'Year Zero' succeeds in message
By Kevin Doran for The Daily Collegian on April 20, 2007
I still have the cassette tape of AC/DC's Back in Black. It seems so archaic now in comparison with my huge CD collection (including the CD version of the same album). I don't remember when tapes were overtaken by CDs, but at this point it seems like ancient history.
I will remember Tuesday. The reason is that from this point forth, CDs are no longer simply a retail medium sold in Wal-Mart or City Lights Records or even Amazon.com. Nine Inch Nails has taken the next step in the progression from the gramophone to CDs to the digital era of music with its new album, Year Zero.
The music on the album itself has nothing to do with this progression. Mostly, it's the same style Trent Reznor has always kept, delivering aggressive, layered soundscapes with the tension running high throughout. That's Nine Inch Nails at its best, and though it's not an original style for Reznor, he's still good at it.
The progression comes from the actual physical form of the disc and how it was delivered to the public. Since NIN's last release, With Teeth, Reznor has been playing mind games with his fans. Hidden messages were delivered through tour T-shirts; USB keys were left behind at shows for the purpose of leaking new songs to the hardcore fans. Beyond that, these weren't just songs -- they were different forms of music files, enabling fans to take the raw, digital format of the song and manipulate it into their own remixes.
In a sense, Reznor is giving music back to the masses. It seems odd to compare an industrial metal band to music that pre-dates rock and roll, but this is how music originated. It carried an oral tradition with improvisation and gradual change, and it evolved with each person who carried it on. That's what Reznor is doing by giving fans the ability to change his music. He's carrying on the tradition of oral messaging.
The conceit of the album is carried throughout the songs as well. The album's concept is an old one -- an overbearing government led by theocracy. It's an Orwellian application to the world we currently live in. The signature track of the album, both thematically and musically, is "Capital G," in which Reznor paints the president as a new god, a man who "signs his name with a capital G."
Though the material is heavy-handed in that sense, Reznor's dedication to the concept is commendable. The back cover of the album features a fake warning label remarkably similar to the FBI Anti-Piracy Warning that stands alongside it -- except this label is a USBM (United States Bureau of Morality) Warning, complete with a phone number to call and a tagline reading "BE A PATRIOT - BE AN INFORMER!"
But that's not even the coolest part. The actual physical disc is heat-activated. At room temperature, it's almost completely black. But upon playing the disc, the label changes to white, revealing more hidden messages. I'm not sure exactly what Reznor's telling us, but it's brilliant marketing if not artistic.
Often times an album will come along that is more influential than it is great. The Sex Pistols were one of the most influential bands of the past 30 years, but good musicians they most certainly were not. Year Zero, falls somewhere below The Sex Pistols' Nevermind the Bollocks as far as influence, but somewhere above it as far as musical quality. It's not a fantastic album, but it's a new step forward in the music industry.
Transcribed by UninTY