Nine Inch Nails
Year Zero

Before its release, much had been written about Year Zero as a concept album: the anti-Bush/1984 storyline; the intricate alternate-reality-game’s online narrative; even how spectral analysis of certain soundbursts produce the cover’s bizarre Hand of God image. All cool stuff, but I’m more interested in how the music’s evolved.

Since the days of The Fragile, Trent Reznor has said he’s wanted to move towards a more groove/funk-oriented sound. Surprisingly, Prince has come up as a reference a few times. While songs like “Into the Void” and “Only” (on The Fragile and With Teeth, respectively) have fulfilled that promise, other tracks like “You Know What You Are” (also on WT) seemed to be throwbacks to an angrier time, retreads of previous metallic lash-outs like “March of the Pigs” and “Wish”. Much as I love those songs, the aggression’s recently seemed forced and anachronistic – this was most apparent during their set at Coachella ’05, where the explosive metal punctured the otherwise mellow mood of the weekend like so much sonic shrapnel.

So I’m happy to say that although Reznor’s still as pissed off as ever, he’s channeled it in another direction, crafting what are essentially dance/rock songs that show their venom with noise, chaos and plenty of groove. Not to say that this sounds anything like the dark, sugary-synth pop of Pretty Hate Machine. Instead, the soundscape here is one of clanging, syncopated insanity, like the unholy marriage of big beat, P-Funk and Aphex Twin.

It’s not 100% new – he’s ventured out into this kind of textural chaos before – see “Happiness in Slavery” – but never with so much purpose and consistency. Just try not to be wowed by the second half of “Vessel”, which sounds like a bug zapper being raped by ProTools, and yet remains cogent and intelligible.

The busy, scraping palette does get monotonous after awhile, though – too many clattery midtempo funk-dirges jammed back to back, with not enough of the atmospheric respites that made The Fragile or The Downward Spiral such haunting, enveloping listens. A few such moments are reserved for the album’s finale, but even then, they’re still too cluttered to breathe. Maybe that’s the point – the entire album is claustrophobic with beats and effects and staticky gloom, a nod to the omnipresent Big Brother/Electric Eye of Year Zero‘s America.

Which brings us to the storyline. It’s not a full narrative a la Queensryche‘s Operation:Mindcrime, but more of a fragmented view of different characters within Year Zero‘s oppressive society. Opener “Hyperpower!” establishes the Patriot State of Year Zero with a mounting martial beat, complete with cheering crowds – shades of the opener from another classic concept album, Pink Floyd‘s The Wall. The angry, media-resistant loners get their anthem in the frantic “Survivalism”, which succeeds despite an awkwardly shouted chorus. “The Good Soldier” is spare and methodical, like a military march, only exposing its softness via some subtly placed keys. And George W. Bush gets his as well in “Capital G”, all self-important proclamations and delusions over a swaggering dance floor stomp.

While interesting, I can’t say it’s completely riveting – you really need to delve into the depths of the websites to get at much of the content, as if the album were meant to be a companion and not the other way around. I actually had a better experience listening to this while reading the first two books of dystopian graphic novel series DMZ (which chronicles America’s Second Civil War, with New York City starring as Baghdad – great stuff).

Ultimately, none of this is a major concern, because after all, we’re here for more of Reznor’s studio wizardry. And he does deliver – new soundscapes, a new approach, and some of the most chaotic, audacious pieces of sonic craftsmanship I’ve heard in a long time. Just have some Advil on hand.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
May 3rd, 2008

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