Nine Inch Nails

By JOHN D. SELIG for The Harvard Crimson on April 20, 2007

So here we are, with Nine Inch Nails’ 24th “halo” (or, in non-NIN speak, their fifth full-length release). Mastermind Trent Reznor has come a long way from his humble beginnings as a studio janitor. Thousands of rabid fans worldwide have been counting the days until “Year Zero’s” release, but a cautionary note to those same listeners: this is not the norm for Reznor and co.—and the change might be hard to swallow.

As a concept album dealing with religion, mind-control drugs, and a fascist American government, “Year Zero” is set in a world straight out of a Philip K. Dick story. It’s definitely a new experiment for NIN. It’s also a musical departure: “Year Zero” features a substantial number of ambient and electronic pieces. And while these songs constitute a major change of pace, the band’s trademark intensity still shows up, in a big way. The first two singles, “Survivalism” and “Capital G”—arguably the two songs most like the Nine Inch Nails of old—still break some new ground for the band, bringing in some snazzy stylistic elements (and, on the former track, hip-hop artist Saul Williams) for backup.

”Year Zero” isn’t a mellow listen by any standard, but it doesn’t have the same type of edge as other NIN albums. The album uses smoother production values to create surprising moods—it occasionally even grooves. Although it’s a cool track, “My Violent Heart” is so studio-slick that it will probably see as much live performance as past hit “Perfect Drug”: that is to say, none. And while a couple of tracks—like “Survivalism”—will help to sate the hunger of those seeking another “Downward Spiral,” the album as a whole is slightly more reminiscent of early, “Pretty Hate Machine” Nails.

“Year Zero” is clearly trying to tell a story, but at its close, we’re left wondering what happened. The accompanying multimedia propaganda bonanza, which consists of creepy symbols and cryptic Web sites, doesn’t explain much either. The standalone album is much more atmospheric than Nails’ typical hammer-to-the-face fare, and it amounts to an intriguing, if not always coherent, experience.

While some of the songs will surely disappoint the NIN faithful, nearly all contribute to the album’s conceptual bent and are worth a listen. If nothing else, this album will fuel anticipation for the slated sequel. It wouldn’t be surprising if on the follow up, Nine Inch Nails rallied and hit us twice as hard.

Transcribed by UninTY

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