Dark days ahead

By Jason Nahrung for Couriermail.com.au on April 18, 2007

AS EVER, Trent Reznor is not happy, but those who found 2005's With Teeth to be a swing towards mainstream rock will be. On Year Zero, Reznor returns to his nasty, industrial roots, fuzzing out the guitars, turning the synths to cat-scratch and howl, gushing steam and bashing iron.

Year Zero is a revisitation of his breakthrough, genre-forming Pretty Hate Machine, given maturity as it also draws on the noisier elements of The Fragile and Downward Spiral and the rock structure of With Teeth to present Reznor's many musical facets in a neat, angry package.

The album is envisioned as a dramatic production, describing an authoritarian future with mystical and science-fiction overtones that would make Orwell and Huxley proud.

The curtain opens with a furious instrumental set to a martial beat, a hellish soundtrack backed by mass screams. This is the landscape of the apocalypse, and its chief architect is clearly US President George W. Bush.

Reznor, master of discord, shows his stuff on The Beginning of the End, which begins as an offcut from With Teeth and ends in a swirl of wild sound more at home on the Downward Spiral. Song after song, with barely a pause between them as the scenes change, warns of reaping the consequences of one's actions. And oh, the cynicism: for example, on Survivalism, the anti-military anthem "you see your world on fire, don't act so surprised".

Nowhere is the target of his ire more obvious than on the bouncy little ditty, Capital G, which embraces the big end of town as well as Dubya. Musically, it wouldn't be out of place on a Marilyn Manson album.

On the slinky The Good Soldier, there's dislocation in a society that has spun out of control: "I am trying to believe, this is not where I should be." The track is a standout, dropping volume, chiming in with bells, sucking the listener into its despair with its easy, nodding mood.

On Vessel, he takes responsibility, for everyone, for having swallowed the official line that has led to America's own downward spiral.

And on it goes, spanning 16 tracks: songs of protest and sorrow, despair and disillusionment.

An alien encounter is envisioned on The Warning: what is lacks in lyrical subtlety it makes up for with bass and guitar work.

God Given hits its mark, aiming at the religious right and those who use false righteousness to justify immoral beliefs. It is no mistake that the Bible and a machine gun are displayed with even weight on the cover art. In Reznor's vision, the gap between the haves and have-nots is a chasm.

The album's not all sledgehammer politics, just mostly. On Me, I'm Not, for instance, Reznor goes all breathy, giving some of his most interesting vocal performances in ages in an introspective moment.

Another Version of the Truth gives a needed pause, the instrumental letting Reznor indulge his piano playing skills. And there's a rare moment of optimism – or perhaps it's just delusion – on In This Twilight, almost a pop song by Reznor's standards.

This is Reznor taking a major step out – but not completely – of his usual terrain of inner angst. Indeed, his songs of internal dysfunction have lost a little cachet – just how uncomfortable a life can a man have when he's as successful as Reznor, especially with his addictions behind him?

As such, Year Zero perhaps marks a new stage for Reznor, and a welcome one. With his songwriting and studio nous, he has supplied a real soundtrack for Bush's fear years.

Jason Nahrung
Nine Inch Nails plays the Riverstage, Brisbane, on May 7.

Transcribed by JessicaSarahS

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