Nine Inch Nails
Album: Not the Actual Events EP
Blurb: While described “an unfriendly, fairly impenetrable record,” with plenty of miasmal, oppressively noisy production to boot, the latest EP from Nine Inch Nails is more of a return to the band’s earlier, more aggressive style than they or the audience may care to admit.
What can truly be said about Nine Inch Nails that hasn’t been espoused numerous times by fans, critics, and fellow musicians alike? As much admired as despised for exposing the mainstream audience to the unorthodox stylings of underground music, the impact that Trent Reznor and his cohorts over nearly three decades is undeniable. In 2013, Reznor gave the world Hesitation Marks, which was one of his most polarizing efforts for its blend of upbeat pop sensibilities, the likes of which we’ve not heard from him since his earliest synthpop experiments, with his usual top-notch production and gritty soundscapes. It wasn’t necessarily a “happy” record, but it was the most accessible and upbeat sounding Nine Inch Nails had ever been… and why not? As “Everything” began, Reznor himself said quite proudly (if sarcastically) “I survived everything.” The man had endured all the pitfalls of failure and success, surviving substance addiction, winning numerous awards, and earning a respectable place in music history for the foreseeable future. What was there to be angry about? Now after three years, we’ve been granted an EP of new material – Not the Actual Events, five songs clocking in at a total of just over 21 minutes, with Reznor and his right hand man Atticus Ross giving us what he had termed, “an unfriendly, fairly impenetrable record that we needed to make.”
A pulsating bass and metallic beat drenched in the kind of acidic distortion that has become a Nine Inch Nails signature, stuttering echoes and groans of droning noise underscore Reznor’s voice, steadily rising in intensity to explode into a seething cacophony that makes “Branches/Bones” a deceptively catchy if all-too-brief introduction to the EP. As he screams, “I don’t care anymore,” and “Feels like I’ve been here before,” it is made readily apparent that despite his claims of impenetrability and unfriendliness, this is the closest resemblance to the early ‘90s Nine Inch Nails that many have adored and missed. In a similar fashion, “The Idea of You” is a vicious track featuring Dave Grohl’s familiarly powerful drumming, muscular guitar riffs, and dissonant pianos that erupt into polyrhythmic flights of bombast that guarantee the song’s strength in a live setting. On the other hand, “Dear World” is more electronically centered and almost danceable with its jittery synth sequence and nervous drum patterns, ghostly swells of pads and Reznor’s restrained voice echoing upon itself putting the listener ill at ease. If anything on Not the Actual Events can be called impenetrable, it would be the slower tracks like “She’s Gone Away” and “Burning Bright (Field On Fire),” both of which trudge along with the mechanical groove of a broken down factory drenched in its own sludgy excretions. Howls of feedback and stuttering power drill electronics wax and wane as Reznor and wife Mariqueen Maandig harmonize amid the sonic miasma to make “She’s Gone Away” strangely enticing, while the shrill scowls and mordant atmospheres of “Burning Bright (Field On Fire),” Dave Navarro’s energetic guitars buried in the sonic murk and mire, end the EP in a characteristically dramatic and unsettling manner.
Not the Actual Events is not so much the “unfriendly, fairly impenetrable” record that Nine Inch Nails would have us believe, and for some now so accustomed to disliking anything Trent Reznor has done since The Downward Spiral, it will be far too little way too late. Others may continue to marvel at Reznor’s exceptional skills as a producer, which on this EP, along with Ross’ input now as an official member, are pushed to such extremes that without the benefit of some well trained ears and high end sound systems, a great many of the nuances of each track will be lost, which bodes well for discovery through repeated listening (this can certainly be said for the vocals, often rendered in such a way that the lyrics are barely decipherable). After the accessibility of Hesitation Marks, the EP will be a welcome bit of nostalgia – whether intended or not – for a fair share of the band’s audience, and while it may not represent Trent Reznor’s creative peak, it can at least be stated that he’s by no means at the nadir of his abilities.