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.

Advertisements

Aural Impressions: Our Lady Peace, Somethingness

Six months ago, Our Lady Peace released their first long-form collection of music in over five years — four songs in an EP, a preview of a full album to come later.  After a brief wait, that full album is now here, adding five more songs to the four we’ve already heard.  The full album is also known as Somethingness, and it clocks in at just 33 minutes, which doesn’t seem like much given the nearly six year wait.  Now, I really liked at least half of the EP.  How does the rest of the album fare?  Let’s see.  My impressions of the previously released songs can be found in the EP post, linked below.

  1. Head Down:  We kick off with pounding drums, chock full of reverb, and a wordless falsetto hook.  The chord progression drops briefly into a minor mood, which is always welcome.  The vocals are buried a bit into the mix and a steady fuzzy bass drives the verse.  80s-style sharp synths punctuate the verse to add some color.  The chorus is rather unremarkable, with Maida’s strained belting not making any kind of notable impact on me.  The bass plods and guitars stay sheltered behind it.  A piano adds some texture to the latter half of the second verse, before we return to the basic bridge.  The bridge takes a interesting turn with a stuttering series of three half-step descending chords, radically changing the feel of the song for a brief moment.  It’s not a bad song, it’s just rather unmemorable.  Raine Maida’s obviously lost a step on the vocals, but at least he makes good use of falsetto here, and throughout the album.  Given how clear his falsetto is in comparison to his normal register, I don’t see why he wouldn’t use it even more.
  2. Nice to Meet You:  Easily my favourite of the Somethingness Vol. 1 EP, and perhaps my favourite OLP song since 2005.  See previous post for more.
  3. Ballad of a Poet:  Now hang on a second, a challenger appears!  The strength of this song lies in its restraint — it starts with a solo guitar playing an riff, along with blooping echo effects, and a crystal clear synth.  Madia’s soft vocals are up front and clean.  As the verse goes on, the bass and a kick drum add to a building mix, whose crescendo appears headed to a massive chorus, however it holds back and transitions back into a warmly moving verse.  The pre-chorus falsetto makes an awesome ethereal sound in an exceptionally grounded song.  The inevitable stadium-filling sound hits by the last chorus, but again, it’s not obnoxious or out of place; it earns its size over the course of the song.  We end as we began, with guitar, vocals, and synth.  I would say this might be my favourite song of the new five.  Right now it’s not quite good enough to top “Nice to Meet You,” but it’s different enough to perhaps pass it depending on my mood.
  4. Hiding Place For Hearts:  A good song!  See previous post for more.
  5. Drop Me In The Water:  I feel rather meh about this one.  See previous post for more.
  6. Missing Pieces:  Sliding electric guitar and clean acoustic chords here remind me a bit of George Harrison, but that’s about where the similarities end.  This is a slow, yet driven song with a twinge of sadness.  A plain synth starts to hum steadily in the atmosphere.  Vocal rustiness aside, this captures some of the trademark sharp gloom of early-mid OLP.  Silence in instrumentation is wielded effectively here as the heavy, hat-filled drums start and stop.  There’s another falsetto laden hook, yet I just cannot seem to tire of that sound.  Whatever’s gotten into the studio has certainly pushed this band back in the right direction.  This song just pushes on and on with interjections of guitar, bass meanders, and vocal flourishes, and I rather love it.  It feels modern, clean, and solid.  And, despite what I said about previous songs, I think I might actually rank this as the best of the full album.  It’s just really good.
  7. Falling Into Place:  It has its moments.  See previous post for more.
  8. Let Me Live Again:  Things feel different today.  Drop the vocals an octave, and this song (the verses, specifically, compared with “Val Jester“) would almost fit on an early The National record.  There’s a lot of space here in the verses, between a multi-tracked set of picked arpeggiated guitars, light drums, and extremely subdued vocals.  The choruses explode in a blast of light with strong falsetto vocals, fully overdubbed guitars, and crashing drums.  The first is short, but as the second verse concludes, the following full chorus sees us through to the end of the song, more or less.  There are chord changes that activate my frisson, albeit briefly.  The quick instrumental-ish bridge hides a great sequence of rolling bass riffs beneath its cacophonous vocal cries and guitar.  There’s something very 90s about this sound.  Not OLP 90s, but somewhere between alternative rock and grunge.  In fact, a couple of the chords created between the different guitar riffs match up nicely with the second half of Pearl Jam’s “Black,” to give you an example of where I’m coming from.
  9. Last Train:  We finish off this album with a tremolo guitar and space, for a moment.  A dissonant acoustic guitar jumps in and pushes us forward in a choppy rhythm.  Bass is steady and unforgiving as tremolo pops in and out throughout the background.  The chorus doesn’t get big, but merely changes the flavour with its shifting chords and clashing guitar intervals.  The way the vocals keep things moving reminds me a lot of the song “Skin The Rabbit” off the last Dispatch record.  On the other hand, the post-chorus falsetto chant reeks of Nirvana.  Like the titular train, this song just goes ever forward as it began; after a brief lull with a high-passed bridge, it concludes with another chorus.  I’m having flashbacks again to the 90s with this song, but I don’t really know why.  It doesn’t sound like anything OLP, and it certainly doesn’t go any farther with the aforementioned Nirvana comparison than a few discrete moments in the vocals.  I like it, though.

Even with the full record here, I don’t know what I can add to my already noted thoughts.  This is a worthy continuation of an EP that far exceeded (albeit, low) expectations.  Of these new five songs, only “Head Down” is one I would consider subpar, and even that isn’t remotely close to as bad as the worst songs the band had produced in the last decade were.  That said, I have yet to listen to the whole thing as a complete package.  With a reshuffled tracklisting, I cannot yet be sure if it really works as a whole cohesive work.  On their own though, these new songs represent the best collection Our Lady Peace has created since probably 2000.  There’s no overwhelming nostalgia here, though it has its shining moments — what there is is just a handful of great sounding rock songs.  If this sound continues to evolve, I will again be a happy OLP fan.

 

Aural Impressions: The National, Sleep Well Beast

At long last, the wait is over.  Ever since 2013, not long after the release of Trouble Will Find Me, I’ve been longing for a new album from The National.

Okay, that’s not quite true.  While, I didn’t really know about The National until 2012 (thank you, Game of Thrones!), I didn’t even listen to Trouble Will Find Me until my Cascadia adventure in 2013, and even then, I only listened to it once.  In retrospect, I don’t get it.  Today, The National is one of my absolute favorite bands, and they really really took their time weaving their way into my life.  It took me another four months after that to listen to Boxer, and still six more before I even sniffed their remaining albums.  Once they took root, though, they’ve held on tightly.  The National was my most listened to band of 2014.  They’ve slipped (pun not intended) a bit as time went on, though I did finally end up seeing the band live for the first time last year.  They were awesome — everything else around the concert sucked, but that’s neither here nor there.  They played six new songs, five of which are on the new release, Sleep Well Beast.  It would be yet another year and change before these songs finally came out of the studio, and I must say, Sleep Well Beast was worth the wait.  For a seventh studio album, it’s unbelievably good.  There are few bands who generate outstanding music so consistently and The National is up in rarefied air.  Without further ado, my impressions of this gorgeous new record:

  1. Nobody Else Will Be There:  A solemn opening track, this one sets the table for the album to come.  Already the sonic space is filled with new textures and shapes, electronic clicks and hums.  It’s suddenly broken by a heavy piano and the characteristic, heartfelt vocals of Matt Berninger.  Yep, it’s The National.  This song is reserved, melancholic, and slow — it reminds me of a winter night.  It takes major turns in the chorus and bridge, adding a bit of light to an otherwise grim, lonely sound.  If this is a sign of what’s to come, Sleep Well Beast is going to be an emotional ride.
  2. Day I Die:  Wham!  Quiet synth gives way to a raucous drum and twitchy, crashing guitar.  Here’s the explosive energy that occasionally dotted the band’s last few spectacular albums.  The instrumentation isn’t exceptionally complex, but the drumming is absurdly good.  It’s easily the lead sound of the song as well as its main driving force.  Oh hey, a reference to “Val Jester!”  Neat.  I’m also loving the use of piano throughout this album from what I’ve heard (singles & live tracks), which is always welcome.  As a whole, I think “Day I Die” is pretty good, if a bit repetitive.  I’m sure it will grow on me more.
  3. Walk It Back:  Of the new songs I’d heard live a year ago, this was the one that struck me the most immediately.  Lead by a choppy synth, piano chords, and a floaty guitar, I think it’s mainly the chord progression and lyrics that grabbed me.  Matt’s vocals are almost atonal in the beginning of the verses, staying in his trademark low baritone throughout.  It’s spacey and subdued, much like the opening track. “Walk It Back” doesn’t particularly build up very much, bringing in only slightly more intricate drums and guitar during the bridge.  There is a spoken monologue during this point, which is a curious choice; I’d almost rather listen to the backing instrumentation alone here, which is a low keyboard intertwined with guitar and steady bass.  The long outro feels almost like a new song, but it maintains the restraint of the first half.  It doesn’t sound like I remember, but that’s probably just my fault.  The National to me has always been about growing into their songs — why should this album be different?
  4. The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness:  The first single released to the world from Beast, “System” revealed a few new things about The National’s latest sound: the first thing we hear is a heavily processed set of female vocals, then another sharply crashing guitar, along with piano.  The bass is crispy.  Synths are ubiquitous.  It reminds me a little of EL VY for some reason.  When Matt’s vocals start to soar, the song really takes off in pursuit.  A crunchy guitar solo enters; a sound we hadn’t really heard before on National records, yet it doesn’t really seem out of place either.  So far the energy has been off and on for this record, and I have a feeling that’s going to continue.
  5. Born to Beg:  And we’re back to the downbeat, featuring another piano with blocky chords, soft vocals, and percussive bloops for structure.  The progression reminds me a little of “England,” while the vocal harmonies of the chorus add a broad, ethereal feel.  It’s kind of amazing how consistent this band is; this song, additional electronics aside, could fit at home on either High Violet or Trouble Will Find Me quite well.  It’s chill, and again somewhat mournful.  Not the most memorable song, but I like it.
  6. Turtleneck:  Immediately this song is a blast, with multi-layered guitars, upfront bass, and a chaotic drumbeat.  The low low vocals combined with machine-gun strumming are a treat.  There’s been an unleashing here; the guitars are out of control, the vocals are rough and agitated, and the production is unpolished, presumably intentionally.  It’s got a live feel, as well as a retro studio feel.   Another guitar solo comes in, this one reminiscent of psychedelic-era Beatles, and before you know it, it’s over.  I can’t tell if this song is amazing or completely out of place, or both.  It doesn’t match the aural aesthetic of the album at all; it’s almost like an angry sequel to “Mr. November” — from The National, it doesn’t get much heavier than this.
  7. Empire Line:  This was my least favorite song among those played at the concert last year.  I was wrong.  Very wrong.  Amidst deep echoing percussion arises a High Violet-sounding reverberating guitar.  A slow plodder, the vocals are the focal point here.  The chorus breaks the low-key noise of the verse with a distant piano. Live the piano is much more upfront and distracting; here it’s deployed much better.  Physical drums slowly grow to push the song ahead, while the sonic landscape widens with guitars, strings, and various effects.  Toward the end, it feels almost as if the instruments are being swallowed as deep bass growls, yet the vocals remain clear.  The production on this track is phenomenal.  It sounds great in the studio.
  8. I’ll Still Destroy You:  Sampled vocal synths and a lively set of clicks and hits kick us off here.  Hang on, we’ve got a marimba!  And an accordion-like pad.  Oh, I like the progression on this one.  The piano is in the background but adds a ton of momentum.  As the chorus hits, the instruments diversify to an amazing degree.  I’m not even sure what’s all here.  A mandolin?  The marimba returns.  The drums are tight and swift.  Suddenly, it’s wide open again, with only pads, subtle electronics, and whatever that mandolin-sounding instrument is, fluttering above.  The texture here is wonderful.  It almost feels like a closing track with its crescendo, brightness, and optimism.  Of course, the lyrics say otherwise, but this is The National, after all.  It closes with a maelstrom of swirling strings, insane drums, and uniform bass.  Wow.  Definitely a standout on an already solid album.
  9. Guilty Party:  Beginning with another assortment of electronic percussion and a glitchy effect track, this one quickly breaks into another mournful piano progression, one very similar to “Day I Die,” in fact.  There’s a soft, reverb-heavy vocal.  A guitar quietly wails in the background.  The bass rides high and clean.  Bryan comes in with a quick, stuttering acoustic, providing an energetic contrast to the slow, deliberate piano.  A couple of arpeggiating, poly-rhythmic guitars come in during the bridge, again very reminiscent of Radiohead amidst an otherwise very National-sounding scape.  The verse and chorus repeat several times, each subtly building upon the predecessors as they’re joined by various other instruments including a staccato brass, strings, and additional electronic effects.  It’s a long, repetitive song, yet somehow it doesn’t feel tiresome or boring.  In fact, it might just be my favorite off the album, but it’s among tough competition, especially the next track…
  10. Carin at the Liquor Store:  A slow, piano based track, filled with heavy, syncopated chords in a simple 3/4 rhythm, it’s somewhat reminiscent of “Pink Rabbits,” if optimistic.  Of the singles, this was the first one that grabbed me immediately, so much so that upon first listen I sat myself at the piano and learned it one chord at a time by ear.  The chorus adds some weighty bass and a simple, effective drum, while a distorted guitar fills up space during a brief, straightforward solo.  Like several others on the album, it’s slightly repetitive, however it ends way sooner than it feels like it should.  Beautifully simple, I adore this song and I want more of it.
  11. Dark Side of the Gym:  Driven by an electric piano and a 6/8 shuffling beat, this one has the unmistakable feel of a high-school slow dance from a time before I was born.  It’s also somewhat reminiscent of old-school National — I’m talking Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers style.  It’s upbeat with a tinge of sadness, a ton of warmth, and a rather fitting upward key change halfway through.  The chorus here uses a i-III-VII-IV chord progression, which, although common, is still one of my favorites.  Overall, this song isn’t my favorite, but there is definitely something magical about it.
  12. Sleep Well Beast:  Sped-up synths from “I’ll Still Destroy You” plus the electronic drums from “Guilty Party” kick us off on the closing track.  The piano staggers not unlike “Hard to Find,” the previous album’s closer. Atmospheric guitars screech quietly.  Matt mumbles, as if he just sang the whole album just now.  There are Reznor-like electronic flourishes and Radiohead-like heavy bloops.  Structure is somewhat lacking, made clearer only by Bryan’s tom-heavy percussion. It’s almost a noise-collage, with the vocals falling ever deeper into the background, making reference to previous songs as the music had already done.  Does that make this a concept album?  It’s a pretty bookend, making a neat thematic circle with “Nobody Else Will Be There.”  It’s so dense, though, I’m going to need to listen to this many many many more times in order to really get a feel for it.

And that’s kind of the story of the album.  Like every other release by The National, I listened to it once or twice, noted the standout songs, forgot the rest, and slept on it for too long (presumably).  Sleep Well Beast is absolutely beautiful, incredibly well produced, and moving.  It follows nicely in the footsteps of BoxerHigh Violet, and Trouble Will Find Me, finishing a remarkable decade of high quality music that makes its artistic departures slowly and deliberately.  Because of the aforementioned nature of The National, I don’t feel at all ready to rate this album among its predecessors; I like it better than High Violet at first listen, but that doesn’t mean much because High Violet is easily my least-listened to album among those three.  That one is still growing on me too.  Overall, the melancholic theme is consistent, the alternating between chill and energy is enough to keep attention, and the music, instrumentation, and melodies are gripping, though not immediately memorable.  That is to say, they’re in there, they just need to grow.  I’m sure they will; I’ll likely have this album on repeat for the rest of the year, especially in the winter.  Going to see The National again next month will certainly force me to take a few long listens of their music.  I can’t wait.