Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have never been ones to play by the rules, and with the dual release of this fifth and sixth entry in the Ghosts series, the pair presents the more empathetic side of Nine Inch Nails; as the two albums were released for free via the band’s website, Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts are Nine Inch Nails’ contribution to succor the despair, cynicism, and hopelessness felt during the COVID-19 pandemic, the duo stating that the situation “has really made us appreciate the power and need for connection.”
Every song on Together moves at a reserved, almost languid pace, steadily lulling the listener into a state of simultaneous tension and tranquility. Each passing second is another brushstroke upon an aural canvas, each minute introducing new tonal colors that all coalesce into a vibrant image in the listener’s mind. This is best revealed in tracks like “Apart” and “Still Right Here,” their excessive lengths qualified by separate movements that in true NIN fashion test the boundaries of noise and melody, the latter track featuring the record’s most dissonant moments of ascending distorted guitar, distant voices, noisy feedback, manic electronic sequences, and lush pianos. There are plenty of individual segments that longtime fans will recognize from NIN, as the darkly meditative “Your Touch” could be a companion piece to “Losing Hope” as its distinct bass line is offset by a whistling synthesizer solo and mournful pianos, while the major-key patterns of “Together” recall the interludes of The Fragile, the track eventually dissolving into a wash of rhythmic pulsing and distorted noise that is somehow reminiscent of the coda to Peter Gabriel’s “San Jacinto.” As well, other traces of past influences can be detected, such as in the opening “Letting Go While Holding On” with its almost choral drone upon which the malleted marimba or xylophones trickle like rain evoking the Berlin-era collaborations of David Bowie and Brian Eno, while the Moog melodies that wax and wane through the pensive waves of “With Faith” are sure to inspire Replicant memories of Los Angeles 2019, the breathy sampled voices acting like a mantra for the plucking synth sound every NIN fan knows.
Locusts may follow similar structural patterns, but the album is a far darker, more harrowing affair than its companion, seeming more like an exercise in anxiety over serenity. Tracks like “The Cursed Clock,” “When It Happens (Don’t Mind Me),” and “Your New Normal” test the listener with abrasively high frequencies, the first track particularly so as one can imagine a sensation of grinding one’s teeth to the consonant jabs of piano reminiscent of György Ligeti, while the latter is offset by its more orchestral flavor, the scrapes and shuffles of what could be an approaching figure adding to the nervous anticipation of… something. The recurring use of trumpet on certain tracks provides something of an atonal but harmonic anchor akin to a neo-noir thriller, the ascending tumult of discordant electronics and insistent pianos whose tuning often seems to fluctuate; this is especially so in tracks like “A Really Bad Night” with the crackling vinyl filter adding to the sense of half-remembered reverie instilled by distant voices and the sudden recession of droning bass and pads, or “So Tired” as caustic chords crash atop sustained bass. One of the most engaging tracks on Locusts as far as its rhythmic intricacy is the appropriately titled “Run Like Hell” with its striking repetitions of rolling bass tones, plucky synths, trumpets, weeping violin-esque passages, and a short burst of powerful drumming, while the arhythmic layers of “Turn This Off Please” and the organic sounds of “Just Breathe” evoking different aspects of the human voice and breath are among the most sonically complex heard in NIN’s repertoire. There exists the possibility that Locusts encompasses material Reznor and Ross composed for the film The Woman in the Window, which could perhaps explain that album’s darkly focused ambience more befitting a psychological thriller.
As part of the Ghosts series, it makes sense that the music is less lyrical and more avant-garde, owing more to Reznor’s and Ross’ forays into film scoring over the last decade. While not strictly a double album, Together and Locusts are certainly complementary in their stark contrasts; the cliché of light and dark does apply for better or worse, with both albums serving up all aspects of the Nine Inch Nails tonal palette to provide alternating motifs of melody and dissonance, harmony and noise, organic and synthetic, soothing and abrasive… it’s all here. However, it is perhaps best not to take in the two albums’ collective two-and-a-half hour runtime in one sitting for the disparity between Together and Locusts could be jarring to the point of mental fracture.
Ghosts V: Together
Ghosts VI: Locusts