We're all trying to believe with Trent Reznor.
It takes place about 15 years in the future. Things are not good. If you imagine a world where greed and power continue to run their likely course, you’ll have an idea of the backdrop. The world has reached the breaking point -- politically, spiritually and ecologically. Written from various perspectives of people in this world, Year Zero examines various viewpoints set against an impending moment of truth.
-- Trent Reznor on Year Zero
If Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor is to be trusted, then his last two years on the road have been the busiest and most productive ones of his musical career. Not only has he found the time to pull off a vigorous world tour supporting his fourth full-length, With Teeth, with his "band" of back-up puppets, processing a live DVD, Beside You in Time, for those of us not lucky enough to experience his intensity live and first-hand, he’s allegedly kicked his drug habit/s, and now that he’s newly sober he’s even ready to break his ‘one album every five years’ policy and unleash a brand-new album -- two, actually -- on the public. Again, if Reznor is to be trusted, his "days off" in between tour dates were spent isolated in the Malibu woods, writing songs for what would become Year Zero (or Halo 24, as diehards would have it) -- the ideal way to create a Nine Inch Nails album if there ever was one.
Maybe because we weren’t expecting a new instalment from the face of industrial music until sometime around the 2010 mark, he also decided to subject us to a truly bizarre and unique marketing campaign in the months leading up to the album’s release: creating websites, ‘leaking’ USB drives across Europe, assigning ominous promotional slogans ("I am trying to believe"), promising the ‘death of emo music’ in Rolling Stone magazine… even registering a phone number on the back of band t-shirts for the purposes of streaming music. Who knows why -- maybe he enjoyed the obvious excitement that accompanies releasing the video to your first single on a memory stick -- but the point is, a mere twenty-three months after his last work, we now have fresh NIN on our hands.
If With Teeth was a stripped-down record by Reznor’s standards, Year Zero is the most 'industrial' record he has yet made; full of swirling synthetic beats and double-edged mechanical onslaughts. At sixteen tracks, it’s the densest single-disc set he’s produced, with hardly a guitar to be heard. Even his vocal performance is restrained -- not once does he erupt into a throaty yell, and he intonates with a grim finality, allowing the humming computers to be angry for him. And if you thought "The Hand That Feeds" was politically charged, that was a barrel of laughs compared to some of the material on here; no prizes to anyone who can guess what the track "Capital G" is about, for example.
Unlike the days of The Downward Spiral, however, Trent’s toys aren’t fixated on danceable undertones as much as sonic texture -- apart from the oddly vibey "My Violent Heart", which uses fright-beats to scare movement out of the listener. The hooky first single "Survivalism" towers as an example of his mish-mashed, bleepy, barbed sound patterns, though the straight drum machine keeps it recklessly driving, driving, until it collapses in its last few seconds into an explosion of unforgiving industrial white noise. The lyrics are characteristically both vicious and nihilistic:
You see your world on fire
Don’t try to act surprised,
We did just what you told us
Lost our faith along the way and found ourselves believing your lies.
The acidic "Great Destroyer" and "Vessel" are less 'songs' than twisted slideshows of jagged effects -- difficult to swallow whole, designed to wear down speakers, and definitely not melodic. Reznor's bellow on "Vessel" is so heavily edited that he closer resembles a cave monster than a singer. And the more mellow and ambient "The Good Soldier", while musically flat and dull, has the man putting himself in the shoes of a soldier in Iraq (don’t ask how Reznor knows the conflict will still be going in 2022, he just does), resulting in some of the most effective lines of the whole album.
Elsewhere, he focuses his attention once again on proclaiming judgment on the world from his throne, telling humanity that it is doomed, ignorant of any lyrical retreads which may occur along the way. "I can’t shut it off / This thing that I’ve begun / It’s hard to tell / Just where it’s coming from"; "I used to stand for something / Now I’m on my hands and knees / Trading in my God for this one / He signs his name with a capital G"; "You and I, we may look the same / But we are very far apart", always flaunting his love of electronica throughout, through bouncy claps and the occasional use of a siren under his choruses. It’s as if he believes the calculated, biting hum of the machines is going to bring us his 'moment of impending truth' in every circumstance, and that he's the messenger to the apocalypse.
The absence of Dave Grohl’s drumming is noted in "The Warning": it uses a percussive beat already claimed by at least five other Nine Inch Nails songs, and it doesn’t help that Reznor is utterly phoned-in, sounding even more distant than usual. The instrumental "Another Version of the Truth" doesn’t creep much above the filler mark. The closer, "Zero Sum", clocks in at six minutes, where the drums blast and tumble in a distortion machine, and the only words are a hopeless singalong: "God have mercy on our souls / God have mercy on our dirty little hearts / We just wanted to know what it was like / All we are worth is zeros and ones".
Year Zero -- and the forthcoming Year Zero Part 2, slated for release next year -- raise attractive questions about new possibilities for Nine Inch Nails. The most probable explanation is that Trent Reznor has finally set aside his perfectionist qualities and devoted himself to making music which bruises the only way he knows how... a double whammy of sorts. Interesting as the concept is, let’s hope that in part two of his dystopian vision he can include a cut about the world through the eyes of a bus driver or something -- this disc’s biggest problem is that Reznor gnaws severely at targets beaten to death already, and doesn’t know when to stop his crusade.
Hearing new material from this old warhorse at a time when it’s most needed is damn reassuring; however, it cannot be said, in all honesty, that the music on Year Zero is good. To quote the source, the record’s heart is black, and hollow, and cold. Plus, its heavy-handed electronic motions fit into neither the boundaries of rock, metal, or pop... but on it Reznor shows a newfound, almost fanatical confidence in his art that never fails to impress. Both dissonant and difficult, trying your patience at every savage turn, letting only the most dedicated in to its few moments of glory, if that boldness is anything to go by, then the new Nine Inch Nails is eventually going to be a stronger unit than it’s ever been.