(“Year Zero” by Nine Inch Nails)
I’m sure that by now you’ve been reading about the elaborate “viral marketing” scheme Trent Reznor has concocted for his new concept album, “Year Zero.” Numerous mysterious web sites with names like IAmTryingToBelieve and AnotherVersionOfTheTruth help tell the hyperlinked story of a future America (2022, now reset to just 0000) in which a Christian theocracy has seized power, setup a Draconian Department of Morality, keeping the nation in a perpetual state of war and fear, and is dumping mind control drugs into the water, etc. etc. ad nauseum. This is all very appealing if, say, you’re still crushed by “The X-Files” no longer being in production or obsessively haunt “Lost” related sites searching for clues. However, if you’re just a plain old music fan, you’ll tend to ignore the crypto-hype and just ask if this is an actual album worth losing part of your hearing to. Well, friends and neighbors, I’m happy to report that not only is this a great album, but it’s also NIN’s best music since The Downward Spiral way back in 1994.
Don’t get me wrong, I liked The Fragile and With Teeth, but “Year Zero” returns Reznor’s work to the more experimental edginesss that gave “Spiral” such a spark of brilliance. Ignoring current trends in music, YZ often goes full throttle into left-field electronica. After an opening salvo of noisy rock (and BTW, most of the album is pretty noisy) with a heavy but raw drum sound, songs like “Vessel” and “Me, I’m Not” are a successful mashup of punk and Autechre-style glitch, while “Capital G” seems to be Reznor’s angry version of the U.K. grime scene. “Survivalism,” the first single, is in many ways classic NIN: gritty electro/metal/punk along the lines of older songs like “Mr. Self Destruct,” only with a more dingy, lo-fi element that makes it hurt that much better. The closing track, “zero-Sum,” is particularly amazing, a subdued anthem cut through with all manner of clicks, hiss and pops–think maybe of Tom Waits gone digital and you’re halfway there. The overall effect of the album is often jarring, but if you’re into the noisy likes of, say, Chrome, “Year Zero” is like taking a comforting acid bath.
Oh yeah, and that whole concept album thing. The “story,” such as it is, never intrudes upon the music like rock operas of the past. There are no overtures or between-song skits. While there are definitely some moments of piano-laced beauty, the album is mostly straight ahead (but bleeding edge) electro rock. Reznor’s lyrical inspiration isn’t hard to decipher, even if he never utters the word “Bush.” Actually, it’s amazing that for such a horrible president, Dubya has inspired any number of strong political statements, bot direct (Green Day’s American Idiot) and indirect (My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade). Trent Reznor in particular might want to thank the man perssonally for inspiring the most vital and relevant album of his career. And they say irony is dead.