(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Friday, September 27, 2013

Recording review - Nine Inch Nails, Hesitation Marks (2013)

Resurrected from the same old ground

No matter where you go, there you are. Temporary distractions and denial eventually bow to the truth and the truth is not pretty. Over the last two and a half decades, Trent Reznor used Nine Inch Nails to circle back repeatedly to these themes, that we are stuck within ourselves with all of our base drives and messy thinking. Much like probing a nasty toothache, his music satisfied a natural fascination with pain, darkness, and nihilism. Embracing this bleak perspective for a while offers catharsis. Reznor worked and reworked this ground, challenging his audience to follow him deeper into the blackness, but by 2009, he flagged. He decided to put the band on hiatus and focus his energies on other projects. His film scores garnered praise, including an Oscar for his score on The Social Network (2010), and he lined up a new group called How to Destroy Angels with his wife, Mariqueen Maandig, and longtime collaborator Atticus Ross. Something must have been missing, though, because, four years later, Hesitation Marks resurrects Nine Inch Nails and it’s like nothing has changed. The album stands up well to Reznor’s back catalog, but also offers little in the way of new extremes or untried directions for the band except for a stronger reliance on electronic influences.

After “The Eater of Dreams” creates a brief soundscape with the requisite undercurrent of strain and isolation, the album truly gets underway with “Copy of A”. This tune pairs nervous 8-bit electronica with a tight, motorik drum machine. Reznor’s vocal detachment serves the theme of nihilistic self-abnegation: “I am just a copy of a copy of a copy/ Everything I say has come before.” The chorus channels a more amorphous frustration, but, although the piece follows a classic NIN structure of deadly calm transforming into anger, it promises more of an explosion that it delivers. Despite this lack of resolution which permeates the whole album, the track creates a satisfying tension. The syncopation and interlocking textures build a compelling electro-prog headspace that celebrates both Krautrock and dance club roots.

Throughout Hesitation Marks, Reznor plays with rhythm and pressure, pacing his dynamic shifts to maintain a calculated level of friction and uneasiness. This makes the low-key, hypnotic dreaminess of “Find My Way” particularly powerful. The sparse, pensive arrangement is centered on an electronic beat constructed of random bits of percussive sound. The chanted verses are simple, but the chorus gives the song its depth: a scattering of reverbed piano notes and a moaning vocal riff create a sense of longing and the promise of transcendence. It’s well developed as a standalone piece, but it also serves the role of softening the listener for the cold-splash, cynical spacy funk of “All Time Low”.

Even if Hesitation Marks largely sticks close to Reznor’s home ground, it still reflects his long-term passion for rhythm, especially intricately interlocked parts and interesting time signatures. That continues here, from the jittery start and hard-edged funk on “In Two” to the bass-heavy grind and percolating beat on “Disappointed”. These songs use the beat to create unique contexts and moods. Aside from the references to Krautrock and bits of trance and synth-rock, he finds some more accessible influences, as well. On “Various Methods of Escape”, he summons a repressed mechanical energy that comes to resemble Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time”, albeit in a more pessimistic light.

With all these familiar elements, Reznor’s only misstep is the high energy pop of “Everything”. On the surface, its contrasting sections fit the NIN formula, but the uplifting pop drive dominates the loud, noisy angst, casting it more as a whiny complaint. The poor placement in the playlist doesn't help either. It would have been better to set up a deeper immediate low to follow. Instead, it leads into the Prince-style funk of “Satellite”. It could be dismissed as a weak track, but I think he intended this to be the more mature heart of Hesitation Marks, the experienced hindsight borne of surviving the suicidal drives suggested by the album’s title. Unfortunately, it’s an unconvincing answer in the face of such a big question.

So, here we are. The truth is still not so pretty and catharsis is probably the best we can hope for. It’s not so scary gazing into Nine Inch Nails’ latest abyss, but the soundtrack certainly has its moments of grandeur.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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