March 23, 2008

Tiny Mix Tapes

MUSIC REVIEWS

Nine Inch Nails
Ghosts I-IV

[Self-Released; 2008]
OOOOx

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Styles: industrial, hauntological post rock
Others: Fennesz, J.K. Broadrick
Links: Nine Inch Nails

Ghosts I-IV operates on so many different levels beyond those of the traditional record that critically evaluating the record can be troubling. This has perhaps lead to a stunning lack of actual criticism in the music press regarding the album, even though the circumstances surrounding the release are so forward-thinking that they could be considered just as key to appreciating the album as the music itself. To begin with, in Trent Reznor’s new vision for the industry (or at least for his own work), the listener is no longer required to make a blind purchase based on a promising radio single or a glowing review, a strategy labels large and small have exploited since the beginning of the music industry to hawk sub par product to the otherwise uninformed. Instead, the entire first volume of the release is offered for free on the website established to distribute Ghosts, giving the listener a fair chance to determine whether or not the music is in fact worth their hard-earned cash.

Furthering Trent’s proposed new industry format is the availability of high quality multitracks for each song. As a result, the listener becomes an active participant in shaping the music-listening experience, in which the value of the music is clearly associated with the amount of effort the listener puts forth in understanding, recontextualizing, and rearranging it. For instance: say you’re a metalhead NIN fan and the ambient nature of the majority of Ghosts (and its undeniable crossover appeal to those with no previous interest in the group) just isn’t resonating with you; you can simply take the more aggressive bits from each song and rearrange them into a new work that can be longer or shorter or with as many face-melting Adrian Belew solos or ultra-distorted basslines as you desire. Or perhaps you find those noisy bits scattered throughout the four EP-length movements to be nothing more than migraine-inducing wankery — you get the idea.

It should also be mentioned that the listener is encouraged to upload and share their new mixes (as well as the original files themselves) with whomever they please legally, thanks to Ghosts I-IV being released under the revolutionary Creative Commons copyright model. While the idea of offering multitracks to the listener isn’t new (and has in fact already been explored by Reznor extensively), releasing them under such a license is, as it allows those without the means or inclination to remix the multitracks access to as many different versions of the work as the already well-established community of Nine Inch Nails remixers can provide. Given the sonic breadth of the record, the possible configurations are virtually endless. In addition to all of this, there’s the recently announced "Ghosts YouTube Film Festival" to take into consideration, in which fans are invited to place their own images and film to the 36 unnamed instrumental tracks, which is also legal thanks to the Creative Commons license.

So, it’s not surprising that Ghosts has generated such an utterly ridiculous amount of hype in the blogosphere: it seems to be the first time such a widely successful artist has actively encouraged listeners to take such drastic liberties with their work, and it’s that attitude of awarding the listener such powers in crafting their own experience that’s made Trent Reznor into something of an internet superstar, NIN.com one of the most popular and controversial blogs on the web, and resulted in Ghosts I-IV making over $1.6 million for Mr. Reznor during its first week of going online. Clearly there’s something to this "listener power" thing.

Of course, Trent’s model only works when an artist already has an audience devoted enough to pay for elaborate and expensive deluxe editions and/or an audience big enough to generate some actual income off cheap downloads following the expenses of credit card processing, servers, web development, and of course the recording itself. This criticism isn’t new either and was first aimed at Radiohead’s similarly forward-thinking (if slightly confused) 160 kbps MP3 release of In Rainbows and has yet to be resolved by subsequent online releases by like-minded artists, including former lablemates Autechre, who unveiled their similarly ambient-tinged LP Quaristice in a virtually identical fashion (surprise MP3/FLAC downloads and attached images for each track preceding the release of the hard copy, along with a limited deluxe edition featuring elaborate packaging) just a month prior via online record store Bleep.com. Still, by all accounts, Ghosts I-IV has been an astounding artistic and financial success — and it’s not a shabby album either.

Which brings us to the music itself, perhaps the least talked about element of the Ghosts package. Like everything else about the album, the music gives the impression of being simultaneously improvised yet highly calculated, fluid and natural while still being engineered for maximum conceptual impact and universal appeal. Contributing to this appeal — and bringing the exciting sounds of NIN’s new LA studio to the fore — is Trent’s decision to not write a single lyric (cringe-inducing or otherwise) for the 110 minutes of music that comprise the album, in yet another obvious bid for the all-important "indie" demographic who have previously dismissed Reznor for his lyrical preoccupations (for further examples, see NIN’s recent tourdates with TV On The Radio, Autolux, and Peaches, in addition to recent remixes by Ladytron, The Knife, and The Faint). Yet NIN are no strangers to instrumental tracks, from the ambient soundtrack Reznor composed for the massively influential videogame Quake (1996) to the many instrumental tracks scattered throughout their discography; so when Trent stated in a recent press release that he’d been wanting to make a record like this for years, it’s hard to doubt him. It would appear that he’s finally genuinely ready, as so many of his fans hoped and prayed he someday would be, to push his music and indeed music as a whole to places they’ve not yet been.

While releasing a four-volume instrumental album without an overt narrative is certainly a fabulous way to alienate and confuse fans lacking the necessary attention span to properly absorb such a mammoth work, it’s also very likely to attract an entirely new group of listeners with no previous interest in Reznor’s music. And it couldn’t have come sooner; it’s impossible not to notice that Reznor’s albums have sold less and less since his commercial peak in the ‘90s, and since then, he seems to have been steadily losing the fans he made back in those golden days, when NIN made themselves into an electronic/industrial conduit for millions of disaffected youth across America, championing the likes of Coil, Meat Beat Manifesto, and the entire Wax Trax! roster, much as Nirvana did for avant rock in their associations with Sonic Youth, Boredoms, The Meat Puppets, and so on. Even after Reznor fell out of the public eye following the release of The Fragile, he more or less retained his massive fanbase, but as time went on, the majority lost interest and many of the longtime fans who did stick around through the first half of the ‘00s have come to dismiss NIN’s work from With Teeth onward, due to Trent’s perceivably shedding his perfectionist tendencies along with his, uh, other habits — it’s undeniable that With Teeth, Year Zero, and yes, Ghosts I-IV sound far less labored over and therefore a bit less engrossing than his ‘90s material.

However, as 2007’s Year Zero was before it, Ghosts I-IV is a clear step forward while still managing to stay true to what NIN traditionally ought to sound like and represent. In other words, while there’s not a sound or sample on Ghosts I-IV that hasn’t been tweaked and mixed by Trent and co. to sound unmistakably NIN, it seems that he’s finally allowing some modern influences to seep into his sonic stew as opposed to relegating them to remix albums. For instance, the album’s instrumental nature allows Trent to indulge in some of the dub and riddim influences he’s left unexplored since the On-U Sound "versions" featured on NIN’s first few singles, while the presence of banjo, vibes, and xylophone all seem to just barely reference the presently in vogue sounds of post-rock and folk. This is all the more astonishing when one considers how Reznor deliberately retains his distinct artistic voice through all his stylistic digressions. Regardless of the instrument in his hands, Trent eases out the same pensive, simplistic, yet infectious melodies from each one, and it is upon the strength of these melodies, as well as the immaculately produced beats, drones, samples, squeals, shrieks, and synth swells surrounding them — not to mention his collaborators and the distinct artistic flourishes they provide — that the album succeeds in its most visceral sense, putting Trent firmly in the company of other current electronic and ambient pioneers such as Tim Hecker, Fennesz, and Keith Fullerton Whitman.

It will be fascinating to see what effect Ghosts has on the consumer world at large. It’s certainly proved that an internet distribution model can be a successful way to disseminate media, a massive victory for those fighting to dismantle the current system of music distribution. But far more important is that, finally, the problem of file-sharing and "piracy" has been addressed on its own terms, and that despite the album being intentionally free to copy and share, it is still a financial success, a serious validation for everything from the open source movement, to the "information wants to be free" hacker ethos, to the millions of music listeners who use file-sharing programs and torrent sites to find, acquire, and promote their favorite music, movies, games, books, and programs. That said, the model can be a potential dead end if the users and listeners don’t step up and support the artists and developers who dare to move toward such untested waters. However, if we do follow and learn from the ideas presented by Ghosts to their logical conclusions, we may not even recognize the music business in 20 years — the lines between artist and audience entirely collapsed, one fully supporting the other, the middle persons who once separated them permanently neutralized. It’s no longer ludicrous to imagine such a world — Reznor can. It sounds like this album.

Ghosts I: 1. Untitled 2. Untitled 3. Untitled 4. Untitled 5. Untitled 6. Untitled 7. Untitled 8. Untitled 9. Untitled

Ghosts II: 1. Untitled 2. Untitled 3. Untitled 4. Untitled 5. Untitled 6. Untitled 7. Untitled 8. Untitled 9. Untitled

Ghosts III: 1. Untitled 2. Untitled 3. Untitled 4. Untitled 5. Untitled 6. Untitled 7. Untitled 8. Untitled 9. Untitled

Ghosts IV: 1. Untitled 2. Untitled 3. Untitled 4. Untitled 5. Untitled 6. Untitled 7. Untitled 8. Untitled 9. Untitled