Nine Inch Nails- Year Zero

Trent Reznor's concept album returns to electronic roots. How does it all hold together?

By Chris Carle for IGN on April 17, 2007

6.6 out of 10

Trent Reznor has made a career of mixing futuristic sound with base desire. Starting with Pretty Hate Machine, he set forth a world view that is fractured and flawed, but very human in the face of a culture that is ever becoming more robotic and unfeeling by the moment.

NIN has had its ups and downs, tinkering incrementally with harder, more distorted sounds and creeping away from the more electronic home base of PHM. With Broken, he dispatched the almost funky vibe of "Down In It" with a barrage of raw-edged metal in the form of "Wish."

After Broken, he mashed the sounds together to form the most aurally diverse record, The Downward Spiral, which featured perhaps the strongest song of his career, "Closer." None of his work since has captured the power and flawed majesty of Reznor atop this throne of decadence.

With Year Zero, Reznor's first studio offering in two years, he returns to a more electronic sound, but a dirtier one than graced PHM. The beats and synth cues have been bathed in decay, feedback and filthy distortion. The guitars aren't fully gone, but they've been downplayed, and the result is an album that maintains the Reznor aesthetic while converting the snarl to something more digital.

This is a self-described concept record, and a bit of an experiment. The story is set fifteen years in the future, and all of the tracks help to unfold a new element of the tale. In it, Reznor paints a dystopian view of mankind, and the electronic barrage is a metaphor for machines asserting control where humanity loses it. All the tracks are written and performed by Reznor himself, and he gets a production boost from collaborator Atticus Ross.

Did the experiment succeed? Mostly. At sixteen tracks, Year Zero begins to blur into itself, as the tempo and general dynamic remains similar throughout. This is a theme record through and through, but at times, it seems like instead of riffing on the theme, each track follows the same format, lurching along on a wave of scummy bass and same-tempo drums.

That's not saying the music is bad, it just doesn't command one's attention the way songs like "Closer," "Wish" and "Something I Can Never Have" have in the past. As Reznor puts it, Year Zero is more of a "sound collage," which at some points on this record, seems like code for "background music".

There are standout tracks, however, and they are the reason to pick up this disc. Beginning with the departure track "The Beginning of the End," this disc offers an altered version of Nine Inch Nails; a slightly toned-down, less angry but even more fatalistic new world order.

Also intriguing is the third track, "Survivalism," with a steroid-fueled chorus over a scramble of electronic insect warble. Employing the standard NIN build to frenetic, hardcore release, "Survivalism" is the standout track on the disc, and the classmate voted most likely to succeed.

The downtempo vibe of "The Good Soldier," combined with a low, growling guitar is another high point, but this disc is front-loaded with gems… as it winds down there is less and less holding it together.

"God Given" is a light amid the wash of sameness that plagues the middle of the album, and there are some cool moments on "The Greater Good," but for the most part, the disc slides into a lazy trip-hop vibe and stays there too long.

What's perhaps most disappointing is the fact that the lyrics could be cribbed from any major dystopic Hollywood movie, and the vision of the future, although possibly accurate, shows no real creativity. The result is an interesting sound scape with relatively little supporting it.

Diehard Nine Inch Nails fans will find plenty to love on this record, and there are enough standalone tracks for more casual fans to embrace individual offerings. However, though it is a concept album and designed to go together, the experience of actually listening to the whole thing gets bland, and track skipping will definitely occur. In fact, if one kept the first five songs on repeat, it's a much stronger effort.

Definitely Download:
1) The Beginning of the End
2) Survivalism
3) God Given

Transcribed by JessicaSarahS

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