Monday, August 29, 2011

Nine Inch Nails

Hey, look, another music review! Since I'm still listening almost exclusively to Beastie Boys right now (I can quit at any time... maybe), I thought I'd pick a band I know so well I probably won't even have to listen to most of these albums again to do my review.

Of all the bands I love, Nine Inch Nails is one that I normally don't go out of my way to turn people on to. They're popular enough that most people have already heard of them, and either you're a fan or you're not. While the sound has changed over time, it's still basically the same, and if you don't like industrial or Trent's voice, you never will, and I'm okay with that.

My awareness of Nine Inch Nails began shortly after The Downward Spiral had come out. "Closer" was played almost nightly during the alternative hour on my local radio station, and I used to listen to that while playing cards. Call me naive if you wish, but I actually did not realize what he was saying on the chorus at first. I simply liked the way the song sounded, and it was only until I decided to try to learn the words and attempt to sing along that I realized what it was about.

Not long after this, my friend Melanie who was all kinds of awesome and therefore into better music long before I was, brought the liner notes to school. For whatever reason I never actually went and looked at them, but I remember all the guys giggling over it, most likely to "Big Man With A Gun." Thirteen year old boys are the epitome of maturity, after all.

Fast forward a year or two and I'm in high school and have my very first boyfriend. He was very into Nine Inch Nails and when I told him I liked "Closer," he was happy to share with me the rest of the songs... though it wasn't long after that he regretted doing so. I became fully obsessed with both the music and Trent Reznor himself. I was so amazed with the idea that one man could create all this music alone, write lyrics that were expressing the cynicism and self loathing my own teen self was feeling at the time, and be incredibly hot too. I think it was that last part in particular that upset my boyfriend the most. This obsession would last through the turn of the century for me, and at least one year longer than that relationship.

Pretty Hate Machine

This album was released in 1989, so it's probably no surprise that it has a very strong 80s feel to it. While NIN is known as an industrial band, this album is only barely so, mostly being dominated by synthesizers heavily influenced by the darker side of new wave. It also has extremely nasal vocals throughout most of it that add to Reznor's reputation as a bit of a whiner. Even I, who have gained a sort of unconditional love for him at this point, can't help but sing along in mock nasal tones when I listen to the album.

This album had a total of three singles. You're no doubt most familiar with "Head Like A Hole," and I'm sure a lot of you also know "Down In It" and "Sin." I mostly mention this because of the way Trent Reznor liked to number his releases with "Halo X," X standing in for the current number in the sequence of releases. The "Down In It" single is actually Halo 1 and Pretty Hate Machine is Halo 2. This was a fairly genius idea, as it inspired those collectors among NIN fans, myself included, to get them all. Unfortunately I think this soured my feelings on remixes though, because most of the remix versions on the singles (and also his full remix albums) were disorganized messes that I barely consider music. However, I'll try to point out the good ones for any of you who want to expand your NIN knowledge and have already heard all the albums.

On the album itself, I enjoy all three songs mentioned above as well as "Terrible Lie," "Kinda I Want To," and "The Only Time." Ages ago I actually worked out a way in which "The Only Time" is actually a duet between a guy and girl, the guy just wanting sex and the girl substituting sex for love. Take a look at the lyrics and see if you think I'm crazy or not. There isn't really a bad song on the album, just a few I sometimes think are a little too slow for my current mood ("Sanctified," "Something I Can Never Have," and "That's What I Get").

Two rare songs you should hunt down from this era:
1. "Twist" - an alternate version of "Ringfinger," found on the Purest Feeling bootleg. A decent portion of the lyrics are different and I prefer this version quite a bit. The rest of Purest Feeling is also highly amusing to listen to at least once, as it features saxophone and movie quotes and is just, well, very bad.

2. "Get Down Make Love" - apparently not too rare anymore as it was included on the recent re-release of the album, this is a cover of a Queen song that is much more on the industrial side of things.


PHM's followup is pretty drastically different, being much more guitar heavy, angrier, and definitely more in line with the industrial sound. It is technically only an EP, with four full songs, two instrumental transitions, and two secret tracks that are covers. Despite this if you put a gun to my head and told me I could only keep one NIN album for the rest of my life, this is probably the one I would pick. I have had times when I was so angry that only the full out wrath of "Wish" would pacify me, and I have related to the meaning of the songs "Happiness in Slavery" and "Gave Up" more often than I'd care to recall. If you love loud, heavy, and angry music and have never listened to this EP, you owe it to yourself to do so now.

About those secret tracks - this CD actually has 99 tracks on it. Tracks 7-97 are one second a piece of silence, with "Suck" a song by industrial band Pig, at 98 and "Physical," an Adam Ant song, at 99. If there's anything sad about the mp3 age, it's that secret tracks are pretty much impossible to have now. The most you can do is add silence to the end of a song, but the extra long length of the file is going to tip you on to that.

It would probably be a disservice to not mention the Broken film at this point. It was essentially an urban legend, the kind of thing like Faces of Death that people would swore they had seen before, yet you never knew anyone who actually owned a copy, or maybe you were too afraid to ask if they did. It was basically a movie that strung music videos for the songs together, most of them being very graphic, snuff film type horror. It is apparently now available in high quality on BitTorrent, rumored to be leaked by Reznor himself. I've seen some of the videos from when they were released on Closure, and personally that is more than enough for me.

Broken was the first of the NIN albums to receive a followup remix album, cleverly titled Fixed. Unfortunately, it's a bit of a misnomer. The remix method employed here and on most NIN remixes usually follows a very electronica influenced pattern: chop a song to pieces, repeat certain lines numerous times, and create a cacophony of noise. Listening to it again after all these years, I found myself intrigued by some, but mostly turned off. The last track on the album, "Screaming Slave" could not be considered music at all. It's just straight noise for eight minutes.

The Downward Spiral

I would imagine those of you who grew up in the 90s like I did at least know of this album. "Closer" launched Nine Inch Nails into a new level of popularity and got lots of airplay on both radio stations and MTV. The controversy of its chorus and some of the images in the video certainly helped. In those early internet days, when there was no downloading of video possible, I remember people swearing that one of the "Scene Missing" signs was covering up a shot looking up the young girl's dress. Never mind that anyone involved with the video would have been arrested for child pornography if that was actually the case.

The album itself is definitely a progression for Reznor as an artist. A lot of the rawness of the earlier albums is gone and replaced with a lush industrial based atmosphere that now defines his sound. You can play a Trent Reznor produced track and I'll recognize it as such within 20 seconds, regardless if it's a NIN song or not, and this is where that sound really began. Perhaps the best example of this on the album is the song "The Becoming." It's created an image permanently in my mind of a haunted house that has demons coming out of the walls and hiding beneath the floors. Stay in the house too long, and one of the demons will possess you. I wish I had the drawing ability to share with you guys the animated music video that plays in my head every time I hear this song.

Yhe only song on this album I don't particularly care for is the title track. It's just a little too slow and hard to understand. It's also a song about suicide, and therefore something I don't personally want to think about too much.

Rare songs to listen to from this era:
1. "Closer to God" - Perhaps a little sick of the song himself, Trent did a very different version of the song on the "Closer" single (Halo 9). It rearranges the words quite a bit and simplifies the music. If you're sick of the original, I recommend giving this one a chance.
2. "Memorabilia" - Found on the same single as the one above, it's a cover of a Soft Cell song that uses a lot of sound bites and is rather unique.

Beyond the remix album Further Down the Spiral, they also released Closure a few years later. NIN toured for a long time following this album, and the VHS set contained two tapes - one including all of the released music videos up to that point and another that was a combination live show and documentary of backstage footage. The documentary includes appearances by Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, and Lou Reed among others. It shows the debauchery that went on behind the scenes. More than anything I think it is worth watching to see their live performances that are some of the wildest I've ever seen. Trent was known for bashing into his other band members and trashing the instruments almost every night. He's frequently said himself that he recorded The Downward Spiral, and then he lived it. While I don't endorse the rampant drug and alcohol abuse that fueled this tour, I'm glad someone got it all on tape. There was a planned DVD release of this set that never saw retail release, but it is also now available on BitTorrent sites.

The Perfect Drug

This was just a single and also appeared on The Lost Highway soundtrack, but since it never appeared on any NIN albums I think it deserves a mention. This was the first new release I experienced as a NIN fan and I remember rushing to the CD store in the mall and listening to it at one of the listening stations because I couldn't wait until I got home. The drums and bass on the song are just incredible and I absolutely love it. The video is also gorgeous to look at.

Slightly out of sequence, but more soundtrack only NIN songs you should hear:
1. "Dead Souls" - a cover of The Cure that appears on The Crow soundtrack. Closer to the PHM era because it features very nasal vocals.
2. "Burn" - on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack, which like The Lost Highway soundtrack, Trent Reznor produced. Another rage fueled industrial song that I love.
3. "Deep" - I recommend this one slightly begrudgingly, as I have very mixed feelings on it. Sometimes I like it, sometimes I hate it. I think I was more horrified by the video than anything else, which features Reznor attempting to act. It's on the Lara Craft: Tomb Raider soundtrack.

The Fragile

After a five year absence (ignoring "The Perfect Drug" single), Trent released this double album. It was his first time being a little more collaborative in recordings, but the sound of the album is still very much Nine Inch Nails. It's not exactly a happy album, though it is at least more positive than The Downward Spiral. Of course, so are most funerals. This album rates as one of those critical success but commercial failures, though it did premiere at number one on the charts. This album got the most repeated play for me, and that is saying a lot for a double album. I think disc one may have gotten played a little more often than disc two, but not by much. Personal favorite songs are "The Fragile," "Even Deeper," "No You Don't," "Into the Void," and "Where is Everybody?"

As much as I loved the album, my experiences from this time were eventually tainted. You see, I couldn't get enough Nine Inch Nails at that point. MTV showed a half hour special that was taken from their live performances in Europe and I taped it and watched it frequently. Their U.S. tour was coming up, and I was finally going to see NIN live and in person! I would be in the same room as Trent Reznor and hear all these songs I loved! But then that day finally arrived and guess what? I could have just stayed home and watched the tape. I don't know if it was because of my distance from the stage or what, but I sat there in the audience thinking, "This is the same exact show I've watched so many times already." There was nothing special about seeing it live. I was so disappointed. I know I wouldn't have had a better experience if I had been on the floor either, because I just would have been smooshed up against people taller than me and I wouldn't have been able to see anything.

It wasn't a bad show, but it did lack the chaotic energy you could see on the Downward Spiral tour. If you like The Fragile and want to see some live performances from this time, you can find them on And All That Could Have Been. Watching the DVD is pretty much exactly like how it was being there for me. And yes I do own it, so apparently despite my disappointment with the live show I still wanted to have another copy.

Rare songs to listen to from this era:
1. Still is an EP that contains stripped down versions of older NIN songs. It's worth checking out if you like to hear re-imagined versions of songs you've heard many times before.

With Teeth

You may not be surprised after I expressed my disappointment with the live show, but this album is where Trent and I broke up for awhile. It was a bitter breakup. At the time I listened to the whole album and the only one I liked was "The Hand That Feeds" and it still didn't feel like a Nine Inch Nails song to me. The word "love" has no place in Nine Inch Nails songs, I felt, and yet here we had two different songs with it being included in the title. The industrial sound had been greatly reduced to something more like generic rock. This from a guy who, in 1999, had swore up and down that he was not going to save rock and roll because he didn't even like it. I gave the album one or two listens and then tossed it aside in disgust.

A few years later, a friend of mine told me to give it another chance. "The Hand That Feeds" was in Rock Band, which I had been enjoying, and they had also released "The Collector" as DLC, and I had to admit I wasn't hating it. He told me to try listening to "Getting Smaller" and I had to admit its rhythm was quite infectious. I also fell in love with "Only" during my re-listen, giving it repeated listenings in a row. I still can't endorse any other song on this album beyond the ones I mentioned, but I'll admit its not 100% crap. The biggest issue I have with it beyond those mentioned above is that nearly all the songs end repeating one or two lines ad nauseum. It always says to me that the artist didn't actually know how to end the song and took the lazy way out.

As you would probably expect, I can't recommend any remixes or the live DVD, Beside You In Time, because I just don't care for it.

Year Zero

If With Teeth was my messy breakup with Trent, then Year Zero is where we ran into each other a few years later, talked over a cup of coffee, and agreed to be friends. By this point he was completely recovered from his addiction to drugs and alcohol and had much better control on his depression. I had grown up myself, and (mostly) kicked the habit of beating myself up for every little mistake. There was no need for either of us to be so focused on the negative all the time anymore.

Of course, I'm not saying this is a bright and happy album. This is a concept album, Reznor's vision for a post-Bush America. But regardless of whether you agree with that, there are some really good songs here. It blends the new rock direction he took on With Teeth with some of his more trademark industrial sounds. "Survivalism," "Capital G," and "The Good Soldier" stick out in particular as some of my favorites. The rest tend to range from good to just okay. While it's a little disappointing that we'll probably never hear the full on screaming rasp Trent was known for at one time, the more melodic tones here are enjoyable.

Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D is the remix album for this one, and honestly I don't think I ever listened to it, though I did buy it. I bought it because it contained a bonus disc that included all the raw tracks for this album. You could load them up in GarageBand, Audacity, or any other recording software of your choice and remix to your heart's content. They even set up a website for you to upload to. That website also contained the raw tracks for "The Hand That Feeds" and "Only" from With Teeth.

Leading up to my birthday in 2007, I would call Jak and ask him what he was up to. "Nothing" was his frequent reply. Workaholic that he is, I found that hard to believe, and on my birthday I found out why. He was working on "nothing"... remixing recordings from Nothing Records, aka Trent's vanity label. These were done shortly after Jak got his first Mac, and as such are a little lo-fi, but still excellent, in my opinion. You could possibly argue that these are more "collaborations" than remixes since Jak added vocals and instruments in places, but since I don't care for the traditional remix, I'm not complaining.

All of these are available to listen to on Jak's site here. Ask nicely and I may make them available for you to download.
1. "Survivalism" - this one was titled "happybirthdayangiemix" on the original CD he gave me, and it's pretty much a dream come true for me - Jak and Trent singing together. Jak inserted one line into the song, a whispered "The party lines we draw in blood" which is sadly just a little too true these days.
2. "Me, I'm Not" - This one is probably the most drastically different from the original recording - he essentially hacked it to bits, added a ton of bass, and made a new song out of it. I happen to think this one is better than the original.
3. "My Violent Heart" - Jak took one listen to Trent's spoken verses and groaned. He created his own vocal melody and sang the lyrics instead. Trent still gets to appear on the chorus. For the record, I like Trent's original spoken vocals, but that's largely because I think his voice is sexy.
4. "Capital G" - Jak's overall comment of the album was that it was lacking balls. I'm inclined to agree. While I really, really love the original version of this song, there's no denying this version has far more balls, with its distortion heavy bass and one well placed metal scream.
5. "The Hand That Feeds" - Barely a remix at all, because he actually liked this one and couldn't find much of a way to "fix" it. I believe the main addition is that he added a vocal harmony and some guitar.

Ghosts I-IV

Finished with his record contract, at this point Trent Reznor pioneered the leap into the new era of the music industry, releasing the first volume of this album for free to all, and the other three for a small price point, unless you wanted deluxe physical versions containing his signature. It is entirely instrumental and contains his signature sound. As I mentioned in my previous music review, I'm not that big a fan of instrumentals so I never bought the other three volumes and the first one didn't get much play for me. It's had a little more life recently as background noise while I write, but that's about it. I listened to Ghosts II-IV via Spotify, and it's basically more of the same. They range from soft piano melodies to electronic/industrial, with some of them barely qualifying as music.

When I went to see them play at the Voodoo Music Festival in 2008, the middle of the set included songs from Ghosts. That was a very poor idea, in my opinion. When you're standing in the muddy grass at night, you're not interested in mellow songs with pretty visuals on large screens. The rest of the show wasn't too bad though, I have to say. Time and distance allowed me to enjoy it a bit more, though I kind of wanted to do violent things to the girls in front of us who must have thought they were the first people ever to shout at Trent to **** them like animals.

The Slip

Five months later he released yet another free album, and the lack of time spent on it really shows. In my memory, I thought most of the tracks were instrumentals. I was surprised to visit it again and find out that most of the songs do have vocals. But with the extreme repetition found on tracks like "Letting You" and "Echoplex" there might as well not be. I do enjoy the single, "Discipline," as well as "1,000,000" but neither really sounds like Nine Inch Nails to me. It was no big surprise to me that Trent announced the end of touring for the band and putting the name to rest for awhile. It was pretty clear to me his heart was no longer in it.

He has since switched his focus to creating soundtracks and won both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for his work on The Social Network. He's also doing this awful band that is just an excuse to give his wife a job, so we'll not speak of it. I'm looking forward to hearing what he does with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Since I'd like to do one of these music posts a month, I thought it would be fun to ask who you guys would be interested in me covering next. I'll do my best to include some kind of multimedia content if I can. Here's some I know I could cover:
-The Beatles (I would probably break this into at least two posts, because I have heard just about everything they recorded and would want to cover all of it)
-Duran Duran

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