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Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero

April 18, 2007

I wasn’t really expecting too much from this album. At all. It already didn’t have things going for it, considering there was only a two year gap between albums this time as opposed to the usual five or six, so one would have to assume that the product would be far less up to par than the other Nine Inch Nails that were so meticulously constructed over a long period of time. But really I think I could have thought the opposite too. With Teeth was good, and it’s best moments were very original, but it wasn’t quite up to par with the rest of Reznor’s discography and at times the motivation could have been calculated as a simple cash in after a really long musical break. I don’t know how long this took to make, but I can imagine it must have been under less stressed conditions and without many obligations. I do wonder if Reznor’s New Orleans mega studio was damaged during Katrina. Anyway, this has a lot of people talking. I wasn’t that excited about it when I heard four of the tracks had been released, two officially and two purposefully leaked by Reznor himself in flash drives carefully placed in bathrooms in venues on NIN’s current European tour. Trent is clearly outdoing himself on this album. Not only does he plan to release every song individually in garage band format to give fans a chance at remixing, but he has also has constructed an elaborate propaganda driven advertising scheme (see anotherversionofthetruth.com and then click and drag your mouse around the screen). The album is clearly themed, mostly around a fictional American future where the government and religion has complete organized control over the masses. Really, this doesn’t play into the music or lyrics too much, so no biggie. It sounds just pretentious enough to be annoying but it’s not. What is left to judge is the music itself, which in some ways was better than I was expecting but falters in some ways as well.

What I will say first is this is a much more interesting and progressive listen than With Teeth, which in some ways is good because it almost seemed like at times With Teeth was tired and burnt out as great as it was, and it borrowed a lot of it’s elements from it’s already sprawling predecessor The Fragile. Year Zero conversely is long, changes it up fast and often, and it establishes it’s own identity better. Reznor hasn’t changed his goals, but that’s good. He still tries to make very good industrial styled music driven by catchy synthesizers, adrenaline pumping beats, and sheer testosterone. What’s good about this is he’s still one of the few people in the business that can make industrial music without acting like a complete tool. The idea now is to be more electronic and less rock. What is convenient about this is Trent can do whatever the hell he wants on the electronic spectrum and still recreate his style with ease, this time without the grindy guitars and such. The beats are now much more toe tapping and the mood can change at a whim from the contemplative grooves reminiscent of The Fragile to electronic dance tracks almost rivaling closer. This is good. The versatility is appreciated.

The biggest problem I find with the music here is Reznor’s vocals. Not his voice though. Like Eddie Vedder, it seems that his voice hasn’t deteriorated at all within the last twenty years. And he is a very good vocalist for what he tries to do. His vocals here are simply mediocre at times. Instead of taking a more melodic approach like his earlier stuff, he now doesn’t seem to know what to do with his vocals and just kind of starts yelling a flat tone every once in a while. It doesn’t completely ruin everything, and it’s a flaw that isn’t too difficult to get over and look past, but it does leave a bitter taste in my, uh, ears. Me, I’m Not otherwise sounds like the most interesting computer glitch you’ve ever heard but is unfortunately kind of ruined by Reznor’s shot at hip hop styled vocals. A complete misfire. The vocals were actually the problem I had with the single Survivalism. This song is a grower, for sure. Reznor’s yells at first sound very ascending and aimless, but he is in fact hitting a note that wasn’t so apparent on the low quality early leaks. It’s a good song, but just not obviously. The album isn’t without it’s downright weak songs. They are mostly towards the last half of the album, and The Greater Good comes to mind as the worst.

But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the strengths are better than the weaknesses. There aren’t as many outstanding songs here as on previous albums, but most everything is at least good. After some consideration I’ve decided that Survivalism is worthy enough to represent the album, and My Violent Heart is the most catchy synthesizer line since Ruiner over ten years ago. This is an album worth cranking the volume on, but there are some recurring demons. Because the album progresses at such a quick pace, often times the best hooks that are worth hanging onto for the span of an entire song are left as interludes. Even the opening instrumental HYPERPOWER! is very good, as stupid as it sounds. And what Reznor has done is successfully removed himself from the introspective pain that he held onto for quite a few years with The Fragile and With Teeth. Once again, this is a very interesting album to listen to and hear develop, and it builds it’s own personality pretty damn well.

BUT. I’m not sure that it is better than With Teeth. Upon further listening things are opening up more and more to me, but in general this stands alongside With Teeth as being weaker than anything else in the discography. This is alright though, because it does have moments that justify it, and at times this can be downright compelling. And to be honest, Nine Inch Nails have never released a bad album. They do, however, have a hard time releasing an outstanding album. It’s still somewhat sleazy industrial music, and there really aren’t that many great songs, but like always the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts. But this album shows promise, it’s inevitable sequel is apparently already being written, and it makes for a fun and surprisingly good angry electronic album. Some people despise it and call it another blemish on popular music and other people are hailing it as a modern alternative rock opera. To be honest, it’s not nearly that bad but at the same not nearly that standout. When you listen to this, just remember not to take the brilliant marketing campaign into too much consideration when you decided how much you like this. If you didn’t like Nine Inch Nails in the first place this won’t convert you, but if you liked the “bands” earlier stuff than this is well worth getting.

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