52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK SIX

Week Six

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.


“Station to Station”
David Bowie
Album: Station to Station
1976
RCA Records

The title track to David Bowie’s 1976 album, Station to Station begins with the sounds of train bursting into motion. The hush of the locomotion, presumably pulling away from a its station of origin, pans from the right to left channel and is eventually coupled with a restrained frenzy of distorted guitar and synthesizer sonic waves and a menacing clang of heavily-fingered piano keys. The thumping bass line enters, as does the echoed thunder of sparsely-played tom tom drums and a twangy rhythm guitar. A simple organ riff joins the fold and a shortly after the song’s third minute we are introduced to the ring leader of this slow-burning melee of sound.


The return of the Thin White Duke

Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes

Here are we one magical moment

Such is the stuff from

Where dreams are woven


Station to Station is one of the great milestone records in the history of rock and roll. For David Bowie it was the record that bridged two of the artist’s most vibrant creative periods during the 1970s; for rock music as a whole it was the spark needed to merge a polished sound from America’s respectively growing soul and disco scene with the ambitious budding art rock scene happening in Europe. For me, it was an album that instantly changed all my pre-conceived notions about Bowie the lavishly-costumed performer and musician and granted me a portal into a side of the artist’s canon that literally shook my perceptions of music.


At six tracks, Station is one of Bowie’s more concise efforts to date, but it still manages to pack the punches. Its title track remains his longest song to date, clocking in at over 10 minutes, and is one of those songs that I never tire from listening to. It unfolds like a symphony, rising from dark and mysterious to groovy, eventually culminating in a amalgamation of disco, funk, soul, Krautrock, early techno, glam and pretty much anything other sound Bowie had lying dormant in his inner-psyche. It’s a track that I’ve listened to in too many different settings to count, under various mental states and it remains one of the most fascinating offerings Bowie has ever released.


Recorded during Bowie’s coke-fueled soirée in Los Angeles from 1975-1976 while Bowie was filming Nicolas Roeg’s great science-fiction film, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Station to Station is an album that both excuses drug use for the sake of art while also affirming the notion that drug use can rip apart the inner psyche. Summed up: Bowie almost died making this album but it was this waltz to a dark place that helped produce this masterpiece and was the catalyst the artist needed to flee hellish L.A. for Western and Eastern Europe to start his much-lauded “Berlin Trilogy” of records. In an interview Bowie once said of Los Angeles during the mid-70s: “The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the earth”


It’s safe to say my fascination with Bowie’s late 1970s period–beginning with 76’s Station to Station, spanning the “Berlin Trilogy” of Low, ‘heroes’ & Lodger, and finishing with 1980s spectacular Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)–is unending. Bowie has often said in interviews that he seldom recollects anything from the Station sessions (most musicians involved are also fuzzy when it comes to memories from the studio). The rock and roll rumor mill spins out yarns painting Bowie as a skeleton of a man, living off various dairy products and copious amounts of easy to get L.A. coke. There are notes of paranoia fueling the recording of the album. Magic and the black arts were both weighing heavily on Bowie’s mind and soul, as was an unhealthy interest in the occult and German philosophy. Still despite everything pulling Bowie deeper and deeper into madness (and a likely “rock and roll” demise) he managed to gather some of the finest musicians of the time, including a number of his previous musical peers (most notably dueling guitarists Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar, the latter playing extensively on Bowie’s “Berlin” albums) and assembled an unprecedented shortlist of songs that to this day remain gems in Bowie’s extensive repertoire.


My true gateway to Bowie’s music came during my junior year of university. Before departing for a semester abroad in Salamanca, Spain, I coaxed a high-school friend into swapping music with me, most notably his digital Bowie discography. I already had a piquing interest in Bowie before this chance meeting of digital piracy/musical exploration. For those who still doubt the benefits of music downloading in the digital age understand this: there are some musicians or artists out there who should be explored in lumps, preferably through a chronologcial survey of their canon. Bowie, Bob Dylan, Talking Heads, Prince, to name a few giants that come to mind, evolved over their musical evolution in a way that was often unexpected, not always without its flaws but always fascinating. To listen to these transformations from early to late is such a rewarding gift for a music enthusiast.


If you go through Bowie’s catalogue of records during the 1970s, Station to Station seems like a natural way to divide his most lucrative decade.


Following closely on the heels of Bowie’s foray into Philly soul and disco sounds, the flawed but catchy Young Americans, Station seems to develop partially on the sound that Bowie was cultivating on Americans, while also adding enough needed experimentation to prove that he, in fact, had a lot more up his sleeve. The big musical jolt would follow with 1977s Low, an album so dear to my heart that I will eventually get around to adding it to this project.


“Station to Station” as a track has taken on many incarnations in my life. There was a seldom a time the track didn’t manage to make it onto a series of car mix CDs circulating the stereo in my Toyota. Like so many of Bowie’s tunes, I am always brought back to Salamanca, Spain. As I walked the streets my soundtrack was often set to Bowie, as my Iberian stint somehow became the environment where I fully-discovered his music. “Station to Station” was (and still is) a favorite track to run to as its slow-building crescendo coincides perfectly with the gradual ascension to full-on sprinting that runners plan during routes.


Lyrically the track is a window into the intrigue surrounding Bowie’s mental state of mind at the time. There are references to the Jewish Kabbalah, read as the crown and base of the tree of life:


Here are we

One magical movement

from Kether to Malkuth


Bowie references love and loss, possibly a sign of the times, most notably his separation from his wife and disconnection with his son while also referencing is physical and mental state:


It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine

I’m thinking that it must be love


Towards the end he finally gets to the point of the song and the album of its origin when he croons: “It’s too late / The European canon is here.”


It is widely known that Europe was beckoning Bowie, particularly through the music and art coming out of the East. His retreat to Europe, leaving behind L.A. was ultimately his saving grace. He has often said that he would have died in L.A. had he continued his lifestyle. That he also coaxed friend and musical influence Iggy Pop to join him in Europe, only moistens the intrigue of this period of musical exploration. Whether or not Bowie predicted or really knew what would ensue, musically, in the coming years of his career is up for debate, however, he knew that the art and changing tides in Eastern Europe would play an important role in the future of rock and roll. He, of course, wanted to be along for the ride.


My interest in this period of Bowie’s life would later lead to the reading of various accounts of the recording of this album, most notably Thomas Seabrook’s detailed book, Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in Town. I still listen to Station to Station on a semi-regular basis. It’s title tracks is one of the truly great epic songs in rock and roll. As for the rest of the album, Bowie’s at his finest.


“Golden Years” took everything that was good about Young Americans and fused it together with the twisted grooves that would find their way to “Station to Station.” “Word on a Wing” is a heartbreaking ballad of sorts that tests Bowie’s vocal prowess and ultimately showcases a range seldom heard. “TVC-15” feels like a Warren Zevon song was blasted into space and collided with disco tunes that time forgot. “Wild is the Wind” is a noteworthy cover that is reminiscent of Bowie’s earlier days. Then there’s “Stay,” which, besides featuring one of the truly great guitar riffs in rock and roll, is a sly number that would make Maggot Brain era Funkadelic envious.


Station to Station will always be a favorite in Bowie’s rich catalogue. Other venture and efforts would do more with this new found sound, most notably Low, however, it was Station that served as the jumping off point for Bowie’s major changes in the latter half of the century. Bowie released eleven near-flawless records in the 1970s, a feat that few artists working today could accomplish, especially when you consider that along the way he changed the sound and vision from album to album, station to station. After discovering Station to Station and the subsequent “Berlin Trilogy” I was officially hooked on Bowie, an unhealthy musical obsession that holds strong even today. Friends often scoff and wonder where this interest came from. They clearly haven’t listened to “Station to Station,” from its mesmerizing train whistle prelude to its coda, funk/disco/rock nirvana.

“Stay” featuring Adrian Belew

The Wait Is Finally Over


It has been 27 years since Brian Eno and David Byrne released their first collaboration project, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The album, a hodgepodge of recorded worldly beats and dance grooves, seemed at first like a more polarizing extension of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, but was really the lovechild of two musical geniuses. Flash-forward to 2008 and Eno and Byrne have unleashed their follow up collaboration record, Everything that Happens Will Happen Today.

The beauty of Everything that Happens is that even the casual listener, with no prior knowledge of Eno and Byrne’s history, can appreciate the album for what it is at its core – a collection of up-tempo tunes supporting socially charged lyrics about life. For music geeks the album serves as much more.
Eno and Byrne first teamed up with Talking Heads second LP, More Songs About Buildings and Food, the beginning of the band’s brilliant three record, genre-bending stint that included its follow-up Fear of Music and the aforementioned masterpiece, Remain in Light. Eno has always gone way beyond merely the title of producer. In many cases he becomes a member of the band and serves as not only an influence but also a master of deconstructing tired sounds and channeling in the new. His work on the trio of Heads records remain its finest and paved the way for My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a challenging album that continued Eno and Byrne’s quest to bridge the gap between global and popular music.
Since Ghosts was released Eno and Byrne have both benefited from prosperous solo careers–Eno as the go-to producer for giants like U2 and most recently Coldplay, and Byrne releasing a handful fairly successful post Talking Heads solo projects as well as the occasional film score (his work for Bernardo Bertulucci’s The Last Emperor is breathtaking). Still while both remain household names one could argue, especially when talking about Byrne, that neither has topped their work together in the early 80s. That is until now.
During a preliminary listen Everything that Happens appears to be more tuned into Talking Heads’ early records, rather than continuing the sounds on Ghosts. Gone are the global rhythms and sampled vocals, instead we get a straightforward pop album with the Eno/Byrne touch.
ImageAccording to interviews with both artists Eno took the reigns on the majority of the music and overall sound for Everything that Happens, while Byrne focused on the lyrics. The two collaborated by phone and email, with Eno sending samples to Byrne and vice versa. Still the album never feels like a distant project between the two.
Eno and Byrne jumpstart the album with “Home” the first of many breezy tracks with bleak messages. When Byrne sings, “Heaven knows- what keeps mankind alive” and later in the chorus, “Home- where my world is breaking in two” over an upbeat tempo and dreamy guitar and synth melodies Eno and Byrne present the framework for the entire album–while things appear to be okay, there is a darker side brewing. While this album could be viewed as political (undoubtedly commenting on the current state of the world) Eno and Byrne go beyond by questioning what is happening to the human race as a whole.
“I Feel My Stuff,” one of the album’s sole dark tracks in which the dreary sound actually pairs up with the lyrical gloom, feels like a lost track from David Bowie/Eno’s 1995 urban concept album, Outside 1. On the disco turned upside down track “Strange Overtones” Byrne sings, “This groove is out of fashion /These beats are 20 years old,” and while much of the album borrows from the sounds of past projects from both artists the tracks bizarre blend of 70s soul dance grooves and gospel vocals still manages to feel fresh.
Besides being a completely addictive record, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is also proof that both these artists still play at the top of their game when together. Some collaborations just plain work and the Eno/Byrne duo appear to be an unstoppable force.
If there is one fault on this album (and this coming from an extremely nitpicky point of view) it’s that Eno’s signature ethereal vocals are completely underused (he’s credited as backing vocals for only a handful of tracks) with Byrne taking the lead on all tracks. Both artists have radically unique pipes and while Byrne’s vocals during this outing have never sounded better it would have been nice to get a couple Eno tracks to mix things up. Still when it’s all said and done Eno’s compositions manage to make up for his vocal absence, not to mention his lack of creativity on past solo projects and Coldplay’s most recent album of which he produced.
David Byrne is currently starting a world tour supporting the new album that will also encompass and the entire Byrne/Eno back catalogue. While Eno has given no signs of joining his friend on the road (to be fair he’s been busy producing U2’s upcoming album) the idea of seeing Byrne take on a collection of songs like this is enough to send shivers down this writer’s spine. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is currently available as a purchasable download or a free stream exclusively from davidbyrne.com and following the current Radiohead internet trend, the album will soon be available in hard deluxe CD and LP formats. It could be that fans will have to wait another quarter century for another collaboration like this but until then we’ll have this brilliant record to tide us over.
 

Trent Reznor’s Twisted Bender of Creativity

(Story originally written for Starpulse.com)

Considering most musicians in their 40s tend to slow things down, Trent Reznor has been a busy boy. Coming from the man who once spent five years to release a follow-up album (the highly ambitious/anticipated double-disc mammoth The Fragile), and another six for its successor (2005’s With Teeth), the last two years for his band Nine Inch Nails have been some of the most creative and innovative in its career.

Reznor’s recent creative spur all started on the tour for NIN’s fifth studio album, the rather uninspired “With Teeth.” Desiring to record a bleak futuristic concept album to shed light on the United States’ current administration, Reznor created (or rather conjured up) Year Zero. Exorcizing his inner demons once again, “Zero” was a refreshing return to form for Reznor and would be the start of new day for NIN both musically and conceptually.

The sprawling 16-track “Zero” was significant not only for its message but also its delivery, primarily the extensive viral marketing campaign that backed the album’s official release and an organized Internet leak. While past NIN efforts showcased Reznor as a sonic mad scientist, constantly pushing the envelope of the industrial genre he helped start, “Zero” was a vehicle for Reznor the savvy businessman, or anti-businessman.

The concept of “Zero” was to include not only the album but also a record of remixes (Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D), a possible feature length film, and now, according to Reznor, a television series all encompassing the shambled dystopia of Reznor’s future America. Reznor even came up with some creative methods for leaking the songs and portions of the album to diehard NIN fans – leaving mini USB memory cards chock full of MP3s and other “Year Zero” propaganda in the bathroom stalls at concert venues or treating frequent website visitors to snippets of “Zero.” Reznor has always treated fans to pleasant surprises.

Trent Reznor“Year Zero” was the last official studio album on NIN’s former label, Interscope, fulfilling a long-standing frustrating contract and paving the way for complete musicalindependence. After releasing “Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D” Reznor followed in the footsteps of Radiohead and many other artists currently embracing the inevitable industry changes in how we acquire music with an Internet exclusive release of a 36-track suite of instrumental compositions entitled,Ghosts I-IV.

While initially coming out of left field (after all it was released just shy of a year after “Year Zero,” which was unexpected considering NIN’s last couple spaced out releases), the content of “Ghosts” and the methods used to release the album seemed inevitable choices.

For starters, “Ghosts” was a pet project Reznor was aching to do for many years but never could due to pressures from his label. A four-volume set comprised entirely of bizarre instrumental compositions, carefully paired with bleak photographs (included in a 40-page book) doesn’t exactly scream Billboard trendsetter. Artistically, however, “Ghosts” serves as a haven for Reznor to showcase his undisputed gift for taking ordinary sounds and taking them to extreme, undiscovered directions.

On past NIN efforts instrumental tracks were commonly used to bridge songs together, provide glimpses of grace amongst cuts rooted in chaos, and, in the case of The Downward Spiral’s “A Warm Place,” pay homage to a major influence, David Bowie (the song is a manipulated cover of a Bowie B-side, “Crystal Japan”). Many have also said that while Reznor continues to evolve his sound, his lyricism has always been an Achilles’ heel, often recycling the same dismal predictable themes.

“Ghosts” was no doubt marketed mainly to diehard NIN fans (36-tracks without a solid single to anchor it down isn’t exactly aiming for the mainstream). By allowing listeners to have a choice in how they acquire the album Reznor embraced the future of music distribution and did so with success. “Ghosts” was released in a number of formats ranging from a free nine-track sampler to an expansive limited edition vinyl, CD, and MP3 suite.

For digital music sampling wizards (and Reznor realizes that there are many out there) “Ghosts” was also made available in a number of different digital formats, allowing fans to take individual tracks from songs and remix the content to create their own unique compositions. While much of these methods were no doubt lifted from Radiohead’s In Rainbows pay-what-you-feel Internet stunt of last year, Reznor was clearly taking things to a higher level.

Last month Reznor surprised fans yet again with The Slip, a surprisingly low-budget, 10-song record blending messy, fast-paced garage rock with moody ambient ballads that was released 100% free to listeners at NIN.com. While “The Slip” isn’t as conceptually sophisticated as “Year Zero” or as groundbreaking as say Pretty Hate Machine or “The Downward Spiral,” it is a rough and fun rock record that not only gave Reznor a single (the catchy techno cut “Discipline”) to tour with but again proves that Reznor is currently enjoying the luxuries of his newfound creative spree. He even managed to produce Saul Williams‘ last album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, which was also made available via digital download.

For most established artists some people might argue for content over quantity, believing that it’s better to take time between masterpieces rather than unleash mediocre album after album. In the case of Nine Inch Nails, Reznor seems to have found a happy balance between the two. “Year Zero” was as innovative and interesting as NIN’s early records, “Ghosts I-IV” was the result of an idea that Reznor seems to have been dreaming up for quite some time, and “The Slip,” while not a masterpiece, is a nice taste of what Reznor has up his sleeve, served gratis to boot.

It’s hard to say what else Reznor is cooking up musically, since the past two records were released out of the blue. NIN is about to embark on a major U.S. tour, and Reznor has already spoken of his future plans for the “Year Zero” concept. Whether or not NIN’s current creative spree seems like an overload of more loud industrial rock, consider this: a veteran artist like Reznor could continue taking his time between records and still reap the benefits from a loyal fanbase, but instead he’s experimenting and treating the world to his art. Good or bad, that’s entirely up to the listener, but it’s hard to deny that at the age of 43 Reznor’s artistic inner demons are still hard at work and he remains one of the most innovative musicians working today.

The European Canon is Here


During 1975 David Bowie’s body weight lingered between a frightening 80 and 90 pounds, rivaling that of even the lightest of jockeys. It is said that his diet consisted of milk, the occasional indulgence of plain vanilla ice cream, and the finest cocaine a decadent life in Los Angeles could bestow. His life had become a haze of paranoia fueled by a heavy dependency on drugs (he also dabbled in amphetamines) and an unhealthy fascination with the occult. 

While The Thin White Duke (his self-appointed title/persona at the time) was on the brink of a serious physical and mental breakdown he was also about to embark on arguably his most innovative and bizarre creative periods in not only his career but in rock and roll history. 

Much has been written about Bowie’s many reptilian musical transformations over the years but few rock historians have meticulously examined the musician’s late 1970s flight to Western Europe.

As far as rock and roll books go Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town is about as good as it gets. It is a comprehensive look at Bowie’s experimental escapades in and around the once divided city that strays away from the clichés of the modern rock biography. The book is the newest edition to a budding series of tomes from Jaw Bone Press chronicling notable musical periods–the first documented Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes period with The Band. Author Thomas Jerome Seabrook is hardly the first author to tackle Bowie but rather than put out a biographical retelling of the artist’s various incarnations over the years the author takes on his most curious and often misunderstood era. 

Prior to Bowie’s mid-70s stint of drugs and debauchery the artist had already changed the face of rock and roll on more than one occasion. He brought androgyny to the forefront of popular music, helped jumpstart glam rock, and coined the term plastic soul by blending his former sounds with the likes of Philly R&B and Soul, first with Diamond Dogs and more successfully with Young Americans. He even made his first foray into acting via the possibly biographical role as an alien in the cult sci-fi film, The Man Who Fell To Earth. He managed to do all this before the age of 30.

At a time when Bowie seemed to have the world at his fingertips–international stardom, high selling pop records, critical acclaim–the artist moved in a completely unexpected direction both musically and personally.

Seeing a need for a major life change Bowie headed for Western Europe, first to Switzerland and eventually Berlin to clean up his act. In one of Bowie’s many career acts of kindness he also coaxed ex-Stooges frontman Iggy Pop into joining him. Pop himself had established a far more severe drug dependency than Bowie and was also in dire need of a career jumpstart (prior to Berlin Bowie had already pushed Lou Reed to start his solo career when he produced Reed’s Transformer).

Most music fans (or at least Bowie fans) are familiar with Bowie’s unofficial “Berlin Trilogy” of albums–1977s Low, and “Heroes”, and 1979s Lodger–recorded with Brian Eno during the late 70s. Few may be realize that besides recording three radically different art rock albums Bowie co-wrote and produced two Iggy Pop solo albums (the grim proto punk of The Idiot and a return to Stooges form in Lust for Life), starred in a film, organized a couple European tours and even managed to narrate an audio version of HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Prokofiev”Sergei Prokofiev’s HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_and_the_Wolf”Peter and the Wolf, you know, for the kids. A busy two years and an extraordinary close to a career high decade. In many ways both Pop records, primarily The Idiot, served as testing grounds for Bowie’s vision of where his own music was headed and are as much, if not more, Bowie’s records than they are Pop’s (for the research of the book Seabrook discovered that most of the music for The Idiot was written by Bowie with Pop merely stepping in for his signature impromptu lyrical flowing).

ImageThere are those who dismiss Bowie for his glamorous showmanship and over the top publicity stunts (to be fair the stage elements of the glam rock movement aren’t for everyone). What’s most fascinating about Bowie’s late 70s projects is that he traded the glamour for artistic acclaim and a chance to give listeners a glimpse of the future of music.

Gone were the elaborate costumes and fluorescent hairdos. The disco sounds were replaced by slow building instrumental symphonies and rhythmically complex fragments of songs drenched in production experimentation. Even Bowie’s lyrics, which once wove tales of cosmonauts and paid homage to musical idols, now took on a starker realism with references to new age art and social politics–mainly the division in Eastern Europe brought on in the shadow of the Berlin wall and the Iron Curtain.

In his book Seabrook draws a number of comparison to contemporary musicians holding Bowie’s Berlin period in the highest of regards. Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor often cites Bowie’s Low and later Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) as inspirations for his electronic noise compositions. It’s also hard to deny the comparison made by Seabrook between Bowie’s experiments and that of Radiohead. 

Both changed the face of rock with pinnacle albums and decided to follow the newfound success with radically polarizing ventures into experimental art rock. The fact that Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac were recorded and released back to back in a short period of time only furthers this argument when looking at Bowie’s ’77 release of both Low and “Heroes”. One could go even farther to argue that Bowie’s less adorned/misunderstood trilogy conclusion, Lodger in 1979, was received with the same “so-so” feelings as Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief

It’s easy to overlook how influential and fascinating Bowie’s 70s decade must have seemed to music fans at the time. Very few musicians or bands can accomplish as much as Bowie did in a single decade, let alone continue to shed his musical skin along the way. Seabrook’s retelling of Bowie’s European period also serves as a reminder to what has become of Bowie since Berlin.

As the years went on the space between album releases grew and the quality of music diminished, especially in the 80s. Many say the artist’s last true masterpiece was 1980s Scary Monsters, which at the time must have sounded like a promising start to a new decade (it as shortly followed by another, more profound wave of mega stardom with the ultra poppy Let’s Dance).

In the 90s Bowie reunited with Brian Eno for the fan favorite 1.Outside, the first of what was proposed to be another Bowie/Eno trilogy of concept albums. Instead he followed with a string of decent but not spectacular modern sign of the time records. It should be noted that Bowie is currently in his longest stretch without a major record release with 2003s Reality being his last contribution. While rumors continue to fly about a new record or the leak of formally unreleased material, Bowie future remains a mystery.

It could be that Bowie has officially jumped the shark in terms of releasing monumental records but it’s important to remember how much of driving force Bowie once was. Ten albums plus countless side projects in ten years is a feat few musicians even dream about now and days but Bowie managed to pull it of during the 70s with a number of the records being christened masterpieces. And who knows, perhaps the Thin White Duke still has a couple more musical visions left in him. 


Trent Reznor Releases His Ghosts


This past week Trent Reznor followed in the footsteps of Radiohead and many other bands currently trying to change the way we purchase music when he announced on the Nine Inch Nails’ website the independent release of a new record,Ghosts I-IV. The 36-track album, or four EP set was available immediately for digital download or pre-order in either CD or LP formats, and was offered to listeners in several different audio quality and price formats from a free nine track MP3 download to a $300 signed and numbered Deluxe Edition set that included both physical and digital versions of the record.

Ghosts is the first album NIN released since it broke away from its contract with Interscope Records, a move that mirrors Radiohead’s decision to release last year’s In Rainbows autonomous from its former label EMI. Now while Reznor didn’t entirely follow the “pay what you feel is appropriate” model that Radiohead promoted with Rainbows, Ghosts furthers the mounting notion that music listeners are looking for options in how they acquire and digest music. 

To be fair a move like this wasn’t entirely unexpected for a musician like Trent Reznor. Long before In Rainbows stirred things up in the media, Reznor had been exploring the digital realm of promoting and distributing NIN music and even butted heads with his former label shortly after the release of last year’s Year Zero. Upon Zero’s official release Reznor was apparently appalled by the record’s high retail cost and even promoted illegal download acquisition of the album to fans to protest the higher powers. So unlike Radiohead’s surprise announcement last fall, it’s safe to say it was only a matter of time before Reznor took things into his own hands.

Still if you forget all the hype surrounding this new wave of sticking it to the record companies, a possible beginning of the end for the current industry, the most striking part of this story is Reznor’s newest opus itself.

It’s fitting that Ghosts I-IV was released in this manner because five to ten years ago, even when NIN was in its peak, a record of this nature probably would never have seen the light of day. Reznor no doubt realized this fact going into the recording of this album. Originally conceived to be a simple five track instrumental EP, Reznor decided to fulfill a dream he had been toying with for quite some time and instead concocted nearly two hours of varied instrumental tracks, each matching up with a separate visual entity.

Gone are Reznor’s agonizing vocals and harsh, politically charged lyrics. Absent too are song titles, which often serve as snippets into Reznor’s agenda or current mindset. Instead Ghosts is a fascinating collection of mini electronic symphonies that are at times haunting, at times beautiful, and surprisingly never boring, despite the record’s daunting scope. Each is paired up with a photograph provided in a downloadable PDF or an eventual 40-page liner note set. The images range from bleak exterior shots of desert landscapes to studio shots of Reznor and team working their magic with a slew of bizarre instruments and endless cords, knobs and control boards. 

Ghosts I-IV was the result of an intense 10-week recording session that Reznor describes on his website as having, “a wildly varied body of music that we’re able to present to the world in ways the confines of a major record label would never have allowed.” The album was recorded either solo or in collaboration with a group of NIN regulars and friends including Brian Viglione of The Dresden Dolls and legendary experimental guitarist Adrian Belew, whose impressive resume includes his former band King Crimson, work with Frank Zappa, Paul Simon, Talking Heads, and David Bowie, during his heavy instrumental Berlin sessions. Longtime collaborator and former shoe gazer producer Alan Moulder (My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins) also overlooked the sessions. 

Reznor added on his website: This music arrived unexpectedly as the result of an experiment. The rules were as follows: 10 weeks, no clear agenda, no overthinking, everything driven by impulse. Whatever happens during that time gets released as… something.

Nine Inch Nails have long experimented with instrumental tracks on its records. Fragile, Reznor’s magnum double disc follow-up to The Downward Spiral, felt at times like a twisted, dark score to a dismal film that only Reznor could conjure up. Reznor has often spoken of his admiration for the instrumental work of Bowie, particularly on 1977s Low, a radical departure for the musical chameleon that featured numerous electronic soundscape tracks that were overlooked by Brian Eno. Ghosts in many ways mimics the second half of Low and the works of Eno, who spent much of his solo career creating ambient instrumental symphonies to be played in the background. Here Reznor seems to go with that concept on Ghosts and takes it up a notch.

Still unlike previous NIN records Ghosts feels very clean. While many of the instruments are eventually buried under waves of filtering and distortion, it is clear that a level of in-studio improvisation and real instrumentation played an important role in the recording sessions. Take “13” from Ghosts II, a sleepy little melodic piano piece carried by an almost soothing drum pulse. Or “6” from Ghosts I, a curious little composition propelled by what sounds like a marimba and subtle string orchestration that would feel right at home on a science fiction film soundtrack. Not the usual fare from the guy who once wrote, “Head like a hole. Black as your soul.”

Perhaps this is what’s most fascinating about Ghosts and why the record’s title is so fitting. NIN’s past efforts have always involved a level of social commentary and haunting reflections from one of the darker minds of our generation. Yet withGhosts Reznor has gone a completely different direction following merely what he thought sounded good and riding with it. It’s almost as if the soothing tracks and the more extreme, darker tracks included here are all afterthoughts or spirits of previous NIN compositions.  

It will be interesting to see what other artists and bands follow suit and decide to take the distribution side of the industry into their own hands. Bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails succeeded in these little experiments (NIN.com’s servers actually crashed from a higher download demand than was anticipated after Ghosts was first posted) undoubtedly because of strong backing from a large fan base. In past years smaller groups like Arcade Fire and Wilco have used the net to stream its albums before the official release, another tactic that gives listeners a taste and hopefully entices them to purchase the album.

ImageWhile an album like Ghosts I-IV is clearly aimed at a certain loyal audience, and not the average listening consumer, this may turn out to be an important step for Reznor because this seems to be a viable manner of putting his music out there for the world to hear. With a proposed follow-up album toYear Zero already in the back of his mind we may very well see another move like this down the road. 

Record companies seem to be clinching to the ways of yesteryears when they need to realize that consumers of music are looking for choices when it comes to acquiring music. The age of dishing out $16 for a CD is slowly coming to an end. The PBS/PRI, pledge drive format that Radiohead essentially backed with In Rainbows forced listeners decide how much this music was worth to them. Financially and artistically it was a success.

 Some have suggested that music should be something people pay subscription prices for and that the four major labels should each provide listeners with unlimited downloads of their respective catalogues for monthly or annual fees, rather than individual record sales. Reznor decided to simply give his listeners a series of options. Get a taste of Ghosts I for free, download the record as a whole for $5, add on the double disc CD format for $10 or go all out and splurge on the collector’s version. Smart marketing, sure. Important move for the state of the industry? Only time will tell. 

 

For Your Consideration, Reznor’s Beginning of the End


This past week I, like many, was scoping out various magazines, blogs, newspapers and websites to check out the overall consensus of the top albums this year. While for the most part the obvious records were honored–Arcade Fire, White Stripes, Kanye, Spoon, Radiohead, Bruce Springsteen etc.–there was one landmark 2007 album that for one reason or another seemed to have been forgotten and has officially fallen under the radar. 

Nine Inch Nails’ sixth studio album,Year Zero, was released back in April to not only all around critical acclaim but also respectable record sales (Nails still has a loyal fan base out there). While casual listeners who are not familiar with NIN’s mastermind Trent Reznor’s past efforts may hear more of the same inYear Zero–that is to say, more of the fast-paced distortion rock and somber lyrics that Reznor is known for–the album is in many ways a breath of fresh air and one of Nails’ most unique and ambitious projects yet.

One could argue that Reznor has been creating “concept albums” ever since he jumped onto the scene with the gritty, “industrial incarnation” album, Pretty Hate Machine, however, Year Zero may be one of the most fascinating and true to form concept albums released in the past decade and maybe even in rock history. Sure the content matter is conceptual, focusing on a suffering dystopian society that Reznor apparently sees in our near future, but the most fascinating part of Reznor’s vision with Zero is the concept of how the album was marketed, released, and packaged. 

Zero was created on the heel of NIN’s fifth studio album, 2005s fairly sub par, With Teeth. Reznor is long known for taking his time between albums (it took five years for the follow-up to NIN’s masterpiece The Downward Spiral with the extremely underrated, epic double album beast The Fragile, and another six years after that for With Teeth) however, the concept and puzzle of Year Zero was unleashed on fans during the With Teeth tour. 

Reznor has said in interviews that Year Zero is just a small piece of an entire cross medium concept that he envisioned while on tour. Reznor planned Zero to be part of a grand alternate reality game that would include a companion video game, a remix album (already out in stores) and an eventual film/television project of sorts, all tying into the album’s scathing political themes and messages. The project also served as a vehicle for Reznor to toy with his fascination with the changing tides in technology, specifically using the internet and viral marketing to give fans tastes of Year Zero

This past year was quite monumental for the music industry in terms of the marketing and distribution of music. There were a number of file sharing lawsuits, record sales were slightly up but still disappointing compared to ten years ago, Amazon unleashed its online music store, possibly the only one fit to counter iTunes, and a little band called Radiohead decided to screw the industry middleman, opting to release their newest endeavor themselves, in many ways giving listeners a glimpse of the future of acquiring new music. Still with all this news very few people noticed or remember the fascinating and quite brilliant marketing/hype campaign unleashed by Reznor for the Year Zero release.

 
It all started back in 2005 when Reznor told the media of his intentions of working on new material while on the With Teeth tour. This was followed by a clever interactive world wide viral marketing campaign aimed solely at fans on tour. NIN tee-shirts sold this year featured the words “I am trying to believe,” which, if added to a URL enabled fans to discover a series of minimalist websites describing a futuristic dystopia called “year 0000.” After that concert goers on NIN European tour were treated to actual tastes of the music to come after a number of small USB flash drives were distributed in bathrooms and concert venues each containing more links to mysterious website, binary codes and snippets of music. 

Eventually websites were posted containing whole tracks to the singles “Survivalism” and “Capital G,” often released as midi files through Apple’s Garageband music producing software (much of Year Zero was created and recorded on a laptop while Reznor was on tour, a fairly interesting departure from the artist’s usual perfectionist and extremely detailed studio recording methods of past albums). These multi-track audio downloads also enabled/encouraged fans to remix the songs themselves, again promoting listener interaction. Reznor’s decision to release his music this way goes back to early sentiments favoring the welcomed change in how people get music. In interviews Reznor has expressed feelings that the CD medium as we know it is dying and that digital music IS the future, despite what the corporate recording industry says.

Finally, as a testament to Reznor’s embrace of the inevitable future of music, NIN made the album available for streaming on its MySpace webpage and website and promotional files were leaked through peer-to-peer networks, all before the official record hit stores. The concept of the final disc itself was also fairly noteworthy as it was printed with a special “thermo-chrome heat-sensitive” CD face, which changes the ink printing from black (when cool) to white (when heated after play), revealing yet more mysterious binary codes that in turn lead fans to yet another website clue in the grand Year Zero world. Technology is as much a character in the Year Zero storyline as the crumbling future society Reznor depicts. 

Now while the campaign and unique release of Year Zero is as noteworthy this year as the route Radiohead or any other band has taken, the musical content of NIN’s newest opus should not be overshadowed for it stands high with some of the best this year. 

Very few musicians working today can successfully write or create interesting music that is politically fueled. Reznor has long written songs that tread the waters of dark and macabre subject matter, but never before has he been so specific and angry with his comments on the current state of the world, specifically his concerns and anger for our current administration. Songs like the single “Capital G” are blatant references to Reznor’s disapproval with our current president and the concept of Year Zero is in many ways Reznor’s vision of what our bleak future may look like if we as a country don’t wise up. In one stanza Reznor belts out, 

The biggest problem with the way that we’ve been doing things is 
The more we let you have the less that I’ll be keeping for me

Musically NIN has never sounded better. Reznor helped define the industrial rock subgenre in the late 80s/early 90s yet he seems to have spent most of his career stripping down and transforming the sound he helped create–straying away from typecasting is Reznor’s forte. Year Zero features the signature NIN power drum tracks but mixes thing up by blending funk, dance, hip-hop and distortion rock sounds not to mention a curious lineup of instruments. On “The Greater Good,” an album highlight towards the end of the disc built around a throbbing funk drumbeat, Reznor tinkers with a number of bizarre instruments most notably a marimba, classical harp and what sounds like a Japanese Koto like string instrument. 

It’s easy to forget how talented and innovative Trent Reznor is in the musical arena. Very few people can truly master the “one man show” routine but time after time Reznor continues to reinvent his sound, while also writing songs that are angry, socially conscious and at times hauntingly beautiful. The Downward Spiral was a masterpiece and arguably one of the best records to come out of the nineties. While it’s safe to say that none of Reznor’s follow-ups have come close to the distinctive sound/vision of SpiralYear Zeroas an album and concept is a feat that most artists never come close to. For those who know what I’m talking about you may too be baffled about how easily critics and the “top albums of the year” scribes seemed to have forgotten about this stellar ‘07 release. 

For those who skipped it or have yet to discover NIN seek out this album in whatever method of gathering music you approve with. The way this album was presented to the world is as fascinating as Radiohead’s overly hyped stunt, the political messages showcased on the record best the opinions of most other artists working in the same protest genre, and above all the sounds that Reznor envisions and creates continue to impress, even after six noise infused albums. The last lines of the album’s closer, “Zero-Sum,” truly sum up Reznor’s vision of Year Zero.

Shame on us 
For all we’ve done,
And all we ever were
Just zeroes and ones

Musical Reinvention (Madonna Puns Aside)


Within the past month there have been a number of monumental releases kicking off the fall music season. There was that intense Kanye vs. Fitty 9/11 showdown, last week Bruce Springsteen released Magic, his newest record with the E Street Band, and this past Wednesday fans around the globe were treated to a rare musical milestone with the internet release of Radiohead’s highly anticipated seventh album, In Rainbows. Amidst all the publicity and hoorah for these monumental releases (for the record, Kanye’s Graduation and Magic are both surprisingly great records, and as I’m writing this Radiohead’s newest opus is blaring through my headphones for the fourth time) it was easy to overlook some other smaller but equally rewarding album returns from a number of talented musicians including, ether-worldly vocalist Sam Beam aka Iron and Wine, guitar sultan Mark Knopfler, and ex-Eurhythmics siren Annie Lennox, to name a few. The most startling, overlooked, and finest album to jump start the fall is by one PJ Harvey.

Polly Jean Harvey has been releasing beautifully crafted and radically unique albums since the early nineties. She made a splash with records like 1995’s To Bring You My Love, and 2000’s Stories From the City, Stories from the Sea both of which earned her well-deserved praise and a small but loyal following. What ties all of Harvey’s albums together, despite her furious and versatile voice, is the common theme of reinvention. Her recent musical contribution, White Chalk, is Harvey’s most bizarre transformation yet but it also might be her best.

Fueled by a dependence on minimalist, lullabyesque piano melodies, a surprisingly welcomed move away from the usual fiery blues electric guitar sound of latter records, and a rather haunting change in vocals, White Chalk is a puzzling album that asks a lot from its listener, but is nevertheless and instant classic. Part concept album (Harvey channels a number of different beyond the grave ghostly voices on this record), part shift into the realms of goth folk rock, if such a genre exists, Chalk is arguably the weirdest transition of Harvey’s career and raises the question, what’s next for Ms. Polly Jean?

Artists have been shedding their musical skin for years, drastically changing their sound, style and in some cases completely reinventing music, as we know it. White Chalk is by no means as prolific as when Dylan picked up an electric, or The Beatles helped coin the phrase “art rock,” but I can’t think of a more perfect recent example of how the best musicians working are the chameleons who strive to evolve through change.

While listening to White Chalk (the album has been a staple on my iPod all week and has yet to leave my car’s CD player) I started to conjure up a list of other notable radical musical reinventions from artists over the years.

Miles Ahead—It’s become a bit cliché, at least in the jazz world, to say that Miles Davis changed the face of jazz on more than one occasion–always looking forward, never looking back. Still when you look at this legend’s career and the choices that he made it’s hard not to play along with this statement. The three obvious Miles milestones were 1949’s Birth of the Cool, which took Bebop a step further living up to the album’s title; 1959’s Kind of Blue, the first true modal, atmospheric jazz experience; and 1969’s In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, fusion records that brought on the wave of free jazz and helped link rock and roll to jazz. In reality Davis continued to reinvent his sound album after album until the day he died (Davis’ final album, the critically panned Doo-Bop, is proof that had he continued making music Davis might have helped to bridge the short gap between hip-hop and jazz) despite being ignored and lambasted by so-called jazz purists.

Cha-Cha-Cha Changes—David Bowie was at one point the most capricious musician working in the industry, bending genres and sounds at every chance he could. From early Brit pop singer songwriter (Hunky Dory), to glam rock pioneer (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane), dark goth rocker (The Man Who Sold the World, Diamond Dogs), and the shamefully overlooked (1. Outside), R&B crooner (Young Americans), experimental ambient kraut rock (Station to Station, The Berlin Trilogy: Low, Heroes & Lodger), proto punk (Scary Monsters and Super Creeps) dance pop (Let’s Dance, Black Tie White Noise) and even a stint in bass and drum heavy electronica (Earthling), Bowie’s androgyny and shape shifting persona went far beyond simply his appearance.

Under African Skies
—During the 80s a number of big name artists shed the familiar sounds of their back catalogue and explored the varied rhythms and styles coming from South Africa’s afro-pop scene and the Caribbean reggae wave. In almost all cases the musicians who went the worldly route in lieu of the synth-pop heavy music of the time created some of the finest records of their career, often introducing audiences to musical sounds being created outside of the mainstream. In 1986 Paul Simon ditched his humble singer songwriter persona with the release of Graceland, a record that dabbled in a slew of bicultural sounds–African acapella, Louisiana gospel R&B, Tex-Mex guitar rock, to name a few. Talking Heads seemed to change their style on every record but it wasn’t until the out of left field, Afro-pop influenced masterpiece, Remain in Light, that they let their true artistic visions best the demands of 80s pop music norms. Add fellow contemporaries such as Peter Gabriel (Melt, So) and even Michael Jackson (1979’s Off the Wall may have helped jumpstart this intercontinental melting pot trend) and it’s hard to deny that the 1980s were more than ever a time where popular music was transforming into a global medium.

The Crooked Beat—It’s safe to say the Clash had been evolving and broadening their musical range ever since their self-titled debut, however, 1980s triple LP monster Sandinista! was the record that truly went all out thanks to an interest in damn near every style they could come up with–dub reggae, classical chamber concertos, disco, and even bizarre Eastern European folk dance (listen to “Lose this Skin” for this comparison to make sense). The release transported The Clash well beyond the simple “punk band” title they helped coin and would unfortunately be there last truly great contribution.