Puzzle-concept 'Year Zero' among Nine Inch Nails' best

By By Greg Kot for Chicago Tribune on April 8, 2007

Puzzle-concept 'Year Zero' among Nine Inch Nails' best | Chicago Tribune
By Greg Kot
Tribune music critic
Published April 8, 2007

The new Nine Inch Nails album, "Year Zero" (Interscope), won't be officially released until April 17, but it's already sent cyberspace into a tizzy. A guerrilla-marketing campaign has generated a beehive of clues, gossip, rumors and gamesmanship that has transformed "Year Zero" from a conventional album into a new-media phenomenon.

Novelistic in scope and labyrinthine in detail, "Year Zero" plays like a digital-era response to operatic rock albums such as Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and the Who's "Quadrophenia."

Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor designed "Year Zero" as a dystopian soundtrack set 15 years in the future, in which religious zealots control the government, drugs sedate the populace and a mysterious "Presence" haunts a world buckling beneath terrorism, global warming and nuclear war. Reznor's operatives have scattered clues about the album's themes on a proliferating network of Web sites, MP3 music files, videos, phone lines, tour T-shirts, even USB drives found in bathrooms in Portugal, Spain and England.

Fans are doing the rest, swapping files and information on message boards and through e-mails. Slowly they're piecing together a story line for Reznor's forthcoming concept album that is expected to continue unfolding over the next year. In this scenario, the album and subsequent tour will arrive as significant pieces in a larger puzzle, parts of a work in progress -- an elaborate new-media narrative with no defined beginning, middle or conclusion.

The album, only Reznor's fifth studio release since 1989, is a 16-track opus that ranks with his best work. It's neither as dense and orchestrated as his 1999 double-CD "The Fragile," nor as rock-oriented as the 2005 follow-up, "With Teeth." Instead, one-man-band Reznor manipulates and abuses electronics to create sparse songs of corruption, decay and decline. In place of guitar solos or keyboard interludes, Reznor delivers sheets of white noise that sound like churning coffee grinders or trash compactors.

Yet the album also contains some of Reznor's most expressive and nuanced singing. He works the quiet-loud spectrum with the confidence of an artist who revels in the extremes, rather than burrowing toward the soft, gray middle.

Songs arrive from multiple perspectives that fill in a portrait of a world closing in on its own extinction. In "The Good Soldier," the narrator occupies a trench on the front lines of an unnamed war: "There is nowhere to hide/God is on our side/I keep telling myself." Self-doubt consumes his subdued delivery and the music blurs his vision like a sandstorm.

Much of the music was created on a laptop, a sparse matrix of blips, beats and sonic spasms ordered into songs. Noise figures as prominently as melody, beats tick like time bombs, and Reznor's voice expertly impersonates a parade of strung-out survivors clinging to their last days on a dying planet.

Resignation overwhelms "The Great Destroyer," Reznor's wan voice struggling to be heard in a forest of electronic outbursts. With "Another Version of the Truth," the album takes a turn for the elegiac, and drifts to a whispered conclusion. "In This Twilight" finds Reznor staring into the sun as the Earth revolves around it for the final time.

If there's a gripe, it's that "Year Zero" could've been tighter, punchier. But then, few rock operas have been defined by their concision. What's more, there are legions of "Year Zero" fans on the Internet who have only just begun to explore Reznor's mind field.

For them, this is a multimedia experience that can't be contained by a 20th Century format as antiquated as a concept album.



Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune

Transcribed by JessicaSarahS

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