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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.