Review Summary: The best NIN release since "The Downward Spiral". Both frightening and touching, the album is a huge step forward for Mr. Reznor, focusing on the big picture while still retaining a human element.
It all started with a shirt. It was your average tour t-shirt with a list of gigs printed neatly on the back, until one very observant (or very bored) fan noticed that certain letters in the text were highlighted. When put together, the letters formed the phrase “I am trying to believe.”
And believe we did.
What followed was a stunningly effective marketing campaign that quickly turned into a Da Vinci Code-esque scavenger hunt. Songs were intentionally leaked, bizarre websites were discovered, and, as the pieces began to fall into place, a frightening back story for the album began to emerge.
Enter Year Zero, the latest release from Nine Inch Nails. Taking place 15 years from now in a post apocalyptic United States, the album is a futuristic sci-fi journey into a world of decay and corruption, with the sole member of the “band”, Trent Reznor, as our guide. That being said, some might consider it a concept album; one that tells a story. Year Zero instead builds upon the existing narrative created over the past few months in order to shape the complete experience. But even without this background information, the record is still remarkably cohesive and immersive.
From the dense, fuzzy build up of “Hyperpower!” to the fading electronic whisper of “Zero Sum”, the album is 64 minutes of raw, unfiltered sound. Anyone who has listened to a rock radio station recently will be familiar with the rapid-fire, militaristic single “Survivalism”, whose grinding guitar and pounding chorus appropriately mimic “The cocking of the rifles/The marching of the feet”. “My Violent Heart” begins with quiet, almost whispered vocals against a backdrop of light electronic percussion, only to erupt into a roaring battle cry; a mantra for revolution. On the other end of the sonic spectrum, tracks such as “The Good Soldier” (which features the line “I am trying to believe”) and “In This Twilight” are calm and deliberate in their delivery, showing an introspective and delicate style of songwriting not normally associated with Nine Inch Nails. “Me, I’m Not” borders on trip-hop due to its thumping beat and moody atmosphere, which underlines the spoken vocals and dissonant synth melodies. What stands out about the album, and what keeps it from sinking into the tepid mainstream rock scene, is the sheer amount of noise that powers it. Spastic bursts of static, echoing gunshots, the scream of fighter jets, and all manner of abrasive electronic sound punctuate each track. Exhibit A: “The Great Destroyer”, whose catchy rock verses give way to a smothering onslaught of rhythmic sonic fury. The sticker on the packaging doesn’t call them “noisy new songs” for nothing.
Overall, Year Zero is a refreshing break from Reznor’s typical angst-filled industrial rock. Instead of looking at the world on an individual level, he chooses to see the greater picture in a way that transcends any of his previous work. The album succeeds as a concept album, as a rock album, and, most importantly, as a Nine Inch Nails album.