Nine Inch Nails’ “Year Zero”: Album review

Now here’s something interesting. After NIN’s ‘resurgence’ of sorts on 2005’s “With Teeth” comes “Year Zero,” a concept album centering on Reznor’s critique of US government policy and a vision of a ruined world set in the near future of 2022, which seems pretty close around the corner now and nicely aligned with, say, halfway through a second term of a hypothetically catastrophically imbecilic and reckless president. Maybe Reznor knew something…

The album artwork juxtaposes a bible and a gun; a picturesque suburban town with hill-cresting church and a decrepit slum on the edge of a diseased stream in an industrial wasteland with smoke-stack factories on the horizon.

The album opens with a kind of martial beat that devolves into noise suggestive of screams and gunfire, like something from an Einstürzende Neubauten record, then progresses to the powerful and catchy “The Beginning of the End” which gains momentum and force as it develops the opening frames of the picture of a society sliding into annihilation.

“Survivalism” rockets along with a brusque fist-in-the-face pace, the unapologetic narrator-singer justifying the senseless depletion and harvesting of mother nature.

“The Good Soldier” could almost be a U2 song except for the fact it’s talking about a bombed out urban war-zone littered with corpses, and could be understood as a kind of “Masters of War” for the post-grunge generation.

“Vessel” and “Me, I’m Not” could just as easily be about addiction as a way to hide from reality and pain as they could be about Western society’s addiction to consumerism, entertainment, comfort and avoidance of reality. Either way, “Year Zero” is about the inevitable crash and come-down, the terrible hangover when the rent comes due.

“Capital G” is somewhat terrifying in its prescience, given all this dangerous juvenile talk of buttons this week: “I pushed a button and elected him to office and he pushed a button and it dropped a bomb.” The track marches arrogantly like a brazen distorted Goldfrapp hit.

“My Violent Heart” seems a mix of apology for human flaws, self-denigration for those same flaws, and a sneering domineering superiority.

“The Warning” suggests themes of condemnation and judgment of a society intent on short-term satisfaction at the cost of its own damnation, and the promise that “We have come to intervene / You will change your ways and you will make amends / Or we will wipe this place clean” could be the guiding reset of ancient alien guardians, the war cry of rising militias, or the patriarchal vengeance of old testament gods. While the guitar work here is not a million miles away from typical Reznor signature style, it’s illustrative of this album’s tonal qualities in that, familiar though it may be in some respects, it’s still fresh, new-sounding, and incredibly tasty.

I said earlier that “The Good Soldier” could almost be a U2 song, and here we have another Bono-esque number: compare “God Given” and its vocal meter, rhythm and tone with U2’s “Elevation.” It’s actually striking. Though Bono does not opt to sing industrially charged numbers in the fictional narrative voice of a racist and puritanical christian zealot.

“Meet Your Master” continues the album’s recurring theme of revolution and insurgence:

“We’ve heard enough from you now
We’ve heard everything
We’re going to play a new game
You’ll put on this blindfold
You’ll do what we tell you
You’ll do as you’re told
Used to be the leader
Now comes the time to serve
Maybe we show some mercy
Maybe you get what you deserve

[…]

Come on down my friend
It’s time to meet your master

You’ve left quite a mess here
Under your stewardship.”

“The Greater Good” floats in a kind of sound texture we haven’t heard anything quite like since “Downward Spiral,” and the song is theorized to be one of assimilation under the new Year Zero government. “The Greater Good” is counterpointed by “The Great Destroyer,” possibly the voice of an insurgent against the Year Zero government, but could equally be a metaphor for generalized rage against the injustices of a government intent on deepening brutal inequalities. The song degenerates into a satisfying drum beat cacophony before the somber instrumental “Another Version of the Truth” holds the album in suspended tension until the final two tracks close the project out.

“In this twilight” sees the singer watching a final sunset, hair full of ashes, and I’m reminded of British folksinger Ian Campbell’s “The Sun Is Burning.” Again I get the odd feeling Reznor has somehow taken on the mantle of a kind of alternative rock folksinger, warped by the industrial grunge nuclear blast.

The final track on the album, “Zero-sum,” is an indictment of the species in toto, in its perpetual procrastination of taking action to avert the impending catastrophe, the justifications, the hiding from reality. The calm spoken word delivery behind the wall of fuzz and distortion recalls the title track from “The Downward Spiral,” that wrought meditation of suicide (“he couldn’t believe how easy it was – he put the gun into his face – so much blood for such a tiny little hole – problems do have solutions you know”), yet this time it’s not a single suicide but the literal suicide of the entire species hurtling in utter blind ineptitude and mindlessness into the chasm of its own extinction. Trent closes out the album with the melodic refrain:

“Shame on us
Doomed from the start
May God have mercy
On our dirty little hearts
Shame on us
For all we’ve done
And all we ever were
Just zeros and ones”

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Nine Inch Nails’ “With Teeth”: Album review

Trent Reznor wrote 2005’s “With Teeth” during recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, and this less electronic and more organic industrial rock rendition of the NIN formula is focused on the struggles of Reznor’s early sobriety. Before setting out on this project, Reznor had essentially hit a wall and come to a complete standstill in the wreckage of his life, and this album shows a determination and slightly more self-focused and less outwardly finger-pointing introspection than previous albums, yet there’s still plenty of the trademark Trent self-hatred and disgust on display.
While there are hints of some of the more minimalist approaches and beautifully textured instrumental compositions we’d see from Reznor in later years (in particular the break in the middle of the title track), this album still extends a relatively straight line from prior releases, although there are far fewer layers, overdubs, additional noises and background tapestry, which is an interesting and refreshing change. The result is somehow a cleaner, more spacious sound, if that’s possible in the content of Nine Inch Nails.
There is a little more emphasis on melody, as evidenced by the opening track “All The Love In The World.”
Reviews at the time were generally very strong, with lots of talk of a “triumphant return” and “vintage” NIN, and the album charted three singles.
It’s definitely a lot more compelling than 2000’s panned “Things Falling Apart,” and the tracks stand up to many repeat listens. In particular I identified with some of the sentiments in “Every Day Is Exactly The Same,” which I tried to capture for myself in my duet with Julie in Oh Halo in “(Gifts of a) Lesser Man” (https://ohhalo.bandcamp.com/track/gifts-of-a-lesser-man).

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Nine Inch Nails’ “And All That Could Have Been” (live): Album review

It all sounds a bit labored, like an aging Metallica concert. The title track from “Fragile,” that instrumental piano composition, is the standout track, signaling that more thoughtful place Reznor’s later work has moved towards.

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Nine Inch Nails’ “Things Falling Apart”: Album review

Rolling Stone Magazine panned this NIN remix album when it came out in 2000 (https://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/things-falling-apart-20001207), calling it “Slight even by remix-album standards.”
Pitchfork wasn’t very complimentary either (https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/5798-things-falling-apart/):
“Despite its inherent relation to The Fragile, Things Falling Apart should, like any other album, stand on its own. But this album doesn’t stand; it never gets up. It’s a toddler with two knobs for legs and arms like a Mr. Potatohead.”
NME had possibly the most entertaining things to say about this release – “Musically, Trent’s trying, bless him, but in a bit of an insane way. “
DrownedInSound said it was “the least impressive, least essential Nine Inch Nails release to date,” and, more harshly, “A damp squib compared to its predecessors, ill thought out, incoherent in places, and really, not very good to be honest.” Bottom line from DrownedInSound: “Avoid, unless for completisms’ sake.”
Allmusic.com rubbished it and said it was “completely pointless for all but the staunchest of fans.”
I can hardly be called the staunchest of NIN fans, but I am a completionist. So I have this album, and the reviews prepared me for something truly woeful, which this is not. It’s fine, really.
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Hundred Waters’ “Communicating”: Album review

While this album does not quite reach the highs of the Björk / Tom Buckley / Joanna Newson psychedelia and flute-driven flights of fancy from “Hundred Waters LP” and the otherworldly flowing water songs of “The Moon Rang Like A Bell,” there are still enough elements here of that intense dreaminess that first entranced me about Hundred Waters. Check out the crazy arpeggios in “Wave to Anchor,” for example, or hear the echoes of folk music in “Prison Guard” (with its Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls” chorus!).
These songs don’t have the captivating arresting hypnotism of those earlier albums, though, and when Pitchfork mentions that some of the songs drift towards “a cross between Fiona Apple and Imogen Heap,” there’s something in that, though I’d throw Lamb into that mix too.
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Prinze George’s “Prinze George”: EP review

Fun upbeat dancy synth-pop five-track EP, with a bouncy folksy “Don’t think twice it’s alright” folk number for track five.

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Emily Reo’s “Spell”: EP review

Emily Reo’s 2016 two-track release shows her as far from her lo-fi psychedelic folk beginning as its possible to get, with the auto-tuned synth-pop “Spell” sounding like some lost-lost 80s vocalized hit from Paul McCartney, and yet another debut album song remade in the new tones – “Stronger Swimmer.” Hey, I’m not saying you can’t re-record songs – it’s been done plenty of times. I know how it feels to think “I didn’t quite get that right” – my second solo album “The Game” features two tracks from my first album with The Listeners.
Yet, I’m really not sure why Reo feels compelled to re-work the songs she’s re-working because they sounded pretty great to start with.
I’ll be glad when Reo stops re-inventing and starts just inventing.
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