Why should you take any notice of a Nine Inch Nails Fanboy?
At the time of writing, I find myself at home, ironically busier with my day job than ever, because of the Coronavirus pandemic. This “review” is a special one from me, even more self-indulgent than all my other reviews. No self-imposed limit of a thousand words, but hey, what else are you doing right now? Might as well read it! I am writing it with my serious face on though, so in case you’re scanning the page and thinking “TLDR”, you can skip to this short version of the review (*).
Firstly, what is an article about Nine Inch Nails doing on a site called The Progressive Aspect?
To explain, I’ll give you some personal history and maybe this will tell you why I am such a big Nine Inch Nails fan – and why I would argue they are progressive rock. Strap yourself in, in case I turn this review over!
When I was younger, so much younger than today, the World seemed as naive as the eyes through which I viewed it. Arthur C. Clarke and Readers’ Digest suggested that we were heading for a future where we’d abolished suffering and war and computerised machines would free us and we’d have a life of leisure. There genuinely seemed endless things to look forward to. Finding out when these things might happen in this pre-Internet-instant-knowledge World made the sense of expectation intangible but, paradoxically, almost palpable. It was all a big adventure. I was so optimistic!
I would escape from a prevailing culture in which knowing nothing and caring less about football would make you a social pariah. I’d dive into my sci-fi and the beautiful but nonsensical music of bands like Yes. I’d try and be a drummer in bands with my equally misfitting friends. I’d visit book shops asking when the latest book in whatever series I was reading was due in. I had something to look forward to. The next Stephen Donaldson book (OK, they were dark), the follow up to Going for the One. And the next.
As I was already in town, I would use the opportunity to scour the used book and record stalls in Newport’s Victorian wrought iron and glass covered market. I stood in that heavy, warm stanky atmosphere, assaulted by aromas of fish and blood and disinfectant and sawdust and rodent droppings and life and then spin the question in my head about how I would pay for the good but used trinkets I had discovered in this place. (Maybe next week it will still be there…)
But life took me away from that. The bands I had grown to rely on began, by and large, to disappear, or let me down – just a little. A government came to power that seemed to treat citizens as resources, not people. The post-punk, post-progressive bands, who had become surrogates for the bands I had grown up with, started falling by the wayside. They joined the ranks of bands who’d once excited me. They were now gone, or worse, stale echoes of their original selves.
Time moves on. I started playing in a couple of bands; Pointy Byrds (a sort of jingly-jangly thing) and VOID. The latter was a visceral, somewhat nihilistic, pseudo-industrial but (initially) much less refined entity, influenced by Sabbath and Slayer, and Ministry, but we’d absorbed the tail end of the punk ethic – in that none of us could really play. Our performances were lapped up by a tiny core of fans who were just a little too young to know why we sounded like we did. But they followed us around. I had something to look forward to. The next gig. And the next!
But all good things come to an end, and some rather awful things too. Pointy Byrds had their zenith. VOID split. I say “split”… it didn’t so much split as fizzle out as the new century came in. I loved playing in these bands, I really did, but my lack of creative input in the former band and inability to express what was in my head in the other (though I had a lot more input there) was frustrating. I’d lost my way in the search for new music to listen to and escaped into a musical dead end.
I’d long since lost that youthful naivety. I’d moved on from Tales from Topographic Nonsense some time ago, I’d gone through my The Cure and Joy Division and Nirvana phases. Head Like A Hole had made a minor explosion in my musical underpants. It showed future echoes of what NIN (really, Trent Reznor) would go on to do, it appealed to me on an instinctive level. NIN’s apparent nihilism appealed to me.
Nine Inch Nails. Sometimes angry, sometimes disturbing, always powerful, NIN’s output is never dull, never resting on the laurels of past success, never really the same, not always good to hear! In fact, NIN can make songs that even I, the self-confessed NIN Fanboy, nay, NIN junky, will fast-forward. I’m thinking of the time when I started going off NIN, around about the time of Year Zero. Perhaps I was just getting bored. I found fewer songs that I enjoyed than on any of the other NIN Albums. Having said that, it has In This Twilight on it, which is absolutely beautiful. It’s as if Nine Inch Nails was due a reboot, with tracks appealing to old fans of the first four albums but trying to break out of their orbit with tracks that were, even to me, a bit… jarring.
Then Trent Reznor joined a different label and released his sixth NIN studio album, Ghosts I-IV. This was mostly unlike anything he’d done to date. Oh, there were the odd non-band, piano-based songs like The Downward Spiral‘s Hurt, but perhaps this was Trent Reznor sticking two fingers up at the people who would love to place him in a clearly labelled genre-wood box and hammer down the lid with his own nine-inch nails; perhaps it was a permanent farewell – perhaps it was part of an overall strategy.
Ghosts I-IV was very well received, even nominated for a Grammy! This was very new. The album’s production team included Atticus Ross (where have we heard that name?) and Alan Moulder. Other established artists contributed their considerable talents; artists such as Brian Viglione, Alessandro Cortini and Adrian Belew (and just where have we heard that name)?
But then… in July 2009 NIN sort of split! No more Nails! At least, no more Live Inch Nails. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross were now working on film scores. I actually grieved a little! Not all, however, was lost. Atticus Ross became an integral part of Destroy All Angels, a band that had more than a passing resemblance to NIN. Almost NIN’s successor; I looked on their brief existence as if it were the proto-NIN MkII, and I still do.
Then NIN proper got its reboot. NIN is clearly Trent Reznor’s baby… his alter ego. But at the moment it is as much influenced by Atticus Ross as it is Trent Reznor, and long may this continue! Ross has blown the cobwebs away and injected new life into NIN. Mk II is a trio of Trent/Atticus/Studio. Considering the prevalence of electronic influences in NIN, there is also the organic element. Voices, bass guitar, guitar… it is a symbiotic relationship, like a kind of musical three-way Borg-orgy.
I once fell out of love with NIN. I’m still a bit… meh… about some of the newer stuff. But you never quite know what you are going to get. This means that, for me, resistance to these new offerings… is futile. In fact, I think there’d be something wrong with me (something ELSE wrong with me) if I blindly loved everything with the NIN brand name on it. It is, nevertheless, always worth a punt.
And this latest release is simply as beautiful and sublime as it is occasionally scary.
Musical themes from earlier works reprise themselves throughout Trent Reznor’s work. The sounds he uses are never the same and yet they are instantly recognisable. Even in the more recent work, where NIN is very much more a partnership between Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross than a vehicle for Reznor, there is very much an identity to the music of NIN running through it like that type of rock we would-be rock journalists keep referring to. And THIS, my patient reader, is why Nine Inch Nails is a progressive rock band.
So, then: What’s it like?
Ten years on from Ghosts I-IV and here we are with the next instalments. And as if to say, “Look guys, this is art”, they have released both recordings as free downloads. It’s as if the success in Hollywood has freed NIN up, like that film stuff is their day job – to which they are clearly dedicated and doing nothing less than their best – but they’re free to create the music they want to in their spare time, music that they really want to invest themselves in as artists. This is what Trent Reznor said in a tweet:
And on the NIN Website:
In the context of the current global situation, with us all living in such surreal times and experiencing unprecedented events, a very positive message!
Ghosts V: Together is replete with dark ambient sounds (a phrase coined by my colleague Roger Trenwith). Its sounds stem from the brilliant use of samples, electronic and acoustic sounds assembled in a studio, sometimes enhanced by orchestra, no less ambitious an addition to their sonic palette than being an Oscar-winning duo might suggest.
Ghosts VI: Locusts carries on where Ghosts V leaves off, and it seems clear to me that what we really have here is a double album. But Ghosts V, mildly unsettling though it is, seems like a mere appetiser when The Cursed Clock begins. And Trent and Atticus have pushed the boat out into occasional jazzy waters, as the recurring sound of muted trumpet first becomes audible through a sinister fog of ambient electronics and piano in Around Every Corner, popping its head above the waves again and again as a surreal anachronistic counterpoint to the modern disturbing electronica.
No words yet in any of the songs, your only tools for listening are your imagination and the song titles, themselves resonating with loss and tragedy and sadness and grief and mystery. The music is full of surprises. Just when I was going to point out that there are no drums on Ghosts V: Together, we get some programmed electronic percussion. I hear rhythm brimming with the ingenuity and seemingly unorthodox randomness that only comes from a non-drummer. Someone who is confined by the rhythmic prisons in which most drummers find themselves incarcerated would be more inclined to sneak in a four on the floor thang. Then this track morphs its way to a disturbing, ambient nightmare that makes Mick Gordon’s Djent-influenced Doom soundtracks feel like nursery rhymes. OK, it doesn’t. Not quite. Mick Gordon is brilliant and will scare the pants off you. But that sounded great when I read it off the page.
You can allow this (these) album(s) to wash over you. You need to afford it (them) the time. None of this instant gratification, big hit, instant smash, hit and grab, hook based fist-pumping crowd-pleasing stuff a la The Hand That Feeds. In the spirit of the Ghost series of albums, this is stuff that you should savour. You must trust the sound you’re hearing and let it wash through you. And you DO have the time!
You may be saying to yourself:
“Well this doesn’t tell me enough about the album”
“This is just a fan-boy review”
Well, NIN don’t really need my review for sales. They’re doing fine, that, and the album is free right now, so you have no excuse but to download it and give it a listen. Perhaps you’ll become fans. Perhaps not. But this is an album with huge artistic merit, whether or not I have undermined my credibility by admitting my fanossityism.
In the true spirit of progression, Trent Reznor has taken NIN through a transformation, and I have been fortunate to have been there for most of the trip. From an angry one-man outfit, through youthful nihilism, through Oscar-winning success to the more mature, introspective NIN we hear here, I don’t believe it will ever stop and I welcome it. I’ll put good money on the next release being completely different, and I may or may not like it. Now: That’s what I call adventure! (although I think that paddling a kayak up a piranha-infested tributary of the Amazon is arguably a bigger adventure). To me, THIS is truly progressive rock. I can’t lie, it has influenced my own musical output, though I have never intentionally copied it. Here we are, thirty-fucking-one years on from Head Like A Hole and I still love the music of NIN.
As I write, we’re patently not in a World where we’ve abolished suffering or war. Machines don’t give us the leisure-time we were promised, and that naivety has been burned off the surface revealing a corrupt orange and blonde swamp-like locked-down World. What, then, is there to look forward to?
Well, Nine Inch Nails, that’s what. The next NIN album. And the next!
(*) Yes. Free. Good. Get.
Ghosts V: Together
01. Letting Go While Holding On (9:39)
02. Together (10:03)
03. Out in the Open (5:15)
04. With Faith (9:40)
05. Apart (13:35)
06. Your Touch (4:27)
07. Hope We Can Again (7:26)
08. Still Right Here (10:11)
Time – 70:16
Ghosts VI: Locusts
01. The Cursed Clock (7:00)
02. Around Every Corner (10:52)
03. The Worriment Waltz (9:25)
04. Run Like Hell (5:37)
05. When It Happens (Don’t Mind Me) (2:55)
06. Another Crashed Car (2:23)
07. Temp Fix (1:46)
08. Trust Fades (3:12)
09. A Really Bad Night (4:53)
10. Your New Normal (3:45)
11. Just Breathe (7:00)
12. Right Behind You (1:42)
13. Turn This Off Please (13:08)
14. So Tired (3:44)
15. Almost Dawn (5:34)
Time – 82:56
Total Time – 153:12
Record Label: The Null Corporation
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 26th March 2020