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.

Viva El Eno


An anxious nation can officially be put to rest. This past week Coldplay, planet Earth’s favorite big emotional sound troupe, officially announced some details regarding its “highly” anticipated fourth studio album. Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends is a mouthful of a record title especially when compared to 2005s oh so subtle, X&Y. The album is set for a mid June release with tracks ranging from the spooky sounding “Cemeteries of London,” the mysterious “Lost!” and the possibly philosophy riddled “Glass of Water.” Half full or half empty Mr. Martin?

I admittedly found Coldplay’s first two endeavors–2000s “Parachutes” and 2004s titanic release “A Rush of Blood to the Head”–to be rather enjoyable. Sure tracks like “Yellow” and “Clocks” were almost too catchy and quickly became poison to the ears after radio stations continued to spin the record raw but both albums as a whole were pretty solid. If you were to put all the mega stardom and celebrity buzz over babies named after pieces or produce aside Coldplay have always done pure unadulterated pop music well.

I suppose what eventually turned me off was the band’s popularity explosion immediately following Rush. When the eagerly awaited X&Y was finally unveiled in 2005 not only did the mediocre third act sound like merely more of the same or an entire album set out to emulate a blockbuster like “Clocks” but its unnecessary media buzz was more of a buzz kill.

So why even write about Coldplay? Why devote an entire column to some recent tidbits about the band’s upcoming fourth album? The answer is simple: Eno.

Comparisons have always been made between Coldplay and groups like Radiohead or U2. While a more appropriate Coldplay link would be to Brit pop acts like The Stone Roses or Oasis, Chris Martin’s bleak but fairly uninspired lyrics always seem to bunch the band into the former group. On Viva la Vida… (seriously what’s with the title? What about Frida Kahlo interests Mr. Martin?) ambient sound pioneer Brian Eno stepped in as producer a move that not only raises the album’s intrigue from blah to BLAH? but also brings the band closer to U2s career path.

ImageEno was at one point (and, quite frankly, still is) the producer to work with. During the 1970s and 80s he overlooked some of the greatest albums ever made by some music’s finest acts. Bowie’s avant-garde Berlin Trilogy, a handful of Talking Heads’ masterpieces, Devo’s premiere record, and of course U2s unadulterated run of album greats starting with 1984s The Unforgettable Fire and ending with 1993s overlooked Zooropa, all received that Eno touch. 

One would hope that Coldplay’s decision to take on Eno as a producer shows that the band is ready for a change. Eno has always been a master of taking an artist or band and helping them find a new direction. Case in point, U2s Achtung Baby(1991). Undoubtedly Bono and company’s most sophisticated and musically interesting record to date, the album helped the band enter their second decade with a new slate to work on. He even helped the band accomplish this same feat entering the new millennium with the fresh and highly popular, All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

People often say that Eno is the go-to man for acquiring that worldly sound. African drums, bizarre instrumentation, and layered rhythms seem to be his forte. While this is partially true (he did help David Byrne channel his inner Afro-pop demons during Talking Heads magnificent album progression in the early 1980s) Eno is more attuned to helping musicians take that next big step from mass appreciation to critical appreciation. In the case of U2 he helped the band find both.

In many ways Viva la Vida will be a test to see if Coldplay can propel itself from merely soft pop rock stardom to a band willing to take risks no matter what the costs are. They could make and remake the some album rooted in “Clocks”esque anthems for another ten years and they would no doubt still sell millions of records and continue to fill arenas. The ultimate question though is how will they ultimately be viewed by future music fans and critics writing their columns for the best acts of the early millennium? Where will Coldplay fit in rock and roll history?

According to a press release of the new album on Coldplay’s website:

“The sights, sounds and flavours of Latin America and Spain have definitely been infused into this album…No maracas or castanets, but a vibrancy and colourfulness that owes much to the atmospheres of Buenos Aires and Barcelona. The effect is subtle but important.”

There you have it. Subtle but important. The question now is can singer/songwriter Chris Martin shed his unnecessary knack for depressing lyrics (you’re married to Gwyneth Paltrow, you probably have more money than the Queen and you get to tour the world playing recycled keyboard licks, why such a glum disposition sir?)? Will this spicy new direction work for the band? I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.

I was talking to a very good friend of mine about the band. Unlike myself he has always stood by all things Coldplay. WhenX&Y’s single “Fix You” was leaked on the internet its play count on his iTunes library stretched into the 1000s (to be fair he used to leave the emotional ballad on a repeat loop at night. Nothing like a little cushy Brit pop to lull you to sleep). His argument has always been Coldplay’s music sounds good and it’s consistent. Shouldn’t interesting music steer clear of consistency? Aren’t the ones who take risks the true greats?

For this column I went and revisited X&Y on his recommendation just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Sure enough I didn’t miss anything. That said, I’m still interested to see what this new album has in store for the band if anything because they are a hard super-force to ignore. Plus as a fan of Eno there is a spark of hope that maybe Coldplay was just testing the waters with their first couple albums. Who knows, with Viva la Vida maybe the band followed the oh-so-wise Monty Python motto, ‘and now for something completely different.’

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.