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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Washington Capitals: 2018 Stanley Cup Champions

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There’s a strange feeling that wells up from inside when a team is about to win their first Stanley Cup.  It’s hard to describe — a mixture of anxiety, anticipation, excitement, terror, and catharsis.  I have little connection to the Washington Capitals.  Back when Alexander Ovechkin was a cocky twenty-something playing rough and generally being the villainous foil to Sidney Crosby and the good boy Penguins, the last thing I wanted was for him and his Capitals to win it all.  Year after year, as the Capitals furthered their punchline status, I took some delight in their suffering.  After all, nothing is given — just because you’re the best team in the league year after year doesn’t mean that you’re awarded the Stanley Cup too.

Last night, I was happy; overjoyed, even, that the Washington Capitals ended their 44 year drought and finally, finally won the Stanley Cup.  The Alexander Ovechkin era had, up until this point, been full of misery, missed potential, expected disappointment, and mockery.  All of that is gone now.  All of it.  A Stanley Cup victory changes everything.

Alex knows that.  That’s why he played his heart out in the playoffs.  That’s why he deserved the Conn Smythe Trophy in the end.  And that’s why, when finally presented with the greatest trophy in sports, he reacted like this:

Unless you’re a Vegas Golden Knights fan, you probably can’t help but feel his ecstasy too.  There hasn’t been a Cup raise this emotional since probably Ray Bourque’s in 2001.  In the face of a long-suffering drought, the eventual win is just that much sweeter.  Take note, Vegas: it’s downhill from here, but one day you’ll get that Cup and it will be awesome.  Hopefully it doesn’t take you 44 years too.

The hockey in the Final was awesome, if messy.  The Vegas Golden Knights completely lost their discipline and composure, the deft efficiency with which they slew their three previous foes.  It’s funny — everyone had been predicting their decline since the very beginning.  Their shooting percentages were unsustainable.  Their goaltending couldn’t have been that good.  And time after time, they seemed to silence their critics as they kept winning.  Enter the Stanley Cup Final and the Washington Capitals: they made the Knights look like garbage.  Perhaps the stats finally did regress to the mean.  Perhaps Fleury’s 0.957 Sv% got in his head.  Maybe the Capitals thrived without pressure, having been written off?  Their goal scoring was fierce, exploiting Fleury’s lack of lateral movement ability often.  Washington’s back end was stellar, limiting the high-flying knights to 5 goals over three games in the middle of the series.  Then there’s “The Save,” Braden Holtby’s godlike effort to hold the lead in Game Two, kicking off the four-game winning streak that brought the Cup to DC.  This, plus numerous scraps, hits, fights, and general bad blood, make this one of the most memorable Cup Finals in some time.

Playoff Series
2018-05-28; WSH 4, VGK 6
2018-05-30; WSH 3, VGK 2
2018-06-02; VGK 1, WSH 3
2018-06-04; VGK 2, WSH 6
2018-06-07; WSH 4, VGK 3
WSH defeats VGK: 4-1
Prediction: Golden Knights in 5 ☓✓

I wonder where Vegas goes from here?  For any other team, after a Cup Final appearance, nothing short of a Stanley Cup championship the following year is a disappointment.  But I feel, despite everything I should have learned by now, that Vegas cannot possibly repeat this kind of success next year.  I suppose the offseason may provide more clarity — it usually doesn’t — but I suspect the Knights will trend toward being a middle-of-the-pack team next year.  We’ll see, of course.  Anything can happen in the offseason.

Speaking of predictions, boy I picked the wrong year to give up picking the Capitals to win.  Maybe it’s my fault?  I made a committment last year not to ever pick this core of Capitals players to win again, and I followed through this year, predicting their opponent to win every series through this entire post-season.  And obviously I was wrong every time.  Yikes.  Good for you though, Washington.  I feel relieved of this burden now, and free to pick you as desired.  Like I said before, a Cup win changes everything.

Speaking of Cup wins changing everything, what I really want more than anything hockey related, is the Stanley Cup to come to Buffalo.  After Washington’s win, there are only three teams older that have yet to win a championship: the St. Louis Blues (1967-68), the Vancouver Canucks (1970-71), and the Buffalo Sabres (1970-71).  If the Cup isn’t to be in the Sabres’ near future, I would definitely like to see one of those other two win.  Now, there is a longer drought out there — that belongs to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who’d last won the Cup in 1967, the year before the Second Six expansion.  As a Sabres fan, I would rather they kept that drought going indefinitely.  Buffalo must win a Cup before Toronto gets another.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll see what the future may hold.  The draft is two weeks from today, and the Sabres will no doubt select a defensive cornerstone.  Could he, as a first-overall selection and generational talent like Ovechkin, finally deliver a Stanley Cup to a long(er) suffering fanbase?  I hope so.

I decided to honor the Capitals’ victory by using the outstanding “Weagle” logo instead of the wordmark featured on the jerseys.  It looks so damn good, so it’s no wonder the team, and even the league, seem to favor its use as a de facto primary logo.  Now that the wordmark has a Cup to its name, I fear the Weagle may stay relegated to secondary status.  However, a similar situation occurred with the Anaheim Ducks, and they made the right move eventually.  Do it, Washington.  Don’t think twice about it.

Solo: A Space Western

I saw Solo: A Star Wars Story this past weekend.  As is now a recurring theme, it was a Sunday matinee on opening weekend, except this time, in May.  It feels weird to have a new Star Wars film release in the spring, but that is, after all, how they used to come.  Until very recently, I had just about no interest in seeing Solo; compared to my limited hype for Rogue One two years ago, this was absolutely negligible.  I watched the first few trailers and thought it was okay looking, if potentially problematic, and then I kinda just forgot about it.  My skepticism was naturally rooted in the fact that they’ve effectively recast the iconic character of Han Solo with someone I’ve never seen act before and who is not Harrison Ford.  However, I was always intrigued by the announced supporting cast — I don’t know how you can go wrong with such players as Thandie Newton and Donald freakin’ Glover by your side.  Emilia Clarke and Woody Harrelson aren’t bad either, though I have seen them in some pretty bad movies.  Well, Solo is… something.  I liked this movie way more than I thought, but it’s not really that good.  There are, let’s just say, a lot of issues.

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