Just last week it was announced that Nine Inch Nails were making good on their promise of new music in 2016, with a five-track EP, Not The Actual Events, released today via Apple Music.
NIN mastermind Trent Reznor has long proven himself to be an incredibly talented polymath; the importance of NIN is undeniable – one need only look at albums like Pretty Hate Machine, The Fragile and Downward Spiral for a glimpse into how they pushed boundaries and challenged notions about rock, industrial and electronic music.
Reznor (along with close collaborator and now-official NIN member Atticus Ross) also composes film scores, winning an Academy Award in 2011 for David Fincher’s The Social Network. On top of that he’s worked on several other musical projects, video games, and the development of streaming platform Apple Music. He also had his third child last November and a fourth earlier this month. So exactly where he found the time to record a new EP is a mystery.
Not The Actual Events is NIN’s first release since 2013’s Hesitation Marks. Reznor said that it will be “unfriendly” and “fairly impenetrable”, which, frankly, is exactly what you want to fucking hear about new NIN.
It’s not easy for a band as influential and sonically recognisable to release new music more than two decades after making their mark. Some might say that their sound, which was once cutting edge and new, now lacks the relevance and vitality that once made them so crucial. As vivacious as this EP is – indeed it’s their punchiest release in years – it’d never rank higher than their core canon, but that’s neither criticism nor surprise.
Overall the release is structured with absolute precision, a skill no doubt honed by Reznor and Ross’ soundtrack work. Reznor even described the release by noting, “It’s an EP because that ended up being the proper length to tell that story.” Musically, it feels like Reznor has cherrypicked his favourite sounds from previous albums, strung them together, and formed a caustic yet easy-to-follow beginning, middle and end.
We start off in post-apocalyptic post-punk territory with the short and choppy Branches/Bones, before entering a kind of twisted techno playland on Dear World,. With the controlled aggression in the verses, rapid synth rhythms and repetitive techno vibes, it basically feels like a bleak Kraftwerk. “Everything is getting unfamiliar now, trajectory in decline, and we’ve become obsolete one frame at a time,” he despairingly opines.
One of the two absolute standouts on the EP is six-minute middle peak She’s Gone Away. The previous track ends on a computerised voice saying “Yes, everyone seems to be asleep,” which trails off into white noise. From there, we are heralded in with huge, brazen, booming drums. Reznor’s low tone is a stark complement to the pounding percussion, while feedback fills the spaces in between; this is a kind of sound he has perfected over and over again. There’s a creepy, sinister feel to it, embellished by the dark lyrics: “A little mouth opened up inside, yeah, I was watching on the day she died. We keep licking while the skin turns black, cut along the length, but you can’t get the feeling back.”
The Idea Of You comes next, a romping, stomping jaunt through heavy riffs, ominous keys, speedy percussion (from guest drummer Dave Grohl) and muffled self-deprecating vocals. It opens up into a brief but wild, chorus explosion before plunging back into the murky verse.
Saving the best for last, Burning Bright (Field on Fire) was released a few hours early, and is my favourite NIN track in years. While the rest of the EP drew on familiar elements, I was genuinely not expecting such a meaty, sludgy finale. Massive distortion and droning chords open out to what’s got to be one of the heaviest NIN soundscapes ever. “Look at this pathetic place I made,” he spits out; you can almost taste the disgust. “With little bits of sticks and hair, and anything I found along the way.” The dizzying instrumental layers continue to grow bigger and more frenetic, with screeching guitar shreds (courtesy of none other than Dave Navarro), off-beat vocal howls, and an overwhelming wall of sound that completely envelops you from start to end. Fuck. What a banger.
Nine Inch Nails don’t need to release more music; there’s nothing they could do to make themselves more important, but this EP proves that they’re still capable of producing excellent music, which is lucky given that Reznor has also now announced two major NIN projects for 2017. No, this EP will not stand up to their most famous works. Most of it is crafted from sounds we already know and love; if the lyrics weren’t so damn menacing, it might even feel a little tired at times. However, it’s still a fantastic release, and She’s Gone Away and Burning Bright (Field on Fire) are some of his best songs in at least a decade.
Unfriendly? Damn right. Impenetrable? Not quite, but close enough. Reznor and Ross have sure as hell ended 2016 with one loud goddamn bang.