NINE INCH NAILS: YEAR ZERO (3 Stars)
By FIONA SHEPHERD for Scotsman.com Living on April 20, 2007
PRIOR to the last presidential election in the US, cultural agitator/enemy of the state (delete according to susceptibility to moral outrage) Marilyn Manson stated that he personally hoped the Republicans would hold on to power, because it would give him and other artists/dissidents something to kick against. Plus his CDs would be sure to be awarded more of those cute Parental Advisory stickers, which help to sell albums.
Since George W Bush secured his second term, musicians have been flexing their protest muscles in respectable numbers. Green Day scored a massive international hit with their American Idiot album, lampooning the most lampoonable White House resident of all time, while the likes of Neil Young and Conor "Bright Eyes" Oberst have also registered their wrath in album form.
Now it is the turn of Manson's old mucker, Trent Reznor, the man who is Nine Inch Nails, to throw his black leather gauntlet down. Being industrial rock's premier prophet of doom, we can trust Reznor to make an appropriately apocalyptic song and dance about the state of his nation - and, by extrapolation, the fate of the world. In short, he's gone and made a concept album.
According to the blurb, Year Zero "began as an experiment with noise on a laptop and led to a daydream about the end of the world". You read that right - laughing boy Reznor doesn't have nightmares about the end of the world, he daydreams about it. Must be a real party in his head.
While Manson is an astute manipulator of moral flashpoints for the purposes of theatrical shock rock with a didactic edge, the humourless Reznor is so immersed in his role as brooding messenger of misery that it doesn't seem like part of an act - maybe he really is that morbidly inclined.
But if Reznor has no truck with anything as frivolous as entertainment, he has at least created a concept for the fans to play with. According to his dystopian vision, Year Zero is 2022, the year the human race is Born Again. Which apparently means that we are currently living in the year -15BA (Born Again).
Track titles such as The Beginning Of The End, Survivalism and The Great Destroyer intimate that it's a jungle out there, while on the inner sleeve there is a photo of one hand wielding a Bible and another wielding a rifle. It's not hard to see where Reznor is going with this and the track Capital G lays it all out: "Don't try to tell me how some power can corrupt a person, you haven't had enough to know what it's like."
Reznor's jaw is set firmly from the off. The album opens with a stentorian march, building to an intense cacophony. From the opening lyric, "down on your knees", he pronounces calamitous judgment on his own nation; later, on God Given, he sticks the boot into self-appointed proclaimers of absolute spiritual truth. Meet Your Master similarly satirises US rhetoric about "bringing peace" to its military targets.
References to conflict abound. Given Reznor's propensity for chest-beating bombast, The Good Soldier is a surprisingly delicate number, though there is nothing delicate about its description of perpetual war in the Middle East - "blood hardens in the sand, cold metal in my hand". Reznor considers the payback a couple of tracks later on, in My Violent Heart: "There's bullet holes where my compassion used to be."
Lead single Survivalism buzzes with agreeably blunt urgency. Radical rapper Saul Williams lends his righteous ire to proceedings, which cover environmental ignorance, mindless consumption and totalitarian repression en route to the singalong chorus: "I got my propaganda, I got revisionism, I got my violence in high-def ultra-realism, all a part of this great nation, I got my fist, I got my plan, I got survivalism."
But, ambitious though Year Zero might appear at first glance, Reznor has nothing new to offer musically. Several tracks consist of little more than a minimal, barren, mechanical rumble and muttered or screamed vocals. Penultimate track In This Twilight is the most commercial sound here. Along with closer Zero Sum, it offers a glimmer of hope with its "you and me at the end of the world" sentiments.
If you like - or maybe, more pertinently, if you don't like - what you hear, you can find out more about Reznor's cheery vision on www.nin.com or via hidden messages in NIN merchandise (which seems a cunning way of saying "buy this T-shirt").
It's worth noting that much of the album sounds prescient in the light of the tragic events in Virginia this week. Actually, anyone could write a song about the culture of rage and violence and find real-life echoes, but only the black-clad likes of Reznor ever seem to be targeted as scapegoats - Marilyn Manson came in for heavy criticism after the Columbine shootings in 1999.
Fortunately, Reznor has prepared his own advisory sticker for this CD, stating that "consuming or spreading this material may be deemed subversive by the United States Bureau of Morality". Maybe he's not so humourless after all.