By Don Kaye for Blabbermouth on April 17, 2007

An extreme right-wing theocratic dictatorship has taken over the U.S. and is waging war against the Middle East, while trying to keep the populace drugged by poisoning its drinking water. The environment and society is collapsing, civil liberties are no more, and Christian military police raid people's private homes and ban "subversive" entertainment at will. Sound familiar?

OK, maybe not quite, but we've still got 15 years to go. That's how far in the future Trent Reznor has set his brilliant new NINE INCH NAILS album, "Year Zero", a conceptual project about a near-future world that's on the edge of political, social and ecological apocalypse. And don't forget the "Presence", a vision of what looks like a giant hand that appears out of the sky to the denizens of this frightening future world and is either a mass hallucination or…something else.

Reznor, who wrote and performed the entire album by himself, doesn't spell out every single detail of his storyline in the record's 16 tracks (much more of it can be found at the various web sites that have been put up as part of a genius marketing campaign to tie in with the album's release, which paint a truly disturbing portrait of a world gone badly wrong). But he gives just enough lyrically and musically to create a piece of work that is his most unified, mature and atmospheric to date. "Year Zero" even becomes moving in its final moments, a huge step forward for an artist whose often mechanized music has traded mostly in rage and self-pity, but not enough in a true sense of loss.

Loss is what "Year Zero" is about: the loss of our humanity, the loss of our minds, the loss of our lives as we know them. Reznor is clearly infuriated and alarmed at the state of the world and the U.S. today, especially since America is currently led by a delusional, tyrannical liar and war criminal who thinks he gets his orders directly from God. But the bigger picture of his storyline also encompasses what has been done to the planet itself, and the apathy that seems to have infected society at large (where the identity of Anna Nicole Smith's baby daddy is bigger news than how many people were killed in Iraq that day). Like where Reznor's coming from or not, but he's made an album that's about something, with a point of view about the human race and an unflattering one at that.

All of this is related in the context of some of Reznor's catchiest, yet most haunting and jagged music yet. More electronic in nature than 2005's "With Teeth" (which featured live drums from Dave Grohl on a number of tracks, as opposed to the many sampled beats here), "Year Zero" also feels raw at the same time and not as packed with the kind of wall-of-sound layering that makes many of his contemporaries' record either headache-inducing or just inaccessible. "Hyperpower!" begins the record with a frantic, metalized march, going straight into the midtempo rock of "The Beginning of the End" and the faster-paced fibrillation of "Survivalism". The album keeps up the aggressive pace for much of its first half on songs like the swaggering "Capital G" (written from the point of view of every Rush Limbaugh-loving moron out there) before going to a quieter, more melancholy and eerier place on "The Great Destroyer" and "Zero-Sum".

"May God have mercy on our dirty little hearts," sings Reznor at the end, and much of "Year Zero" sounds like the effort of a solitary person in a dark, remote room, mourning a world spiraling quickly downward to death.

If you're looking for a metal record here, or even a heavy slab of industrial music, you might as well look elsewhere. But if you want an immersive, encompassing musical experience, "Year Zero" lives up to those ambitions. Let's just hope the world Reznor has conjured up stays securely within his mind.

Transcribed by JessicaSarahS

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