Published May 14th, 2008
The Downloadable Spiral
Trent Reznor, aka Nine Inch Nails, was once known as one of the most notoriously foot-dragging and fuss-budgety artists around, releasing albums at a rate of one every three or four years, following his 1989 debut Pretty Hate Machine (developed while he was living in Cleveland).
Now that he's moved into releasing new material via digital downloads, he seems to have jarred his creative spigot. He dumped four volumes of instrumental music titled Ghosts I-IV in March, available at his Web Site, nin.com, at different prices for different download configurations only a year after the dense, dystopian, political Year Zero. Now he's followed that up with a compact album's worth (10 tracks, 45 minutes) of material, downloadable for free, titled The Slip.
The Slip more or less sums up the terrain Reznor's covered in his nearly two-decade career. While the aggressive self-loathing that first defined his public persona has abated somewhat, The Slip combines the distinctive industrial dance textures — all those metallic-sounding computer-generated, edgy but irresistible beats overlaid with driving, razor-wire guitars — that so many wannabes copied after the success of Pretty Hate Machine and its 1994 follow-up, The Downward Spiral, with the elusive atmospherics explored extensively on 1999's The Fragile.
Opening track "999,999" is a short, introductory drone that quickly gives way to "1,000,000," a straight-ahead, body-moving rock track with scratchy surface textures, displaying his trademark mixture of synthetic sounds with traditional rock instrumentation. They're followed by a brace of tunes that reflect the classic NIN, catchy tunes refracted though noisy textures: the buzzing, distorted "Letting You," the bouncy, melodic "Discipline," the spacious "Echoplex" and "Heads Down," with a dreamy vocal floating over a thudding beat and a scattering of random-sounding effects.
The album then drifts into quieter, ambient tracks, starting with "Lights in the Sky" with emphatic piano chords underpinning Reznor's whispery, disjointed vocal, followed by "Corona Radiata," a vocal-less hum with a light footstep-like beat, and "The Four of Us Are Dying" with its languid melody line. "Demon Seed" wraps up The Slip with a punch: It's got a bubbly new-wave feel to it, playing lively, upbeat music off against Reznor's whisper-to-a-scream vocal as he hammers the line "I am reaching the point."
There's a comfortable flow to the tracking that feels more organic than some of NIN's other work; certainly, Year Zero often seemed heavy-handed and forced (although its clotted claustrophobia suited its subject matter). The songs are as strong as any Reznor spent years agonizing over. Hopefully, The Slip signals that he's reached a stage where he realizes that sometimes the best results occur when you just let things happen without over-thinking.