Review: Nine Inch Nails’ “The Slip”

May 16, 2008 12:28pm

What’s Trent Reznor trying to do?  He’s beginning to make all those musicians who take comfortable 4-year-breaks between records just look lazy. “The Slip” is his second album in two months.  If you were just getting used to your hard-copy of the fantastic double-disc instrumental album “Ghosts I-IV,” now you’ve got even more to listen to.  It’s a great time to be a Nine Inch Nails fan.  This is a mind-blowing turn of events when you consider “Year Zero” hit shelves last April and a “Year Zero” remix collection arrived last November.  Even if you don’t count his side project with rapper Saul Williams, in the last year or so, Reznor has released five discs worth of material roughly mirroring his output throughout the entire nineties!  He’s filled with ideas and they apparently just keep coming.  “The Slip” arrived as a free download from the Nine Inch Nails website last week.  Like “Ghosts I-IV,” it will eventually be given the standard CD treatment.  The freeness of the album is an interesting marketing tactic, and it’ll be fascinating to see how the CD version sells when it arrives in July.  The move has been pitched as a thank you to the fans probably due to the previous success of “Ghosts I-IV.” “The Slip” is Reznor’s leanest, most straightforward outing since his now 19-year-old debut album “Pretty Hate Machine.”  Like that record, it has only a modest 10 tracks.  “The Slip” clocks in at less than 44 minutes, but not a second of that time is wasted The record opens in similar ambient territory as was often found on the “Ghosts” discs. “999,999″ is an ominous, industrial hum packed with texture and mystery. It only lasts about minute and a half, and near the end of that time Reznor’s voice quickly fades in to ask, “How did I slip in-?,” and with that, seemingly mid-word, he is cut off. With a bang “1,000,000″ begins.  The drums kick in like a hurricane with a relentless 4-count pound.  The guitars seethe and hiss, as they get coated with perhaps more blankets of electronically fuzzed up notes.  Reznor shouts at us, more alive than ever, like a man resurrected from the far reaches of the abyss. This song is probably a killer live.  “I feel a million miles away,” he yells, showcasing his trademark isolation-themed lyrics. But as on his other post-2005 work, he sounds like he’s actually enjoying himself.  Even at his screamiest, it is evident that this is the work of a man who is bathing himself in the joys of the creative process.  When “Letting You” kicks in, the album’s overall sound begins to become apparent.  The drums are the real backbone here.  After the mechanized beats of “Year Zero,” here the focus is on making everything sound bold and visceral.  The drums sock you in the ears with repeated “thwaaaapps!” This sounds more like the work of a band than some of the other more electronic-leaning releases.  “Letting You,” in fact sounds like a dose of hardcore-style venom with slight electronic touches.  It possesses a similar energy to “March of Pigs” from “The Downward Spiral,” although its beat, though fast, is a little slower and more off-kilter.  It’s a wonderful slice of noise!  Guitars wail, Reznor screams, the drums slap and everything is just right!  “Discipline” may be the finest rock single that Reznor has ever recorded.  With a basic musical pattern similar to “Head Like a Hole” (with more guitars and fewer drum-machines) this is an absolutely perfect Nine Inch Nails song.  It feels like Reznor packed everything he learned in the last 19 years into this song.  Even down to the subversive, almost sadomasochistic main chorus of “I need your discipline…  Once I start I cannot stop myself.”   He even adds some nice, melodic “whoo-hoos” for good pop measure, and the piano that comes in sounds like it was transplanted from some of the more delicate passages of “Ghosts I-IV.”  Yet the song rocks and pounds at you like an enjoyable sledgehammer.  This track showcases Nine Inch Nails in a nutshell in just over 4 minutes.  The beat to “Echoplex” skitters a little more than the other songs heard thus far on the disc, fueled by an insistent, highly effective guitar line.  The tune to the song takes some nice minor key turns and the refrain of “My voice just echoes off these walls” is just about as catchy as you can get.  It would make another great single.  Once again, the beat is king on “Head Down.”  Distortion is all around and the ultimate tone is pleasurably venomous.  Reznor is a sonic master and over the years has committed some of the coolest sounds to record.  What he does with the guitar/electronic mishmash on this track is spellbinding. In others’ hands it would be just noise.  In his hands, it’s dynamic and inspiring.  “Lights in the Sky” is an intimate piano number.  It’s got the same kind of beautiful tension as the classic single, “Hurt.”  The lyrics are typically dark. “Watching you drown / I’ll follow you down. / I am here right beside you. / The lights in the sky / Have finally arrived. / I am staying right beside you.”  These lines are as comforting as they are tormented, especially delivered in such a gentle whisper. This paradoxical element is probably one of Reznor’s best hallmarks. The track fades and morphs into “Carona Radiata,” another ambient instrumental.  It’s seven and a half minutes, but it’s completely worthy.  Beneath an ever-present one-note fuzz, some tuneful elements can be detected.  All you have to do is close your eyes and try to focus on the details.  If you can really listen to the track with the attention to detail it demands, it proves to be extremely rewarding.   Midway, the fuzz gives way to make room for a slow, threatening beat.  Beeps and bloops enter the picture and guitars fade in to create something as menacing as it is thrilling.  “The Four of Us Are Dying” is next, with one of the band’s most appealing guitar lines.  Again, it’s another instrumental.  Putting two instrumentals in a row was an interesting move.  Were these left over from the “Ghosts” sessions?  They build on a similar mood, but are a little more unruly.  Once again, the simple piano line is beautiful, even if the guitar-lines are more dominating.  The album closes with “Demon Seed.”  It’s the most electronic sounding track on the album.  “It keeps growing.  I can feel it breathe,” Reznor whispers in typical fashion.  Aside from the “yeah, yeah, yeah,” background vocals, this is nothing we haven’t heard before on a Nine Inch Nails album, but that doesn’t make it any less hypnotizing.  At this point, the group’s style is so well formed, and well-executed, there’s really nothing to pick at.  When the album ends, it ends with abrupt silence.  Like his other recent records, a broken-down unmixed version of the album is also available so fans can craft their own remixes.  Reznor’s unapologetic embrace of the fan-made remix as an art-form is appealing and refreshing. “The Slip” is yet another stunning masterwork.  How many more of these can Reznor and his band churn out before the end of 2008?  I’m guessing we’ll probably get more, and the way things are going, we won’t be disappointed in the least.  I’d like to have a whole stack of records like this by year’s end.

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