Review Summary: Trent Reznor releases his noisiest, most coherent album since 1994's "The Downward Spiral."
Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor has always been the type to carefully craft his albums. The Downward Spiral, widely considered Reznor's masterpiece, contained unfathomable layers of sound underneath it's conceptual center of someone who commits suicide after becoming numb to the world. Five years later in 1999, Reznor released the double album The Fragile which, for all its musical complexity, failed to live up to the lyrical depth of The Downward Spiral. In 2005, after overcoming substance abuse problems, Reznor released With Teeth. Featuring a stripped down sound, it was the most “typical” and poppy rock album that Reznor had released, yet many felt it was a mediocre offering.
With Year Zero, Trent Reznor has returned to form in both musical and conceptual content. Utilizing an underground viral marketing campaign to promote the album, Reznor has created an alternate future world in connection with the concept of Year Zero, which describes a dystopian, Orwellian United States. Themes in the album include racism, totalitarianism, blind obedience, global warming, global war, religious fundamentalism, and George W. Bush, among other things. With a scope this large, it should come as no surprise that this is merely album #1 in a two-part series. Reznor handles these themes in an even-handed way though, assuming different viewpoints (as a soldier in “The Good Soldier” and as a right-wing bigot in “Capital G,” for example) depending on the song.
Musically, Year Zero is just as layered as The Downward Spiral, if not more so. Crunchy beats swirl in and out of the chaos, drums pound away like hammers of the gods, and guitars strike like chainsaws with minds of their own while underneath all of this are Reznor's usual electronic tricks. Of course, the typical NIN vocal staple of quiet whisper-to-scream dynamics are on display.
Reznor has created a unique contrast with this album in that it is one of the catchiest and most poppy things he's ever done (which is saying a lot considering his talented ear for the catchy), but at the same time it is the noisiest album he's made since Broken and will certainly drive some people away because of it.
“The Beginning of the End” is quite possibly the poppiest song Reznor has ever made, and it opens the album after the martial drum and guitar intro of “Hyperpower!” “Survivalism,” the first single from the album, is next. With its synthy beeps and boops and catchy hooks, it's sure to be a single that doesn't get old soon.
“My Violent Heart” finds him speaking over a soft intro and then exploding into rage in the choruses. “The Warning” features a prominent bass riff that grooves along while electronic beats punch holes in the aural soundscape as Trent talks about The Presence, another entity that plays into this alternate future. “The Greater Good” is a pseudo-instrumental that continues the sinister tone of the album, with the song rife with atonal piano notes and eerie keyboard sounds along with the heavy background fuzz. “The Great Destroyer” features Reznor at his most melodic and hitting higher notes than ever before until, halfway through, the song explodes into what sounds like an insane computer going homicidal. “Another Version of the Truth” is a feedback-laden instrumental with only a desolate piano coming through the static until the feedback suddenly stops and the piano offers an aural glimmer of hope. “In This Twilight” is perhaps one of the most beautiful tracks NIN has released, offering Trent's newfound vocal ability, scratchy electronics, big drum beats, and (unexpectedly from Trent) optimism. Of course, it's not long-lived, as the album closed with “Zero-Sum,” leaving a question as to what will come on the next album that continues this story.
I haven't quoted any lyrics in the review, because I don't want to ruin any parts of the story, but I highly encourage you to seek them out. With Year Zero, Trent Reznor and NIN have crafted an excellent, noisy, catchy album. Anyone that was worried that he has lost his touch only need to listen to this record to find out just how wrong they are. This album is HEAVY, but not in a traditional metal type of way. With its precisely calculated rhythms and layers, eschewing of traditional rock to incorporate electronic and hip-hop influences, and masterfully planned concept, this is a record that will be at the top of many lists at the end of the year. If you're interested in this album, you can either check out the tracks I suggest below, or you can do what my REAL suggestion is and just listen to the whole album.
Check Out: The Beginning of the End, Capital G, The Great Destroyer, In This Twilight