Nine Inch Nails' New EP is an Inventive, Challenging Listen
    • FRIDAY, JULY 21, 2017

    • Posted by: Jake Holzman

    The conclusion to the new Nine Inch Nails EP, Add Violence, is one of the most obtuse, daring, and nearly unlistenable things that Trent Reznor has ever done. The track itself, titled "The Background World," goes on for eleven minutes. But don't think that you're actually going to want to listen to all eleven of those minutes.

    That's not a complaint. In fact, despite how obtuse the track itself becomes, it makes Reznor's aim with this new project abundantly clear: to test your patience. To make sure that you're paying attention. To slap you awake, and demand that you actually listen to what you're hearing. If you need any more proof of that, go back and revisit Not the Actual Events, the first release in this new trilogy of EPs. Much like how that EP initially divided people because of how messy and impenetrable it often was, tracks on Add Violence like "The Background World" and "Not Anymore" will surely create the same rift between those who will praise Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for the sonic risks they've taken, and those who will simply never be able to get past the EP's more challenging elements.

    Reznor clearly sees the inherent problems that come packaged with the easily distracted culture that we've created for ourselves, thanks to smartphones and the internet, and there are other ways he's addressed this issue besides reigniting Nine Inch Nails' music with the same gritty urgency that made The Fragile the influential industrial rock classic that it is. Take his plans to reissue all of Nine Inch Nails' discography on vinyl, for example. If you go to the official Nine Inch Nails website, where you can preorder all of these releases, you'll find a "Vinyl Mission Statement" written by Reznor himself, in which he outlines the ideal way that he hopes fans will interact with his music: "grab a great set of headphones, sit with the vinyl, drop the needle, hold the jacket in your hands looking at the artwork (with your fucking phone turned off) and go on a journey with me."

    Even the first track on Add Violence, "Less Than," begins with a blunt, one-word question: "Focus?" The main concern of the song's lyrics is widespread ignorance ("We didn't even notice/we awake in a place we can barely recognize/yeah, hypnosis"), but musically speaking, it is inarguably the most accessible of these five tracks. In fact, the beginning of Add Violence is such an intricately-produced, listenable rock recording that it stands in stark contrast with how the EP ends. When you're done listening to the rest of the EP, you may feel as if you began at one end of the Nine Inch Nails spectrum and finished listening at the exact opposite end. This, also, feels purposeful. The fact that the only poppy, hook-based track on Add Violence is also the track that kicks the whole EP off will give you, as a listener, inaccurate expectations for what you're about to hear. Because then, for the next twenty minutes, Reznor and Ross progressively demolish all of those expectations more and more with each track. If there's any one word to describe the majority of the songs on this EP, it is definitely not "predictable."

    After the abrupt ending of "Less Than," "The Lovers" quietly creeps in. This is the least intense track of the bunch, and it unfolds like some of Reznor and Ross's best film scores. Most of the lyrics here aren't sung, with the exception of the longing request in the chorus ("take me into the arms of the arms of the lovers"). They're mostly whispered, and are, at times, hardly audible. "The Lovers" also reminds us that this EP is a sequel to the one that came before. The lyrics on this second track call back to "Dear World," which was also the second track on Not the Actual Events, with the familiar line "everyone seems to be asleep."

    The third track, "This Isn't the Place," feels like a transitional piece between the accessibility of the first two tracks and the more arduous final tracks. It takes its time, slowly building up a massive electronic-ambient soundscape for two-and-a-half minutes until Reznor's lead vocals finally come in. It's an incredibly immersive listen, and one that plays out like an unsettling waltz.

    "Not Anymore" is where the music really begins to shock you. The song establishes a repetitive, albeit messy and heavily-distorted, riff in the beginning, but changes to something much darker and more energetic on a whim. Reznor and Ross trick their listeners so brilliantly here. At one point, the song actually sounds like it's calmed itself down… only to explode once more into the chaos of its chorus. And then, of course, there's a sudden ending, which has pretty much become a Nine Inch Nails cliche at this point.

    In a similar vein to the unpredictability of "Not Anymore," "The Background World" is not as deceptive, but will also crush your expectations. When you initially look at the track listing, and see that this track is over eleven minutes long, you'll surely be looking forward to something that won't end up being what you get. Maybe you'll think that those eleven minutes will be filled up by a long, consistent, ambient soundscape. Well, you do actually get that… for like, four minutes. What happens after that? The listening experience wouldn't be complete unless you found that out for yourself, but no matter what you hear in those remaining seven minutes, stick through it until the end. That is, after all, the whole point.

    Despite some obvious imperfections (i.e. Trent Reznor never having been the most compelling lyricist on Earth) Add Violence is worth the listen and, more importantly, your attention. The greatest thing about Nine Inch Nails is the wide variety of risks that Trent Reznor can potentially take with the project. Not the Actual Events was certainly a risk. It was an experience that you had to have from start to finish, rather than picking out your favorite tracks by themselves, in order to fully appreciate it. Add Violence is a continuation of that idea, and further proof of the creative genius that comes out of the collaborations between Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

    Also check out our session with The New Regime, AKA Nine Inch Nails' drummer Ilan Rubin:

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