Release Date: Dec 23, 2016
Record label: The Null Corporation
A decade ago Nine Inch Nails unleashed fifth album ‘Year Zero’ on their baying audience. Marking the last time Trent Reznor’s project had created an album as a cohesive entity, rather than the free-for-the-fans playground of ‘The Slip’, instrumentals ‘Ghosts I-IV’, or the impeccably curated career-revisiting of ‘Hesitation Marks’. ‘Year Zero’ was a concept album, set in 2022, surrounding an increasingly militarised police-state of future America, blighted by terrorism with its populace subjected to invasive surveillance and inescapable brainwashing.
Review Summary: A striking meld of old and new...The past years have been heavily criticized by anyone interested in the world’s welfare. Positive changes seem to be outweighed by negative ones and more musicians have started to insist on these issues through their songs. Complaining about the lack of ethics regarding the environment’s safety, politics or issues of our society in general, the right messages have easier found their way to fans who are not up to date with all the events taking place.
Even after coming back from hiatus, there was a sense that Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails were stuck with a certain formula: a post-industrial template for mid-lifers who secretly wanted their music safer. Yet at the same time, Reznor’s film-score work alongside Atticus Ross was taking off into a completely direction – epic, avant-garde and wholly original. In 2016 alone, the two managed to score a piece dedicated to NASA’s Juno mission, as well as contributing several stirring pieces to the environmental documentary, Before the Flood.
Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor has spent decades griping about the music business, dating back to his complaints about TVT in 1992 and his resulting “secret recording sessions” of the Broken EP. Now in some ways, he is the music business, a power player whose pioneering moves—surprise releases, extreme secrecy, fanbase cultivation, big budget commercial soundtrack jobs—have become global-pop-star S.O.P. So when he boldly introduces his surprise new EP Not the Actual Events as “an unfriendly, fairly impenetrable record that we needed to make” there is some cause for both intrigue and healthy skepticism.
While his post-millennial output with Nine Inch Nails has demonstrated the more muscular side of Trent Reznor's musical personality, his film score collaborations with Atticus Ross have revealed a heretofore only hinted at sense of foreboding menace. So word that Ross had officially joined NIN suggested something different from Reznor's long-running rock project. Not the Actual Events is the first document of this new incarnation of NIN, a five-track EP released with little warning that splits the difference between the formless sketches of Ghosts I-IV, The Slip's stripped down industrial clang and the comparatively slicker Hesitation Marks.
The surprise release of Not the Actual Events accompanies an anticlimactic expansion of Trent Reznor’s one-man empire to include composer Atticus Ross, with whom he’s collaborated on numerous film scores and standard musical releases over the past decade. 2011’s Oscar-winning The Social Network score remains their collaborative calling card, but the Brit also deserves credit for shaping the sparse, streamlined sound of latter-day Nine Inch Nails. The hollow melodies, the minimal construction, the newfound, eerie calm emanating from the ghost in Reznor’s machine: these are but a few of the signature touches Ross has bestowed upon the project ever since he first sat behind the boards as a programmer and producer on 2005’s With Teeth.
As a songwriter and composer, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor is wildly prolific. 2016 saw him working on three film scores; a nine minute track for NASA’s short film on the Juno mission to Mars, as well as soundtracks for upcoming movies Patriot’s Day and Leonardo DiCaprio’s climate change documentary Between the Flood. But when it comes to his role as NIN leader and the elder statesman of caustic angst and skin-peeling industrial rock, Reznor prefers to take a drip-feed approach.
Author William S. Burroughs once posited that, “A paranoid is someone who knows a little of what's going on.” Nine Inch Nails majordomo Trent Reznor has made a career embodying that premise in his aesthetic journeys into vulnerable electro-alt-rock, nihilist sonic evacuation, dead-inside minimalism, grating techno-fear and sophisticated film scores. But throughout all of these stylistic inversions, the one thing that makes NIN consistently compelling is that he never feels the need to sugarcoat things.
“Feels like I’ve been here before,” Trent Reznor sings on the new EP by Nine Inch Nails, and that’s probably because he has. Released late Thursday, just a week after Reznor revealed he had made it, “Not the Actual Events” represents the latest in a series of comebacks for this influential industrial-rock band, which has spent the last decade shuttling between active duty and cold storage. This is a modal window.
“Yes … everyone seems to be asleep,” Trent Reznor whispers at the opening of the ostentatiously-titled “Dear World,” the second song on the new Nine Inch Nails EP, his voice digitally teased like the anodyne textbot in Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier. ” The line returns at the end of the song as a kind of provocation: Even the most loyal Nine Inch Nails apologist might consider whether such gestures might not have been better left in the ‘90s, where they felt more essential to the times. Today’s listeners have Echo Dots in their homes to bleat similarly toneless directives.
Though Nine Inch Nails has always been a collaboration, it’s often seen as being all about Trent Reznor—though any deeper reading about The Fragile reveals a process involving several musicians creating ideas, not one man locked into a studio. But Not The Actual Events is the first time Nine Inch Nails is officially more than Reznor: Longtime collaborator Atticus Ross, who first appeared doing production work on With Teeth and has received equal billing on Reznor’s Oscar-winning compositions, is now officially a band member. Which begs the question: How does this affect the band’s sound? It certainly signals a new direction, though it doesn’t totally steer the ship off the path.
Better than 2013’s Hesitation Marks I think, mostly ‘cuz it’s shorter. Reports that this one is “unfriendly” and “fairly impenetrable” have been oversold, especially in comparison to the rest of their discography, and while I’m being cynical, I think it’s mostly just a teaser to get people hyped up for the big plans they have in store for 2017. But you’ll get a kick out of hearing the distorted screams in the choruses of “Branches/Bones” (each one cut off — and the song itself as a whole — to tease you for what’s to come), or how the grime clears away a little for Trent Reznor to deliver “Break through the surface and breathe” on “Burning Bright (Field on Fire)”.
Trent Reznor’s Christmas gift in 2016 is an unapologetic return to the angsty industrial noise of Nine Inch Nails’ commercial breakthrough period in the 1990s. This five-track EP channels the blunt-force aggression of The Downward Spiral-era NIN as a riposte to, as he put it a recent interview with Apple Music, the prevalence of “boring” and “polite” rock music. It’s also a reaction to his softer soundtrack work with composer Atticus Ross, who is now an official member of the band.