Trent Reznor, it’s good to have Nine Inch Nails back.