Recorded over ten weeks in the autumn of 2007, Ghosts I-IV is a departure in many ways for Nine Inch Nails mainstay Trent Reznor. No song titles, no record label, no lyrics. Until April 8th 2008 there is not even a physical album. The concept of this release, if not the content, is an exhibition in minimalism. If it had been released under any moniker other than Nine Inch Nails, it might not have achieved the same amount of attention (the volume of downloads on the first weekend of release broke the band’s website). In many ways it challenges what we know about the band, as it liberates Reznor’s skill at musical composition from his often trite lyrics.
Trent Reznor has always had an uncomfortable relationship with the organised religion that is the music industry. He has gone on record criticising his former label’s pricing policy, accusing them of ripping off the real fans. After parting company with them, the man decided to circumnavigate the whole process and release a next-to-nothing priced download. Of course, a range of differently priced versions are also available, the most expensive is limited to 2500 copies and will set you back $300. Don’t bother looking for one. Before I’d even fired up the iMac to write this piece all copies of the Ultra Deluxe Limited package were long gone. Better luck with Ghosts V-VIII.
So what is it like? Ghosts I-IV is a tonal painting, a collection of moods and not all of these moods are good ones. If Ghosts I-IV was a landscape painting it would not be in the style of Bob Ross. There are no happy little accidents here. Reznor was not humming along to himself in a jolly, gentle, and beardy fashion while he took paint from his palette. It should come as no great surprise to anyone who has ever heard of Nine Inch Nails that this record shows us a landscape of dystopian design. Like a desert, it is bleak and unbearable for any length of time. However, it is strangely beautiful: littered with little pockets of hitherto undiscovered splendour, as well as unspeakable Lovecraftian creations from beyond the walls of sleep. I mean this is art, man.
A great deal of art provokes dramatic emotion and stimulates the human mind. Sometimes art can be elusive, hard to understand and is often challenging. Art varies in value according to the consumer and its worth lies in the wallet of the beholder. In these respects, Ghosts I-IV does not disappoint. At times the album is gentle, almost classical in nature. At other moments, it is a dance instrumental with industrial overtones. It can be ear-strippingly torturous with all kinds of distortion, drum loops, and found sounds, some barely making sense in your head. This album is a wonderful, if unsettling experience. It’s just not very Nine Inch Nails.
Ghosts I-IV uses the same scratchpad as Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, although in modern parlance it should properly be described as “Dark Ambient”. There are 36 tracks, but no songs. There are recurring themes, one of which echoes John Murphy’s score for the film 28 Days Later. Indeed, the album holds together in much the same way as a movie. There are four distinct acts. There is a gradual build as you are introduced to all the characters. There are action scenes, there are scenes of pathos.
Reznor has opened the gates to a world of new possibilities both commercially and creatively. He shows here that he is much more than the swagger and smut of some of his previous releases. He has made it clear to the world that he has real vision and dexterity. Lying in a darkened room with only this music for company conjures images of unimaginable beauty and horror. Ghosts I-IV could be the soundtrack to an unrealised film based on the works of H. P. Lovecraft. That is the tone; dark, brooding, (aw hell I’ve tried to go the whole review without saying it) haunting.