Review: Nine Inch Nails’ “Ghosts I-IV”

Mar 6, 2008 11:04am

In the May 2005 issue of Spin, around the time of the release of his comeback album “With Teeth,” Trent Reznor discussed how drugs and alcohol had taken him to a dark place from which he’d recently emerged. (The article was called “The Shadow of Death.” It was the cover-story, written by Marc Spitz.)   In the article, he candidly talked about how unexpected fame and the pressures surrounding it led to excess drinking and drugging.  At that point, his last album had been 1999′s “The Fragile,” thus making “With Teeth” his first Nine Inch Nails record in six years.  Having gotten clean, it was time for him to come back. Boy, did he ever come back – bolder and better than ever. Some rock stars don’t handle sobriety well and their music suffers.  That scenario is the saddest of all because then it seems that the substances were being used as a creative crutch.  In Reznor’s case, the opposite happened.  Sobriety brought honest clarity.  The drugs had mucked his music up.  A cloud of self-hatred and isolation sat over his earlier albums like his breakthrough “The Downward Spiral.”  Although that album was important and showed Reznor’s great visionary skill, it was too murky and weighed down by a “woe-is-me” attitude.  The same was true of its follow-up, “The Fragile,” except that was a much better album.  The fact that it proved not to be the overplayed cultural milestone that its predecessor was, made it into an under-appreciated classic.  Today, for my money, “The Fragile” is a much better listen than “The Downward Spiral.”  Many people still view “The Downward Spiral” as Reznor’s masterwork, but that must only be because they haven’t been paying attention to him lately.  A sober Trent Reznor is preferable.  Not only is it great to see a beloved cult-hero return from an abyss healthy and alive, but the last few years have been the best and most prolific of his career.  On “With Teeth” he still sang about isolation, but he seemed comfortably separated from the subject.  It was his best, clearest batch of songs since his synth-industrial debut, “Pretty Hate Machine.”  The songs on “With Teeth” were highly enjoyable and catchy.  “The Hand That Feeds,” “Only” and “Every Day Is Exactly the Same” proved to be modern-rock radio hits.  For the first time in his career, it took Trent Reznor only two years to follow-up that album with the April 2007 release of “Year Zero.”  Like “The Downward Spiral,” it was a concept album built on anti-utopian principals, but among the doom and gloom, there was joy in Reznor’s delivery.  On “Year Zero” he sounds like he’s having a lot of fun.  The experiments with trip-hop and other beat-making methods only added to the album’s appeal.  A “Year Zero” collection of remixes arrived last November.  So, it was safe to assume that we’d have to wait a little while for more music.  Wrong! “Year Zero” ended Nine Inch Nails’ contract with Interscope Records, so Reznor has now become a free agent. Perhaps seeing what a buzz Radiohead caused with their surprise originally download-only album “In Rainbows,” he decided to do something similar.  “Ghosts I-IV” is the result.  It’s a four-part instrumental album which is available from either the Nine Inch Nails website or Amazon for a bargain-basement price of five dollars.  The low-but-set price eliminates the problems that Radiohead had earlier with their “pay-what-you-want” method.”  Like Radiohead’s album, there are many “special edition” options available from the website.  According to Billboard, a physical version of the album arrives April 8th. “Ghosts I-IV” is the fourth Reznor related project released in less than a year if you count his collaborative album with rapper Saul Williams.   That’s quite an amazing feat for someone who used to be known for uncomfortably long breaks. What makes this record different is that it’s expansive (broken into 4 parts) and completely instrumental, so it plays like an extended movie score.  All 36 tracks are named with their track numbers, the word Ghosts, and the disc-section, thus the first track is called “01 Ghosts I.”  While this doesn’t show much imagination, it does intrigue and it shows that each one of these tracks is part of a larger whole.  It won’t be burning up the radio charts, but it shouldn’t have to.  This is not an album for pop purposes. This is a piece of art. The set begins with a sad piano piece.  There are classical elements to Reznor’s work in this setting.  It’s very composerly.  Slowly, other sounds creep into the mix, letting you know that all is not well.  It’s in a minor key and it is dark, but it also is quite moving.  “02 Ghosts I” begins with a wash of ambient sound which gives way to another soft piano solo.  Moby’s last album, “Hotel” came with a bonus disc of ambient works.  These first two tracks give off a similar vibe as that disc did, but it doesn’t last long. On the third track, slight industrial elements make themselves known. A tick-tock rhythm and a slightly grooved-out bass-line give way to some really odd sounds.  It’s different and weird, but it’s distinctly Nine Inch Nails.  At the same time, like a few other tracks on here, it recalls the ominous mood of the Dust Brothers’ score for “Fight Club.” Track 4, once it kicks in, is awash in noise-laden guitar fuzz.  It is messy but it’s also oddly satisfying and groove-worthy at the same time.  The fuzziness no doubt is meant to play on the dystopian vibe that has been Reznor’s calling card for sometime.  A quiet, slow, backwards beat ushers in track 5, which has a clunky Western-sounding guitar-line. You’d expect this to be the background for someone walking through the desert alone.  I can almost imaging the mirages.  Track 6 is built around a loop of what sounds like some sort marimba. It’s as if Reznor’s been listening to Thomas Newman’s “American Beauty” score and is attempting to put his own spin on Newman’s almost modal techniques. Finally on track 7, a tripping beat enters the picture, reminding us of “Year Zero” and its innovations.  The mechanized sounds recall Reznor’s past as an industrial-music innovator. A pounding, metallic guitar riff drives track 8, but then track 9 takes us back to solo-piano territory, backed by a minimalist beat.  The softer pieces here set a somber mood, but they really show Reznor’s depth as a composer.   He is not a three-chords-and-I’m-out kind of writer.  Christopher O’Riley, a classical pianist who has reinterpreted the collected works of both Radiohead and Elliott Smith should perhaps look towards doing the same for Nine Inch Nails next.  Track 10 begins the second portion of the program.  It begins with a whip-like beat, recalling “Mr. Self-Destruct” from “The Downward Spiral,” but the track ends up being a walking, dissonant piano-jam, albeit with generous amounts of fuzz.  This is a highlight.  A filtered beat underscores track 11, while haunting sounds weave their way across the track.  Backwards sounds and more piano bits punctuate the track as well.  Track 12 begins as an even quieter piano piece, but then is drenched in distorted guitar fuzz, merging the worlds of old-classical beauty and garage punk know-how. Once the fuzz settles down the piano takes the center stage again on track 13 with perhaps the brightest sounding chord progression Reznor has ever committed to tape.  It would’ve been nice to hear Reznor singing something this soft and bright, but perhaps that’s the exact reason he made this an instrumental record.  He’s got to keep his cred, after all.  Track 14 is back in familiar terrain, with a scuffling, hushed, yet menacing rhythm seething to the surface, along with a muted bass.  It comes to a head when squeaky rhythmic elements take over and a slightly metallic guitar-solo begins to wail.  The beginning of track 15 sounds like it was recorded on tape which got warped while sitting in the sun.  Like a lot of Reznor’s best work, it’s an unsettling mood piece. But then unexpectedly, an abrasive crowd noise filters in, recalling the NIN classic cut “Down in It.” Track 16 makes a rinky-dink beat sound menacing with use of distortion and the emergence of loud guitars.  It takes track 17 a little while to fade in, but it’s another somber score piece with the marimba elements washed in guitar fuzz.  This is one of the many moments that screams to be put into a movie.  The digitized droning beat of track 18 numbs you as you get settled into its warm, glowing ambience.  When the Western guitar element returns for a moment buried deeply in the mix, it is a moment to rejoice.  The piece breathes and moves, down to the siren-esque moments of distortion.  Like track 13, it is also in the kind of major scale not normally associated with Reznor, although the track does contain many of his trademark elements.  At track 19, we hit the halfway mark and begin the third section.  Again it begins with a pots-and-pans-like, highly percussive jam and then the noise filters in.  Squeaks and clatters prevail throughout.
The backwards moaning guitar riff that serves as the basis for track 20 then gets draped with a few more laser-sharp layers of guitar.  The beat is muted and subtle and filtered in, but strangely it gives the track balance. As it continues, the beat fades into focus and it becomes the backbone for a rocking adrenaline rush, if only for a few seconds when it is abruptly cut off by a piano playing the same chords.  Indeed, this is very effective.  Another modal dose of marimba work happens on track 21, and again, one hears the possible Thomas Newman influence.  It also recalls the recurring instrumental passages on “The Fragile.”  If you listen closely to the track, what may be backwards tones play like an orchestra trying to liberate itself from deep inside the mix.  Track 22, is another warm piece.  A classical piano-figure dances alongside a sparse, banging beat.  If not for the slightly off-putting industrial element, it wouldn’t be out of place at some sort of piano recital.  So we don’t feel like we stumbled into the wrong place, track 23 returns us to experimental synth and guitar-driven belches and blips. The menace is here and still pulsating.  It’s a virtually drumless exercise, but the rhythm is still clear. Enter track 24, one of the more straight-forward tracks here.  Again there is a dose of “Flight Club”-esque aggression and what sounds like a sampled yell buried beneath the squall of fuzz. At under two-minutes, track 25 sounds a little like a battle between the wind and walkie-talkie static mixed with elements not out of place in your typical atmospheric anime score.  Track 26 is built around an aggressive beat and a funky bass-line. Yet again, aggression rules.  Track 27 ends the third part with some destructive tweaks and shreds.  It sounds like just a few minutes of a wailing jam-session across a muscular groove.  Track 28 begins with a bass and what sounds like a banjo.  It’s a mournful day on the range. The Western-style guitar fittingly returns.  The best track on the whole set just might be Track 29 (or as it is known “29 Ghosts IV.”)  It combines a funky bass, a tight drum-section and typical NIN piano dissonance with the occasional electronic blurt. Strangely, it sounds like a cross between early eighties synth-rock and jazz-fusion.  The piano and marimba-like instrument then come together in the distinctly eastern and meditative sound of track 30.  The beat-wallop keeps the industrial-heads in check, while allowing the rest of us to relax.  It’s soothing, which is not a quality often associated with Nine Inch Nails.      As is the pattern, the sequence rises and falls.  Another rocker follows at track 31. Track 32 is another “breathing” dose of synth experimentation.  On track 33, more squeaking sonics prevail.  Reznor approaches this project the way many underground hip-hop producers approach mixtapes.  By its nature, this collection plays like an industrial rock answer to Madlib’s “Beat Konducta” series for instance.  Like that series, the tracks blend together somewhat without blank spaces, and they work in sections and suites.  Track 34 brings back the banjo, piano and acoustic guitar to create another sad number in the vein of “Hurt” or the “With Teeth” closer, “Right Where It Belongs.”  At nearly six minutes, this is a deeply developed piece.  Track 35 experiments with a beat similar to “The Warning” from “Year Zero” and well-placed stretches of feedback.  Finally the whole thing ends with the 36th track, which is another peaceful piano solo.
All together, the whole collection clocks in at about an hour and 50 minutes.  It is evident that a lot of work went into it, but it doesn’t seem overcooked in the least.  This is Reznor at his most primal, showing us all his varied layers of experimentation.  It’s an amazing feat.  “Ghosts I-IV” continues Reznor’s winning streak.  Many would say that he was at his best during the period of “The Downward Spiral.”  Those people are wrong.  Right now is an excellent time to be a Nine Inch Nails fan.  Right now Trent Reznor is at his creative peak.  Let’s hope he can sustain it for many years to come.

You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus