Nine Inch Nails
Ghosts I-IV/The Slip

Like its namesake, Ghosts I-IV appeared out of nowhere, suddenly manifesting on nin.com with little advance warning. 36 tracks of ambient instrumentals, it’s exactly the kind of anti-commercial labor of love Trent Reznor’s been hinting at in his mounting criticism of the recording industry’s strangehold on artists and their creations. To that end, he’s put his money where his mouth is, and along with help from copyright provider Creative Commons, Ghosts is available in a variety of incarnations, from mp3 to mail-order double album. (And inevitably, at retail as well.)

Ghosts I starts off with a pair of mournful pieces – soft, pensive piano backed up by vaguely futuristic soundscapes, like Chopin‘s Nocturnes as interpreted by Vangelis. Other tracks throughout the album are similarly contemplative. “Ghost V”‘s smoky bass line (shades of Twin Peaks) creates a film noir vibe, while “Ghost XXVIII”‘s lonely banjo and echoey soundscape plunge you into an underwater Appalachian dreamscape. These are pieces meant for reverie – to zone out to and get lost in.

Problem is, there are some very noisy spirits here as well, all industrial clangs, hissing pistons and skittery beats. And they’re interspersed with the quieter moments, so that the entirety of Ghosts I-IV becomes a very schizophrenic, jagged experience. Of course, with such a modular structure, it’s easy to create your own playlist and order the Ghosts as you like, but I wonder why each ‘album’ wasn’t defined more, with some sort of thematic consistency or mood for each one. It seems as if the I-IV are merely here to break up 36 tracks laid end-to-end.

I also would’ve liked even more experimentation on some tracks, more unexpected instruments and textures. I would’ve thought this loose, episodic presentation would be the perfect structure for that. On the flipside, familiar melodies and textures from the NIN catalog sometimes flicker into view on some Ghosts. You’ll recognize fleeting, slightly altered pieces from “Closer”, “The Warning,” “Just Like You Imagined,” and others. It’s a pleasant surprise when it happens, and never feels derivative.

Overall, Ghosts is at times fascinating, and other times trying, just due to the sheer amount of material here and the haphazard way it’s been arranged and presented. That said, part of NIN‘s appeal has always been in Reznor’s talent for crafting moods and with this collection, he’s focused on just that, in the purest way he can.

Not even a month after Ghosts’ physical release, Reznor suddenly drops another full album, The Slip. Offered for free via nin.com, it’s accompanied by this message: “thank you for your continued and loyal support over the years – this one’s on me.” Somewhere, Thom Yorke is smiling, record executives are baffled, and fans are ecstatic. Thanks, Trenta Claus!

I don’t know the genesis of The Slip – B-sides from With Teeth or Year Zero, a just a burst of catharsis and expression? Who cares, it’s on my iTunes within minutes, and the included PDF of minimalist album art has already nested itself in the software. (Bonus: each piece of art in the file assigns itself to each of the album’s 10 tracks, so that The Slip actually sports a variety of covers. Very cool.) Okay, so what does it sound like?

“999,999”‘s climbing drone breaks into “1,000,000” – stripped-down, straightahead rock which comes off like the little brother of “The Hand That Feeds.” Simple, yet effective and energizing, it seems to symbolize Reznor’s new work ethic: get in, get shit done and move on to the next thing. Here, the next thing is “Letting You”, a fuzzed-out blast of punk laid over sped-up drum-and-bass beats. Dirty and frantic, it’s not really an appealing track, but the next two, “Discipline” and “Echoplex”, make up for it. Both sound more thought-out and designed, featuring danceable beats and catchier melodies – no surprise that Reznor leaked these tracks before the rest of the album.

After that, The Slip settles into a more sedate mood. The album’s quiet core, “Lights in the Sky”, is murmured over a muted piano, and then exhales into post-rock drone “Corona Radiata”. Instrumental “The Four of Us are Dying” lopes and smolders like predecessors “Help Me I Am in Hell” and “The Mark Has Been Made”, and album closer “Demon Seed” jitters and twitches with restless energy.

Ultimately, The Slip feels less of a complete journey than The Downward Spiral, The Fragile or Year Zero, but those were all meticulously crafted experiences, and the m.o. here seems to be different: creation for creation’s sake, and lots of it. Unencumbered by expectations or marketing demands or deadlines, it seems Reznor’s free to burn through as many canvases as he likes, with whatever brushwork – delicate or spontaneous – he decides to employ. At this point, he’s certainly got the palette and arsenal to do whatever he sees fit. Just as long as he keeps it coming.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
May 6th, 2008

Comments

  1. Commented by: Apollyon

    Corona Radiata has been one of the most played songs on my player as of late; excellent music (or should I say backdrop) when trying to dwell into sleep. The Slip is a good album, especially considering the cost.


  2. Commented by: Dimaension X

    I preferred the instrumental tracks from “The Fragile”, but both albums here represent a new era for Mr. Reznor. As the reviewer says, he seems to be sick of the whole commercial music thing, and really wants to experiment.

    Experimental music doesn’t always work, but you’ve got to at least give the artist credit for taking some chances.


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