Following the latest releases of their Ghost series albums we look at Nine Inch Nails transformation from brutality to beauty.
It seems that Nine Inch Nails version 2020 is not being taken as seriously as it should.
If Trent Reznor‘s brilliant two-part EP series followed by the David Bowie inspired Bad Witch wasn’t enough to turn heads, then he probably never will.
However, despite the fact that people can’t shake off the industrial noise-terror miscellany of the 90s and the sanitised mansion-rock of the early 00s, make no mistake, Nine Inch Nails aren’t a nostalgic concern.
Reznor has evolved this project into something fascinating and this latest surprise release of Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts couldn’t come at a better moment as the world faces the most uncertain time of our generation.
In 2007, Reznor gave us a snapshot of what he aimed to achieve with the new age version of Nine Inch Nails.
Presented live, Year Zero was a splintered version of hazy noise-rock vehemence. After the sub-par offering that was With Teeth, Nine Inch Nails took stock and hit the reset button and live, it showed.
The second half of the Year Zero set consisted of abrasive electronic music that paid homage to festival rave culture – not something Nine Inch Nails adherents were accustomed to. In any case, many walked away feeling something different was in the air. The needle had shifted.
The first Ghosts series followed shortly after in 2008. This was where Reznor drew the line in the sand, and although admirable, the results were somewhat misguided.
After all, there were plenty of ambient and neoclassical merchants plying their trade, not limited to Nils Frahm, Ben Frost and Stars Of The Lid. Reznor was wrongly accused of catching the wave of what was in vogue at the time.
Then something happened.
Soundtracks seemed like the gateway for Reznor to spread his creative wings and after drafting in English producer and audio engineer Atticus Ross, a new dawn emerged.
Successful film scores for The Social Network (2010), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) and Gone Girl (2014) unleashed a new creative vitality for Reznor.
While many of his 90s contemporaries were on reform tours and celebrating album anniversaries on the back of the rejuvenated vinyl boom, along with Ross, Reznor was tucked away in studios with a new found energy, exploring the world of film, providing blankets of dark, luscious textures to the big screen.
While Nine Inch Nails‘ very underrated Hesitation Marks landed on shelves in 2013, which was followed by a world tour, Reznor‘s main focus last decade remained entrenched in film and it continued last when he and Ross picked up the score for the first season of HBO‘s brilliant first season of the Watchmen (2019).
This is where heavens opened up.
Spanning over three volumes, Watchmen: Volume 1 and 3 in particular encapsulated what the duo had set out to achieve from the off.
Tender ambient music that whirrs with sheets of darkness that reach every corner of the universe; Reznor‘s piano playing is unique. Beautiful, actually. Tender and all encompassing, worlds away from anything Nine Inch Nails of yesteryear have presented.
And under two weeks ago, Reznor and Ross decided to uncloak this new found aesthetic of seamless arrays of sound and feed it to the beast that is Nine Inch Nails.
The results is Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts, two new albums which were made available for free on the NIN website.
The music that comprises both albums aren’t songs. They are compositions.
Ghosts V: Together carries the burden of hope with eight tender piano hymns designed to break your heart.
It’s not only the fractured ghostscapes that pull at your heart strings. The song titles alone are enough to evoke the strongest emotions.
It starts with Letting Go While Holding On. Nine minutes plus of dystopian drone that’s pulled apart by ether-floating ambience.
The title track sees Reznor at his very finest. The gentle pianos give the track a hymnal quality, brimming with tear-jerking funeral-scapes. Tender vistas of resonance that transport you to perimeters of heaven where you can feel the close presence of once lost souls.
Ross has his moment in the sun, too, of course. On Apart he weaves layers of emotive mansion-high synths to ride across the terrains of Reznor minimalist piano. Together, they form a coalition of sound made for the angels.
Still Right Here closes Together and what a perfect closer it is, radiating like the sun off the ocean. It’s a track you could associate with Sigur Ros during the () era.
Together‘s companion piece, Locusts, while sharing the sporadic tranquil moments, for the most part is enveloped in an uncompromising darkness.
Even the song titles provide an austere juxtaposition to Together, both albums ultimately forming a bond that’s indicative of our times.
Collectively, The Cursed Clock, Temp Fix and Trust Fades are shackled in the malaise of earlier Nine Inch Nail fare. What’s different is they are caked in Steve Reich minimalism.
With Around Every Corner, brass seeps into the record’s pores, but without those cerebral freak-outs à la 2018’s Bad Witch. Here, it’s restrained, filling in between fissures created by Ross‘ hums of atmospheric drone.
Similar is The Worriment Waltz, which gently nods towards Miles Davis. Not so in what follows in Run Like Hell – a stone-cold hollow-eyed jazz-inspired ambush which paves the way for dark clouds to roll in and hover over the remainder of Locusts.
When It Happens (Don’t Mind Me) contains off-kilter NIN watermarks of sound that shouldn’t work but, as always, they do.
Reznor returns behind the piano for Another Crashed Car but presents a far more fractured sounding abstract piece, while Turn This Off Please is a paranoid slab of uncertainty spewing into your ears. It’s an odd track but equally the one that symbolises the spirit of Locust.
The final track, Almost Dawn, fades out with a heart beating. It still beats, we’re just no longer privy to its future. A subtle sign that in the ire of this storm, we will survive. One way or another.
If Reznor and Ross were signed to Warp, Kranky, or any of the other ambient touchstone labels, then the fanfare would be rife.
Make no mistake, the experiments Nine Inch Nails embark upon are very much their own and while there are many copyist knob-twiddling purveyors out there, the new version of Nine Inch Nails can’t be included in that category.
With Together and Locusts, the pair have meticulously carved out a collection of apocalyptic lullabies. However, the way that Reznor and Ross have presented this new guise of Nine Inch Nails means that there are far worse places to inhabit.
Despite the eeriness that stains the canvas there’s still a faint hope and during these unprecedented times that really is some feat.