Wednesday, April 18, 2007

First Blush: Nine Inch Nails - Year Zero

I have 14 Nine Inch Nails CDs in my collection, including all the major releases, various EPs, and even a concert bootleg. But when Trent Reznor’s last album, With Teeth, was released, I was slow to purchase. I can’t even remember exactly why. It was expensive everywhere I saw it and I wasn’t all that enamored with the first single, but that still doesn’t explain my delay. After buying it I quickly realized that it was yet another impressive output, and that I had been foolish to wait for so long. So I made up for it today by snagging Year Zero in its first day of release. There has been quite a bit of buzz regarding this album, primarily dealing with some of the viral marketing the band employed, including a USB drive containing cryptic images and other information that was taped to the bathroom wall at NIN shows in Lisbon, Manchester, and Barcelona. The album supposedly deals with our imminent future (assuming things continue down their current path). Apparently we’re doomed or something, and I presume the album is going to tell us why. So let’s hear it!

Track 1 – Hyperpower!
0:03 – All drums at the outset and then it’s all fuzzy and dirty.
0:58 – No lyrics on this one – it’s just going to be an intro track
1:09 – Is it possible for an instrumental to be cryptic? Is it possible for it not to be cryptic? Well it does end in gunfire.

Track 2- The Beginning of the End
0:35 – Trent is being as soulful as he can here. Which is not very, but the intent is there.
0:46 – “We face our consequence, this is the beginning of the end.” Dreary
2:03 – The track is feeling like further intro at this point. There’s a lot of sound going on that I’m clearly not picking up on this first listen – it’s very layered.

Track 3 – Survivalism
0:47 – The chorus is extremely Sisters of Mercy: “I got my propaganda, I’ve got revivalism.”
1:42 – Lots of boops and beeps going on in the background, but they’re not getting in the way of the rest of the song.
3:07 – “I’ve got my plan I’ve got my fist I’ve got survivalism.”
3:49 – The main snare click is on the off-beats, keeping the song driving as the other instruments dance around one another with Reznor whispering “I’ve got surivalism” Again, this track feels like ramp-up.

Track 4 – The Good Soldier
0:24 – The beat is vaguely reminiscent of Closer, but the subject matter is wholly different (urban warfare and chaos)
1:04 – Waiting for things to punch up, but Trent denies us, choosing to break things down musically and feature his sotto voce.
2:11 – One can’t help but think Trent is talking about Iraq here, but given the publicized theme of this album, he is more likely implying that we’ll all be living Baghdad-style soon…

Track 5 – Vessel
0:13 – Things are sounding very mechanical here – drills and machines and whatnot.
1:15 – “Oh God, can it go any faster? Oh my God, I don’t think I can last here.” I think this is the fourth song that Reznor has either referenced or spoken to God. The other track was an instrumental.
3:18 - The production is extremely impressive on this one. The sound couldn’t be more crisp, and I’m playing it on a fourteen year old Sony (which I have kept in excellent condition, mind you). The mechanical downbeats are not just heavy – weighty would be a better word.

Track 6 – Me, I’m Not
0:54 – Lots of echoes on each minimal note early on this track. The vocals are pulled to the back of the mix so those echoes are the showcased sounds.
2:55 – You can tell that each and every noise on this album was individually evaluated. Everything is deliberately chosen, there is no jam.

Track 7 – Capital G
0:13 – Trent is doing some sort of weird character voice. I’ve never heard this from him before. I’m not sure I like it.
0:44 – That’s more like it. Sing like yerself, please. By the way, this song is about Bushy.
1:48 – Still waiting to rock a bit on this album, but we’re getting closer. Everything is still extremely crisp, but there are some longer notes that build together.
2:20 – “He signs his name with a capital ‘G’.” Just say “bushy.” We all know who you’re talking about. But I understand, you have to rhyme it with knees. Bushy would have worked just fine.

Track 8 – My Violent Heart
0:30 – Trent is talking to us now, almost muttering with very little accompaniment.
1:13 – Booming beats and vocals two steps shy of yelling gets thing up to where we’re accustomed to having them on a Nine Inch Nails record. But it’s fleeting.
2:48 – I mentioned the apocalyptic theme of this record. When you open the flaps of the case, you see two arms, one clothed in a suit, shirt and fancy watch holding the Holy Bible. The other bare and gripping an AK47 with its index finger on the trigger. I believe Trent is trying to tell us that these things are connected. Or maybe they’re opposed. Are they coming from the same body? Nobody knows…

Track 9 – The Warning
0:30 – The lead guitar here is nearly Mark Sandman-esque – a touch twangy, but more plaintive than anything else
1:49 – the lyrical theme has suddenly changed. Instead of coming from a protagonist who is concerned for his own soul and living in fear, it’s from a position of moral authority, threatening to “wipe this place clean.” Aliens? God? Decpticons? Nobody knows…

Track 10 – God Given
0:56 – This is the most With Teethy track thus far. Breakbeat in the background with Trent urging, “Come on, sing along, everybody now!”
1:22 – Yeah, the club kids are going to remix this one and then lick each other on the dancefloor.

Track 11 – Meet Your Master
0:23 – “Bow down” – hey I remember that line…
1:11 – It’s turned into a classic NIN groove. This is what we came here for, right? I mean, I appreciate the spooky we’re all gonna die stuff, but I still want to headbang a bit…
2:15 – “Come on down my friend, it’s time to meet your master.” And you’re also going to get what you deserve, capiche?
2:48 – The phrase “come on down” is repeated…

Track 12 – The Greater Good
0:18 – The beat is solid, but everything else is atmospheric like a dark movie with Trent whispering “breathe”.
0:31 – Wide bass tones are later joined by some sort of xylophonic sound.
2:36 – While there are lyrics, this track is practically an instrumental, likely setting up the last four on the album.
4:14 – For such a minimalist track, there are a ton of different elements. Yes, I realize I’m sounding like a broken record.

Track 13 – The Great Destroyer
0:33 – So many divergent things going on at once now, it’s difficult to talk about any one of them. So I’ll mention that this is the first track where Trent is really singing out.
1:15 – Well he was, he’s back in “loud whisper” mode now.
1:49 – Bass is punching! Then it disintegrates into various trajectories of sound. I think if I were wearing headphones right now, my brain would be melting. If you see people on the street this week with I-pods and melted brains, blame The Great Destroyer.

Track 14 – Another Version of the Truth
0:54 – Everything is hidden – much like the beginning of Something I can Never Have, but if it were on The Fragile instead.
1:52 – And we’re practically paused with just a high-pitched note before piano comes in to bring a methodical melody which takes us to the end of the track.

Track 15 – In This Twilight
1:03 – “And the sky is filled with light, can you see it? All the black is really white, if you believe it.” So this is the first hopeful one?
2:03 – “Night descends – could I have been a better person? If I could only do it all again.” Nope, it’s wistful. But I guess it paints an image of serenity at the end of everything.

Track 16 – Zero Sum
0:02 – Last track and I’m hoping for something that will have some punch to close it out because so far that’s what’s missing. I mean, if the world’s gonna end, we should go out with a bang, right?
0:50 – But Trent is whispering again with another array of minimalist beats and beeps.
1:48 – Piano takes us through some chord progressions as the electronic percussion tries to distract us from it.
3:56 – “Shame on us, for al we’ve ever done. And all we ever were – just zeroes and ones.” So shame on us, but if we’re just completing our part of the formula, how could we have helped anyway? Did we have the potential to be more than zeroes and ones all along, but never made it happen? I suppose that’s what he’s trying to say, but it’s going to take a lot more listens to figure this all out.

Every track is so thickly layered, I don’t think I can possibly be doing this album justice in the first listen. At this point it is all very distant. Its reviews have been largely positive, so I’m guessing there’s a lot of depth to it. It is not instantly catchy - there is clearly a ton going on within each track. I’m sure the album will grow on me (on all of us). The album is decidedly not exciting, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t great – it is likely a masterpiece. The Year Zero concept is fascinating, if a bit bleak. It does claim the possibility of correcting things if we act now. Kind of like global warming. If you feel like trying to track down what this album means, this is a good place to begin, and this is a good place to continue – the whole point is for all the internet geeks to piece together the information that the band left lying around in random places. Personally, I don’t have time for all that. Someone let me know when they get it figured out…

1 comment:

Chris Hein said...

Have you seen http://www.exterminal.net/ ?

Apparently when the disc gets warm it turns white and there's a binary code on it that translates to this website. I just don't get it.