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Pretty Hate Machine

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Nine Inch Nails

1989

Being a teenager can really suck.  It straddles a time in your life between the carefree and innocent days of your childhood with the looming responsibility and pressures of adulthood.  It's also a time you start to realize a lot of things (if you're not sheltered).  You realize that a lot of things you were taught in your childhood were actually bullshit, and you realize the world and the people on it aren't quite as magical as you had grown up envisioning.  Not to mention you hit puberty, and start to deal with love, loss, rejection, peer pressure, and all the other nonsense that goes along with being an adolescent.  This can all lead to quite a bit of teen angst, and the album that best embodied that feeling for me as a kid was Pretty Hate Machine.

When I heard Trent Reznor rail against the hollowness of society on "Head Like A Hole", the disappointment of organized religion on "Terrible Lie", and the anguish of heartbreak on "Something I Can Never Have" I strongly felt the sincerity of what he was expressing.  These songs were delivered with such bleak and melodramatic intensity, they really tapped into something for yours truly.  Looking back, some of the lyrics are a bit juvenile and corny at times (which is probably why I liked them so much as a teenager) but for the most part, Pretty Hate Machine is a tour-de-force in synth-pop-industrial-melodramatic-angst.  Although the overall sound of the album sounds a bit dated, the songs are still catchy as hell for the most part, and Reznor's performances coupled with the atmosphere of the album still make it a very engaging listening experience today.  I appreciated the prospective Trent Reznor was providing here.  I could relate to it, and found it equally frustrating and vindicating that most other folks in my school where oblivious to NIN.  I felt like Trent Reznor was keeping it real, dealing with reality, whereas everyone else I was surrounded by seemed be living in a strangely content bubble.  A bubble literally in the middle of nowhere, devoid of culture, critical thought, and prospective. 

Although my musical tastes have grown quite considerably since my teenage years, this album will always be a classic in my book.   I certainly can't relate to it as much now as I could back in the day, but albums like Pretty Hate Machine helped get me through the thick of my teen angst years, and because of that, I look back at it with fondness and still hold it in high regard.

9.1

Broken (EP)

Nine Inch Nails

1992

NIN used to be a pretty dangerous band, and that reputation was largely established from this EP.  This is NIN's heaviest, most depraved, and sadistic album.  It's a somewhat drastic departure from the synth-heavy, borderline poppy nature of Pretty Hate Machine (relatively speaking).  This is a scorchingly heavy album at times, very loud, abrasive, and often intense, but it's pretty fantastic in its ugliness.  It's definitely got a more metal flavor to it as opposed to industrial, but of course the industrial beats and distortion are still here in full force, just louder and harsher.  This is a wickedly badass EP, will definitely get your adrenaline pumping, and although it will not likely leave you in the peachiest of moods, it is a delightfully nihilistic listening experience.  Raw, heavy, and dirty...Trent never made another album as in-your-face and heavy as this one, so needless to say I hold it high regard.

8.7

The Downward Spiral

Nine Inch Nails

1994

Let's cut right to the chase on this one: The Downward Spiral is not a very happy album.  This likely did not come as much of a surprise to most NIN fans, as prior to releasing this album, Trent Reznor had already produced a couple of very good NIN albums that were not particularly cheery in nature, essentially earning the reputation of the king of angst-ridden music in the process.

And while Pretty Hate Machine and the Broken EP certainly had their share of dark, atmospheric material, Reznor really outdoes himself on The Downward Spiral, creating an abrasive, depressing, intense concept-album that takes the listener on a self-destructive journey through the darkest corners of the human psyche.

Peachy stuff huh?  It is certainly an understatement to say that The Downward Spiral is not for everyone, but for this reviewer, the intensely bleak nature of the music combined with the incredibly dense sonic landscape used as a backdrop for the album all amount to one hell of a listening experience.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about The Downward Spiral is the dynamic nature of the sonic experimentation and the way it compliments the nihilistic mood of the album.  The first track "Mr. Self Destruct" sets the tone in terms of sound, mood, and concept.  It's pulsating and intense one moment, then quiet and bleak the next. 

One of the prevailing themes of the album is that of self-destruction, as the main character in the album seems to be methodically stripping away all external aspects of his life, be it religion, love, sex, etc, all the while descending deeper into his own insular and solipsistic world, and thus, further down the proverbial spiral.

Take the 2nd track "Piggy" for example.  A very unique piece, sporting a somewhat loungy vibe, Reznor sings "nothing can stop me now, cause I don't care anymore" with an eerie restraint that adds to the atmosphere of the track.  On the scathing "Heresy" Reznor rages against religion as the menacing techno-industrial stomp pounds away behind.  "March of the Pigs" is a fierce industrial thrash-metal song, with two brief ambient piano breakdowns that add a peculiarly pleasant break from the ferocity to the track.

And then there's "Closer" probably NIN's best known song, and for good reason.  Not only is it's wicked mid-tempo beat infectious, menacing, and borderline-dancable, but it really is a tour-de-force of Reznor's sonic mastery, throwing in a wide variety of industrial tricks that make it a truly unique and memorable song.  And the whole "I want to fuck you like an animal" chorus certainly resonates with a lot of people, so it's easy to see why so many folks consider this to be one of NIN's best song.  Truly wicked bassline in the chorus section too.  Dirty.

After getting through the back-to-back singles, the listener is treated to the hip-hop flavored "The Ruiner" which features a surprisingly good computer-generated guitar solo mid-track, and eventually closes out in a propulsive, brooding fashion that sets the mood for the next track "The Becoming".

"The Becoming" is really where Reznor cranks up the brooding intensity level, as this song marks the transition from the general nihilism of the 1st half of the album to when the character really starts to self-destruct.  The song is about becoming numb to the outside world and the mechanical sound of the track really compliments that concept.  It's a compelling song which transitions nicely into "I Do Not Want This", another brooding song that follows the character further down the spiral.  It's intensity almost becomes unbearable towards the end of the track as it transitions from the processed-screams of Reznor and the barrage of industrial noise behind him to "Big Man With A Big Gun" which is a brutally aggressive track in it's own right.  It effectively acts as the climax of all the sonic noise that led up to the track, all the rage, anger, and hate, as it sounds like the character is really losing all control on this song.

That culmination of that sonic intensity is what makes the next track "A Warm Place" so startling and gripping.  It's not loud, it's not harsh, it's ambient and beautiful.  More than anything else though, it's somber, possessing a mournful quality that is all the more compelling because it's completely instrumental and computer-generated.  The fact that an instrumental ambient composition can produce such a powerful emotional feeling is quite remarkable, and a testament to Trent Reznor's skill as a musician.

The dramatic rise and fall of the tracks leading up to "A Warm Place" certainly creates a gripping mood that sucks the listener into the final songs on the album.  "The Eraser" follows, with it's slow, brooding build-up, eventually exploding into Reznor's intense self-destructive screaming to close out the song.  The roller coaster continues on "Reptile" which takes the tempo down a notch but leaves the intensity at a high level with it's menacingly bleak, brooding sound.

The last 2 tracks on the album really take the bleak, depressing vibe of the album to a new level.  The title track is essentially an industrial-psychedelic suicide song which is as intense at it is disturbing.  It sets the stage for "Hurt" an undisputed NIN classic.  An incredibly sad, vulnerable, and well, depressing song, it effectively serves it's purpose as the emotional climax to a very dark and demented album.

Not for the faint of heart, The Downward Spiral challenges the listener to embrace the darkside that is apart of everyone's psyche.  We may try to hide it, and suppress it (which is generally for the better) but The Downward Spiral is not afraid to take a deep, piercing look into the darkest corners and impulses of the human mind, and for that, the album is bold, fresh, and compelling, in spite of it's obsessively nihilistic persona. 

9.3

The Fragile

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Nine Inch Nails

1999

The Fragile is a bloated and disappointing double album from Mr. Reznor.  It can be a challenging listen at times, but not because the material breaks any new ground or is too complex or edgy, but rather because the music is generally not engaging enough.  My main complaint with this album is the lack of stellar material, as well as the lack of consistently good material.  It also lacks the type of unified vibe/theme/concept of its epic predecessor, so it doesn't work very well as a singular statement, probably because it's got nothing to say.  The Fragile sounds like a product, and a somewhat half-hazard one at that.  Mind you, it has its moments, but they are way too few and far between.  When they happen, those moments are often compelling, but ultimately they kind of get lost in the general monotonously murky mood of the album.  Perhaps if it had been condensed to a single album, Trent could have trimmed the proverbial fat and it could have worked better as a whole.  As it is though, it sounds like most double-albums: bloated, self-indulgent, and too much filler to boot.

7.8

With Teeth

An image of the letters NI and a backwards N inside a border set against a light blue background with organic-looking outcroppings of black.

Nine Inch Nails

2005

It took 6 years, but Trent Reznor finally released another album after the somewhat disappointing and bloated affair that was The Fragile.  This is probably NIN's most accessible album, it feels smooth, catchy, and relatively easy to listen to.  That's because there's no pretensions here, there is not an identifiable concept/persona to this album, and although a few songs are fairly heavy, this album has less of the infamously menacing and malevolent vibe that NIN became famous for in the 90s.  That said, it's still a NIN record, so it's not like this is dumbed-down, radio-friendly alternative rock.  It still has an edge, but it's basically just a more focused, more mature, more sober version of NIN.  There's more live instrumentation on this album, which gives With Teeth a more "rock" feel than anything that had come before or after, and it sounds fresh for the most part.  There's more emphasis on hooks, beats, and grooves on this album than brooding industrial soundscapes.  This is a rock solid NIN album, not one of his best, but not one of his worst either.  Perfectly middle of the road in the broader catalog, and overall a pretty satisfying record.

8.4

Year Zero

Nine Inch Nails

2007

Year Zero is easily the best album Trent Reznor had made since the Downward Spiral.  Part of that reason is the quality of the songs are consistently better than anything on his prior 2 efforts, but it's mainly because YZ offers a fresh, new, engaging concept for Trent to work with.  YZ is not just a re-hashed, more matured version of NIN's greatness in the 90s, but rather an admirable evolution in the band's sound and subject matter.  It's essentially a concept album about a bleak, dystopian future brought about by multiple years of conservative extremism.  It's a startling, frightening new world, and the impressive thing about YZ is how Mr. Reznor sucks you into that world and the associated story with his music (the hallmark of all great concept albums).  On top of that, the songs here are all either rock solid or very good, and what really sticks out about the music is the head-bobbing nature of the beats, which recall old-school Public Enemy/Bomb Squad.  They're heavy on bass and rhythm, which provide the foundations for the multitude of infectious songs to be found here.  Only small complaint is the album is perhaps too well composed, perhaps too polished, too well-crafted, which makes it loose some of its edge to a degree, but make no mistake, YZ is teeming with brooding energy and infectious beats.  An exciting and impressive evolution in NIN's sound, and his best album of the decade so far.

8.6

The Slip

Profile of a man in black-and-white, with an arm extending from behind him out of the darkness and grabbing his shoulder. A horizontal red pattern extends from either side, cutting off the man's face.

Nine Inch Nails

2008

Year Zero was the best album Trent Reznor had made in literally over a decade, and was no doubt a tough act to follow, but NIN comes pretty damn close to topping it with The Slip, an album released just a year after Year Zero (which is quite a turnaround time considering the gap in prior releases).  The Slip is not as grand or elaborately composed as Year Zero, it has a theme, but it's not as epic in tone or execution.  Instead, The Slip impresses with its intensity and directness.  The first half of the album hits hard and fast, with an in your face, up-tempo vibe not heard from NIN since Broken.  Granted, it's not as sadistic/raw as that album, but it carries that same type of frantic and abrasive energy.  It's actually kind of refreshing considering the somewhat polished/composed nature of Year Zero and With Teeth.  It's refreshing to hear a more brash/in your face version of NIN, yet it doesn't sound like a re-hash of their 90s stuff, but rather another modest evolution in their sound.  That said, not all of The Slip is up-tempo and direct.  The middle part of the album gets back to the more typical mid-tempo brooding energy that characterized much of YZ, and the latter part of the album gets more abstract and somewhat ambient.  So The Slip is really a tour-de-force, showcasing the best of what NIN has to offer at the end of the 2000s.  Nothing really epic to be found here, but just a very good and satisfying NIN album.

8.6

Hesitation Marks

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Nine Inch Nails

2013

This is probably the most genuine, honest version of NIN you're going to get as Mr. Reznor approaches his 50th birthday, and I appreciate that.  I'm glad that he's not forcing the issue and trying to make something false, and it's nice to hear him taking a few chances and branching out with songs like "Everything" (which I actually really like).  This album sounds natural, but as a result, it is admittedly a bit underwhelming.  It's less harsh, and more synthy in nature than is more recent material.  It's also probably his most subdued recording in his entire catalog, so while it is slightly underwhelming, it is honest, and it is real, and it's a modest evolution in NIN's overall sound.  Definitely not a great album, but highly respectable and worth your time.

7.8

Not the Actual Events (EP)

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Nine Inch Nails

2016

As I've mentioned a few times before, EPs are fighting an uphill battle in the ratings scale being that they are essentially only half-albums. That hill is even steeper for a band like NIN, who has an incredibly impressive catalog that also happens to include one of the greatest EPs of all-time for my money (Broken). So being that expectations are always very high for NIN releases, it's almost impossible not to compare any new offerings with that aforementioned impressive back-catalog.  

And perhaps that's part of the reason Not the Actual Events initially sounded so incredibly underwhelming to me upon first listen. But although there is nothing on this EP that particularly jumps out at you, upon repeated listens you discover that this is a pretty high-quality sampler which provides you with a nice brief dose of that classic NIN angst. "Branches/Bones" and "The Idea of You" actually pack a punch and are somewhat reminiscent of The Slip in style/tone, which is a welcome change of pace from the generally lethargic and restrained vibe that characterized most of the disappointing Hesitation Marks.  The other 3 tracks on the album are more brooding and atmospheric in nature, but aside from the underwhelming closing track "Burning Bright", "Dear World," and "The Idea of You" sound more interesting than the vast majority of tracks found on Hesitation Marks.  

But is Not the Actual Events technically better than Hesitation Marks?  Probably not, considering there is nothing quite as good here as "Copy of A" or "Everything", but at least Not the Actual Events doesn't subject you as much filler/pedestrian tracks as Hesitation Marks (proportionately speaking).

7.7

Add Violence (EP)

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Nine Inch Nails

2017

Oddly enough (considering my NIN fandom) I was originally mildly underwhelmed with this EP, but it has been steadily growing on me throughout the back-half of 2017 (which probably has to do with shortening days/colder weather, but, I digress). Even though this is just a 5 song EP that barely clocks in over 27 minutes (with a major assist from a 7+ minute noise-outro on "The Background World"), it is a compelling listening experience nonetheless. Not to beat a dead horse, but 2017 has been an incredibly fucked up year on the national/international stage. Between the infuriating rise of white nationalism, daily assaults on basic facts and the free press/journalism, prospects of a cataclysmic nuclear war, an administration full of contemptuous billionaires laughing all the way to the bank as they exploit the ignorant masses that brought them to power and cause potentially irreparable damage to our environment, education system, and our broader democracy and institutions as a whole...it's enough to make your head explode (and that's not even the half of it). Watching our country rapidly circling the proverbial drain with reckless abandon with each passing day has been an exhausting/anxious experience for most engaged/thoughtful people to say the least, and Add Violence seems to be the perfect soundtrack for the times we're currently in. It's not the first time Trent Reznor has explored dystopian themes in his music (i.e. Year Zero), but never before has the reality of it seemed so very real. We’re living in it, and it’s incredibly disturbing if you think about if for more than 5 seconds at a time. “Less Than” is a topically derisive anthem for 2017 that seems directly aimed at supporters of you know who, “This Isn’t the Place” finds NIN channeling Portishead, but it's the closing track “The Background World” that seems to encapsulate the distressing nature of 2017 best. The 7+ minute feedback-drenched outro loop is the aural equivalent of watching helplessly as society seems to be collapsing in on itself and coming apart at the seams. It’s the soundtrack to staring into the void of all the chaos, belligerence, ignorance, confusion, noise, tribalism, and sheer absurdity that has risen to a fever pitch in 2017. As the feedback loop disintegrates into an unrecognizable wall of chaotic static, it all ends abruptly. What lies beyond the noise is unknown, but here's hoping we have reached rock bottom in 2017 and can start to recover our dignity as a society in 2018. Although as long as a we have a mentally unstable, narcissistic, greedy, reality-TV star demagogue as the President of the United States, that may prove to be wishful thinking. 

8.0

 

 

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