Since debuting in 1989 with pretty hate machine, Trent Reznorâ€™s one-man band nine inch nails has made music by fusing industrial and rock with bits of funk, pop, noise, and every other genre real or imagined, capturing it with an everything and the kitchen sink layered approach, for some of the most beautiful, invigorating, and forward-thinking music of the last two decades.
Whatâ€™s interesting, then, about his latest, year zero, is how it finds Reznor at both his most accessible and inaccessible, sometimes at the same time, making it his most eclectic album to date.
At times, year zero is typical nine inch nails, with such songs as â€œthe beginning of the endâ€ and â€œsurvivalismâ€ mixing rock guitars and structure with electronic keyboard textures and drum beats. Trent also goes back to his industrial roots with the songs â€œgod given,â€ â€œzero sum,â€ and â€œthe warning,â€ which wouldnâ€™t have been out of place on hate, while the atmospheric instrumentals â€œanother version of the truthâ€ and â€œthe greater goodâ€ recall the similar tracks on his 1999 album the fragile, and the sedate, mellow â€œme, Iâ€™m notâ€ is reminiscent of tunes from his semi-acoustic 2002 EP still.
But Reznor also veers into noisy, avant-garde realms with the abrasive â€œmeet your master,â€ which he then contracts with such (relatively) mainstream sounding songs as the electro-funk flavored â€œcapital gâ€ and â€œthe good soldier,â€ while â€œthe great destroyerâ€ might be the closest n.i.n. get to a straight rock song. He even mixes it up within the same song; â€œmy violent heart,â€ for example, starts off like a mellow moment from still, but then abruptly goes all noisy and head banging-ly industrial, as if Reznor is having a moment of musical bipolarism.
None of these tracks would be out of place on any individual nine inch nails album, of course. But what makes year zero unique is that all of them are on the same album. Normally, you donâ€™t find this kind of eclecticism outside a greatest hits collection, which is why greatest hits collections are usually so problematic, but Reznor somehow manages to pull all these disparate sounds and styles together on this album as easily as he, well, layers them into the same tune.
There are, of course, minor problems with year zero. Reznor has always had issues with sequencing, and while zero doesnâ€™t need as much of a reorganizing as Reznorâ€™s 1999â€™s double album the fragile, it could use a little. Most notably at the beginning, where the industrial-strength, militaristic opener â€œhyperpower!â€ â€” which, oddly, sounds like something Reznorâ€™s former friend and protÃ©gÃ© Marilyn Manson would do â€” doesnâ€™t really lead well into the relatively more straightforward industrial rocker â€œthe beginning of the end.â€ Though, to be honest, thatâ€™s really the most glaring example, which makes this more nitpicking than a real complaint.
In the end, year zero is another testament to Reznorâ€™s musical, and production-al, genius, one that will confound and confuse those still waiting for him to rehash his hit â€œcloserâ€ from 1994â€™s the downward spiral. Which ainâ€™t never gonna happen; Reznor is well beyond that now. â€” Paul Semel
Mr. Semel has written about anime for such publications as Emmy, E! Online, Lemonade, and this website.