Trent Reznor was perhaps the dominant force in alternative rock in the mid-90s. As the mastermind behind Nine Inch Nails (commonly abbreviated as NIN), his 1989 debut “Pretty Hate Machine” was a landmark album that seemed to slam the door on the excess of '80s spandex, hair-bands and mall-pop. Bands like Ministry and Skinny Puppy had mined similar stylistic territory for years, but well under the radar of the masses. “Pretty Hate Machine” changed that – suddenly so-called “industrial” music was invading the quiet elm-lined streets of suburbia.
NIN’s follow-up EP released 3 years later, “Broken," was an even harsher vision. Songs like “Happiness and Slavery” and “Wish” were far edgier than anything on “Pretty Hate Machine”, and were accompanied by darkly disturbing videos that provided a challenge for the censors on MTV. “Broken” was a major success and NIN infiltrated even further into the mainstream, but it ultimately proved to be just a taste of Reznor’s artistic prowess.
NIN’s biggest commercial breakthrough came two years later. “The Downward Spiral,” released in 1994, was a masterpiece of isolation, malevolence and inner demons. Debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200 Album Charts, “The Downward Spiral” was a mammoth success and thrust Reznor and his brooding, brutal electronic soundscapes to commercial and artist accolades thus far unheard of for such unabashedly harsh music. Propelled by songs like “Closer,” “Hurt,” “Reptile” and “March of the Pigs,” “The Downward Spiral” touched a nerve and tapped into a seething disillusionment more powerfully than any album since Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” Reznor became a global superstar, and toured extensively behind the album, which is still widely regarded as one of the best of the '90s.
It took Reznor several years to issue the follow-up to “The Downward Spiral.” A sprawling 2-disc set, 1999’s “The Fragile” had moments of greatness but ultimately it lacked the punch and immediacy of his prior work, and sales figures lagged. Reznor disappeared again, and didn’t emerge with a new studio album until 2005’s “With Teeth,” a relative turn to the middle of the road. Many critics were underwhelmed, and fans wondered if Reznor had lost his relevance.
They needn’t have worried. Hitting stores this past month, NIN’s brashest and most uncompromising work yet, “Year Zero,” is an astonishing return to form, and once again will make Trent Reznor among the most exciting and relevant artists in rock music today. “Year Zero” is a frightening concept album dealing with a military government controlling all aspects of society, from the government, to the church. The textures and icy electronics surround a savage anger and pain. The release has been surrounded by a convoluted marketing scheme that has alternately thrilled and bemused fans, but it’s the music that is at the core of the project.
First single “Survivalism” is a potent reminder of how great NIN can be. Reminiscent of “Wish,” the track absolutely seethes with venom and bitter irony as he rails against “propaganda” and “revisionism”. It’s his most immediate single in over a decade. The utterly brilliant “Capital G” is the centerpiece of the album. Reznor snarls, “I pushed a button and elected him to office, and he pushed a button and dropped a bomb. You pushed a button and can watch it on the television.” Sounds like the future isn’t too far away after all.
In “Vessel,” Reznor spits the lyrics in measured cadences over a stark and punishing electronic backdrop, with a climax that sounds like a roomful of vengeful computers attacking each other with chainsaws. Not the most easy listening, but enthralling all the same. “The Warning” is equally unpleasant in its way, yet compelling. Reznor intones “Your time is tick-tick-ticking away” over harsh, otherwordly textures that bring to mind “The Matrix” overdriven to melt-down mode. Unpleasant, eerie, and effective. At times, the album sounds like the soundtrack to the world’s most demented video game.
“Year Zero” is not a comfortable listen, but it’s not meant to be. Some of the harsh electronic elements can feel like an ice pick scraping the side of the listener’s brain. Reznor succeeds in creating a vibe of dread and foreboding that permeates the entire album. That being said, there are also moments of startling beauty among the madness, such as “Another Version of the Truth,” and the ominous and pulsing “The Greater Good.” He also revisits prior NIN territory, but with an updated feel. “The Good Soldier” is musically a second-cousin to “Closer,” and the bleak apocalyptic vision of “The Beginning of the End” could fit nicely onto “The Fragile.” Reznor even revisits the more stripped-down sound on “Pretty Hate Machine” on the brooding “Me I’m Not.”
The album closes with “Zero Sum”, with whispered vocals sounding markedly lacking in hope: “Shame on us for all we have done… May God have mercy on our dirty little hearts.” A bleak album, but unquestionably powerful.
“Year Zero” is a career pinnacle for an artist who has a new level of relevance after seeming out of the game for a while. There is no trace of levity here, and little hope – just warning, and anger. Reznor’s voice is one that is needed for these times. He captures the anguish and disillusionment felt by a large portion of American society quite vividly. Twenty years from now, like Green Day’s “American Idiot, “Year Zero” will be one of the albums that will define the George W. Bush era, just like Neil Young’s “Ohio” defines the Nixon years, or “Born in the USA” seems synonymous with the Reagan era. With “Year Zero”, Reznor grabs us by the collar and gives a firm shake, inviting us to wake up, put down the X-box controller, and take a glance at the world around us.