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.

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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