But Listen: 052: Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero

Somehow it feels like the stars are out of line, or something. A new NIN album, after just two years? Usually the wait is nearer five.

Nine Inch Nails

Year Zero

Label: Interscope
Catalog#: halo 24
Buy from: Amazon


It is unclear what exactly insprired Trent to get writing a new album so quickly, but it is kinda good he has. After all, after the initial excitment faded, With Teeth was revealed to be not all that good. Or more damningly, it was simply forgettable, leaving many fans wondering if that could really have taken five years to write and produce.

Candid interviews this time ’round have revealed a “clean” Trent, who has exorcised his demons, at least to a point, revealing a positivity not really seen before from him. Even more interesting was the build-up for this album, with a whole litany of websites, leaked tracks, grainy adverts pointing towards a huge concept that the album is built around – apparently that of our world fifteen years or so in the future.

Cutting through all this, it is pretty clear even just perusing the track titles that we are looking at the first political Nine Inch Nails album. And the fire that this seems to have set off really is something to behold, making you wonder what might have/could have been had Trent looked outside of his own little personal hell over a longer stretch of time.

Or maybe it is the current political state in the US that has caused it? Like so many musical artists of late, the political song and tirade is most certainly back in fashion. There are not that many nakedly obvious protest songs, mainly artists are finding more intelligent ways of getting their point across, or veiling it behind concepts and metaphors – as done here.

The album opens with an astonishing instrumental called HYPERPOWER!, where for just shy of two minutes layer after layer of drums and then guitars and then samples are added, before everything stops on a dime. A damned shame, too, as this could easily have been fleshed out into a full song, too. It is also the first sign of Trent looking at his past work for ideas, with the effects and feel coming straight from The Downward Spiral. The Beginning Of The End feels like some form of warning, and musically condenses all that was good about With Teeth into one three minute segment.

Survivalism is one of the stabs at pop on the album, and uses the age-old tactic of quiet verse LOUD CHORUS to good effect, as well as the gradual adding of layers Trent does so well. The Good Soldier appears to be from the point of a serviceman questioning exactly what he is doing, the key being the line ‘I am trying to believe‘. A wonderfully understated track, that despite it’s subject keeps itself oddly reined in for the entire time.

Vessel is unmistakeably NIN – heavily, strangely treated drums and effects, sexual metaphors, everything just on the verge of collapse. As always, though, it stays on track. Me, I’m Not, drenched in reverb, sounds as if Massive Attack (and in particular their meisterwerk Mezzanine) has been listening of choice for Trent of late.

Eyebrows get raised in a big way on Capital G. A nearly swing-beat (and already mashed up with Michael Jackson‘s The Way You Make Me Feel with quite unreal results), it perhaps the most nakedly commercial track on the album, with a seriously scathing lyric about the Christian Right and it’s links to the current American Government. Obviously, Trent denies this…

The volume then drops considerably for the barely audible intro to My Violent Heart, before it lets rip for a short chorus, then back to another spoken word verse, and then it blows again…and then, unexpectedly, the effects start shooting everywhere like fireworks across the night sky, and just keep going, before petering out into The Warning, from which under the mechanised, alien beats ticks the heart of a deep and dirty bassline, and in the ambience, at least until the guitars start squalling from the speakers, it feels like a companion piece to The Good Soldier.

The best track on the album, though, is saved for track ten. God Given starts unassumingly enough, with a sparse, off-kilter beat, before a choir of effects and then Trent’s vocals slowly wind it up (the tempo is cleverly and gradually increased into the chorus). The chorus continues the addition of layer upon layer, and then all is repeatedly stripped away in a seething attack on religious extremism, and at a push could just become a dancefloor hit – and if not the original it screams out loudly as a candidate to be remixed for the dancefloor.

Meet Your Master is an oddly good-natured sounding track about dealing with the possibility of the end of the world arriving – not the first track about the apocalypse to make you want think about partying the end of days away, and I’m sure it won’t be the last, although I’m sure that the carefree sound is meant to have more of a deeper meaning than it appears…

The darkness (this end of days, perhaps?), simply envelops The Greater Good with the vocals buried deep beneath a slow, funereal beat, before things burst back into the light with The Great Destroyer, which to start with is another mechanised pop burst, with a great buzzing guitar effect and Trent straining at the top of his vocal range, before the second chorus ends with Trent’s vocal being multitracked into infinity and things descend into noisy, glitchy electronics, before descending into the calm waters of Another Version of the Truth, a pretty, piano-based instrumental, that sees other noises emerge from the depths to surface fleetingly more than once, before returning to the piano picking out it’s own desolate tune.

Huge, echoing beats signal the arrival of In This Twilight, notable mainly for a chorus dominated by one of Trent’s most impassioned vocals in a long time. Closing track Zero-Sum strives for great things, the subjects of the album asking for forgiveness…but it all kinda feels flat, and all a bit deflating after all that came before.

As a concept, as a step forward, this album works well. And if getting people to buy into an entire story – with the multitudes of websites, the little discoveries, like the CD itself that has a cool little trick of it’s own – is one way that might help people to want to buy a CD again rather than just download it, hats off to Mr Reznor. And to add to that, it helps to bury the memory of With Teeth, too, which is definitely no bad thing at all. By just looking a little further than his own navel, and trying to do something more than wallowing in his own despair, Trent has produced his best and most diverse album in some time. Which has to be said, was not quite what I was expecting here…

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