The three letters NIN will forever hold a mystical meaning for me.
From the first time I heard “Head Like A Hole”, Nine Inch Nails have been a source of fascination to me. To this day, I still get chills when I hear “The Wretched” from The Fragile. I feel like a need to dance each time I hear “The Hand That Feeds”. “Burn” from the Natural Born Killers OST is their finest song, whilst I regularly try to tackle Year Zero to try to understand it. It should be obvious from the outset that I’m a fan of the band, but recently I’ve been questioning something about NIN.
Mostly, that is NIN’s decision to revisit the EP format.
Back in 2016, Trent Reznor announced that Nine Inch Nails (or rather, the latest version which is just him and Atticus Ross) were going to release some new music. It was confirmed that the new music would not be a new album as they were releasing three EP’s. Each release would be written from scratch, nothing would be pre-prepared. This was an exciting and bold statement, but it was one that put a huge limitation on what they could release going forward. By making this statement, they had effectively tied their hands. Remember when Billy Corgan stated that he was done with albums and was going to release 44 songs as part of the Teargarden by Kaleidyscope? Then ended up being slightly farcical, with EP’s being replaced by albums, then shelved altogether.
Having a big idea is great, but you need to have an idea of where it’s going to be heading. So, from the genesis of this project, this free-form idea seemed to be going against everything that NIN had done in the past. Each release from Pretty Hate Machine, Ghost I-IV, to Hesitation Marks was planned, thought out and meticulously processed by Trent before human consumption. This idea of recording as you go, seemed very un-Trent. The man is a tour de force, an Oscar winner and a driven personality. Is this a venture in reclaiming his youthful fire, a release which is to the infamous Fragile and Broken EP’s? Is it just a way of kicking against the standard album release cycle? Who knows to be honest. Whatever started this project, it was clear that this was going to be an interesting venture.
On December 23rd, 2016, NIN released Not the Actual Events.
The first thing I took from Not the Actual Events was the stripped back nature of the songs. We find NIN in minimal mode, the focus on their electronic side, rather than their rock persona. It was a step away from Hesitation Marks, a backlash to that sound maybe. After “Branches/Bones”, the EP can be viewed in two distinct halves. Songs like “Dear World” and “The Idea of You” showcase the polished side to their Industrial sound, whilst the other two tracks “She’s Gone Away” and “Burning Brightly (Field on Fire)” are Industrial Sludge nightmares.
However, this is also a cold release from NIN.
Even as I listen to this over eighteen months later, I still have the same reaction that I had back in December 2016, that this EP reminds me more about former glories than focusing on Nine Inch Nails future. “The Idea of You” and “She’s Gone Away” could have seamlessly fitted on The Downward Spiral. “Dear World” would have found a home on The Fragile and “Burning Brightly (Field on Fire)” could have snuck onto Year Zero and it would have fit in perfectly. It feels like a retrospective piece, songs that didn’t make the cut and surplus to requirements.
On July 19th, 2017, NIN released Add Violence.
Before NIN released Add Violence, two songs were shared with the world. These were “Less Than” and “This is Not the Place”. “Less Than” was a return to their rock sound, with a hook that still sounds like there was a fire in their bellies once more. “This is Not the Place” finds NIN (aka Trent) in repentant and failure mode. To be honest, I can give or take this side of NIN as they’ve played that card a thousand times before. But you’d have thought that a multi-millionaire musician would have worked some of these issues out by now…
Add Violence is a better EP compared to Not the Actual Events.
This is mainly down to the last two tracks, “Not Anymore” and “The Background World”. The former is a pissed off hymn, a song that elevates this release from mediocre to interesting. The later though, that is a different story altogether. Firstly, it starts with a familiar Downward Spiral, self-absorbed experience. I almost wrote it off but then came the loop. From the four minute mark, the song loops an eight-second riff. Each time it starts to distort, collapsing in on itself. This is a wonderful piece of noise, by the end, it’s unlistenable, perverse and has nothing to do with the song whatsoever. Hence why I think it’s probably the most important thing about Add Violence. The destructive ending is a way of ending this period of NIN, stopping the backwards looking nature of the band and moving onto something new.
On June 22nd, 2018. NIN released Bad Witch.
The third release has arrived, preceded by “God Break Down the Door” and the inevitable happened. It was announced that Bad Witch was to be promoted as an album. Although, it was still part of the trilogy, so that was OK, right? I sort of predicted that this would happen, so it sucks to be right here. But I cannot blame NIN on this one. To be honest, it all comes down to the length of the recording. In the USA, an EP is defined as a recording that is below thirty minutes. Bad Witch comes in at thirty minutes and fourteen seconds, so it’s an album in that sense. In an interview with Consequences of Sound on May 10th 2018, Trent noted that Not The Actual Events and Add Violence felt constraint in a rigid concept. So they decided to record Bad Witch without that EP concept in mind. Also, he hinted at a Bowie influence on this record. There would be longer songs and a saxophone brought into the mix. This should not be a surprise to NIN fans, the Bowie link has been there for years.
However, that sort of thing had a lot of NIN fans worried.
It is thinking like this that makes me question the mindset of the average NIN fan. As a collective, we (the NIN fan) resist change, but we want it at the same time. It can be very strange and tiring. For example, The Fragile upon its release was universally hated, as it was not The Downward Spiral part 2. Now, it’s a beloved classic and no-one says a bad word against it. In my opinion, this is how Bad Witch will be viewed in years to come.
It’s a brave move to try to fuck with your sound and they almost get away with it. “Shit Mirror” is by the numbers, tame and without any bite. No matter how many times I’ve listened to it, I’ve remained thoroughly bored. Nice shot, but way off target. Thankfully, the rest of the EP album is such an improvement that you can forgive a duff track. The saxophone on “Play the Goddamned Part” and “God Break Down the Door” is spot on, it compliments and adds a little strangeness to the mix. They’ve been missing that, making their sound a bit predictable for a while, but Bad Witch is a brave and bold statement.
So, what is the result for this NIN EP/album?
To be honest, I’m not sure. Each EP/album can be seen as being an improvement on the previous one. Not the Actual Events turned out to be prophetical to be honest, as it’s the worst of this trilogy. It is far too backwards looking, almost afraid to step out of its creators’ shadow in a way. Add Violence was a step forward, but not a massive jump. It took them until Bad Witch to find the confidence to do something different in addition to their sound, which is beautiful, violent and amazing. That ending contains elements of avant-garde noise, a deconstruction sound that started on “The Background World” of Add Violence. These elements alone give me hope for the future of Nine Inch Nails.
There is one thing I hope that NIN resists though and that is to release all these tracks as one album. The Pixies did this with Indie Cindy and as much as I like those songs, it sort of soured my view on them. I’m hoping Trent/NIN will resist that, but it’s not my project. Only time will tell how these releases are viewed, but I think that they will ultimately be seen as the start of a new phase for NIN. Now we must wait and see if they’re brave enough to take further steps down the road to avant-garde madness.
As a concept, this trilogy falls short of its mark, but it ends with a new direction for Nine Inch Nails.
Owner of more Frank Zappa music than one human needs, two cats and looked after by an Angel, Eddie Carter thinks about music more than a Geordie should. Hailing from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK, Eddie spends most of his time surrounded by CD’s and records. He also writes for All The Time I Was Listening to My Own Wall of Sound, his beard is grey and not long enough – also, he wants a pint.