REVIEW: Nine Inch Nails, Year Zero, Interscope

Posted April 24th, 2007 by eric

A complacent, general snobbery has shunned Trent Reznor’s brand of industrial angst for years now, having relegated the sound over to the black-clad fruitcakes that show up at Korn shows. It’s difficult to straddle fame and integrity for any length of time, and Reznor’s allowed too many people to have a say in his business far too often. For better or worse, the people you choose to associate with color your image, and Reznor’s done his share of mingling with the wrong crowds over the years (Marilyn Manson, Courtney Love, etc.) much to his detriment.

I remember when people were genuinely scared of the sounds off Pretty Hate Machine. In concert the band used to cover itself in Crisco Oil and scream bloody murder backed by a machinated clanging the likes of which had rarely been seen in popular culture. Nine Inch Nails certainly didn’t invent industrial music, but it sure did make it popular.

With his second full-length, The Downward Spiral, Reznor’s popularity soared beyond any level either he or his record company could have imagined with industrial anthems like “March of the Pigs” and “Closer.” It’s hard to be that pissed off when you’re that filthy fucking rich. A lot of people took it the wrong way, and Nine Inch Nails went from underground freak show to mainstream alternative darlings.

Former NIN fanboys sold their copies of Pretty Hate Machine to get into darker, weirder music once “Closer” became an MTV staple. It took Reznor years to follow it all up, and once he did, the fans weren’t exactly waiting with baited breath. The Fragile eschewed cookie cutter radio singles for a more experimental approach, which came across as too little too late. Reznor used the space on that double album to expand his ideas, but the lengthy instrumental passages did little to energize his base. The hardcore fans wanted more raucous destruction, but the album felt used, familiar, and overdone.

Five years later, With Teeth completely reinvigorated Nine Inch Nails as a franchise. Reznor has always known how to dress up anger as a hit, and his formula had been missed on commercial radio. To this day, Nine Inch Nails stands out on mainstream radio like a football bat. It’s not weird music in the grand scheme of things, but it’s weird enough next to the middling, take it easy rock of the Red Hot Chili Peppers or The Foo Fighters and other harmless dinosaurs that fit snugly under the overreaching “alternative” umbrella.

With Teeth didn’t exactly break new ground musically or for Reznor personally, but it successfully exploited the absence of industrial rock in commercial radio, filling a void Nine Inch Nails had created to begin with. Reznor may not be the best lyricist the world over, but he knows how to play into your basest emotions and dress it all up in a sea of processed glitches and distortion. His latest, Year Zero, ignores With Teeth’s overtly successful formula for another foray into experimentalism. This time it’s thematic- a futuristic dystopian state of the union address.

The hooks are lacking at first. There’s nothing as catchy as “The Hand That Feeds” or “Only”, though, the first single “Survivalism” certainly comes close. Instead, the album piles on layers of noise, shards of overly processed guitar feeds, and programmed beats that veer in and out of states of distortion. It’s colored with paranoid characters and typical Nine Inch Nails themes of anger, betrayal, regret, and remorse. It’s far less aggressive vocally than With Teeth as well, as Reznor’s voice barely climbs beyond a gruff bark, but the melodies eventually sink in.

The conspiritorial marketing behind the album brilliantly plays into a Matrix-like sense of unease and mistrust that will be fodder for latent D&D fans. The creepy Orwellian satire is both sarcastic and funny. Reznor’s taking the piss, and, for the first time in years, seems to have intrigued even the technical literati that had long written him off.

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