Nine Inch Nails, Ghosts V & VI

It is always a joy when something new this way comes from Nine Inch Nails. “Joy” being the key word here, as it may not be the adjective you would immediately reach for when thinking of the brainchild of Trent Reznor (and now, Atticus Ross). It is, however, indeed merited – Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails, Atticus Ross and all associated projects are amongst the most innovative, enthralling and expert music being released contemporarily.

This release is no exception, but that doesn’t mean to say it will blow your mind, or that you need to listen to it right now – indeed, it just means “yep, he’s still doing it.”

Nine Inch Nails needs some love.

This is immensely critical and unjustified, given the work put in, and my own position as a smug, little, anonymous internet blogger renders it even more heretical, but this blog is called Audio Snobbery and I have declared myself a snob. Therefore, with apologies to the entire Nine Inch Nails fanbase – and to Trent Reznor himself – it pains me to say that I do believe this album can be summarised with the phrase “it was nice of Trent Reznor to soundtrack the Coronavirus pandemic.”

There. I said it. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so dismissive of a Nine Inch Nails record, as I am an enormous fan, and – and this is important – I don’t even think this record is bad; I love it.

But I love all things Nine Inch Nails, so why should you even bother to give it the time of day, you who knows nothing of anything I’ve just written above?

These records, Ghosts V – VI, are indeed presented exactly as music to accompany the surreal period through which we live. Trent Reznor, the wizard behind the curtain of the band/entity that is Nine Inch Nails, released the music for free expressly for this purpose, and in two parts: Together (“happier”) and Locusts (not so happy, although far from Broken). Both records are entirely instrumental. Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross (today, together, comprising Nine Inch Nails) are highly celebrated for their work scoring music for television and film, including works you have probably seen like The Social Network, Birdbox, or Watchmen (a phenomenal soundtrack to a spectacular series that I did not review because I cannot get my shit together). Nine Inch Nails, on the other hand, is highly celebrated for pushing the envelope in Industrial and Electronic music, presenting a hyper-aggressive, nihilistic worldview juxtaposed with moments of tender, heartfelt beauty, in a band masterminded by Reznor. From 1989 until 2010, Reznor had rarely released music outside of the Nine Inch Nails moniker; Ross joined Nine Inch Nails officially in 2016 (after years of collaboration). The music can be confrontational and initially disconcerting, but it is phenomenal. I worship the ground upon which Reznor walks. It has been some time since the release of a proper Nine Inch Nails album (for the fans, by that I mean Hesitation Marks).

History lesson over, the album(s):

Together – the “happier” half – opens with Letting Go While Holding On, itself eerily evocative indeed of the discombobulated manner with which we go through our lives today. Job done indeed. The entire record washes an uneasy zen over you, leaving you ready to face anything, yet entirely incapable of stepping forward. Reznor and Ross’ mastery of mood and space is undeniable at this point in their careers. Apart is another real highlight on this half of the release, in which brooding electronic bass rhythmically breathes beneath quasi-vibrato, alto swells of synthetic peace, yielding visions of androids dreaming of electric sheep. Hope We Can Again beautifully eases you into high-pitched frequencies that could make a dog howl, providing a strange sonic moment I’m still undecided on and an interestingly divisive point in the album to my mind, but I am still glad it is in there, adding a sense of unease to the placid calm of the lighter half of this Ghosts release (there were, as the release’s name might suggest, four other instrumental records prior to these two).

Locusts – the one for the “less good” days – is deliberately less approachable, albeit positively embracing by historical standards for Nine Inch Nails. Run Like Hell is the real “tune” in the darkness, with a Perfect Drug-esque drum riff that serves as a wonderful reminder of what NIN can erupt into, given the chance. Designed to embody the anxiety of COVID-19 infecting and overpowering your body in the creepy fashion that the disease is wont to do, the album certainly achieves it, as the malignant piano and Noire-era muted trumpets of Around Every Corner embody in what is a dramatic expansion of the NIN sonic universe, continuing from the Bowie-nodding saxophone of Bad Witch

And here we come to the crux of the issue.

Reznor and Ross’ soundtrack work is interfering with Nine Inch Nails. Can Reznor hand-on-heart say this is a NIN release in the same way that The Slip (his last throw-away album) was? I’m not sure, but I also don’t want to be an arsehole (implicitly, I’m being an arsehole).

Essentially, whilst this album is perfectly good and hard to fault, it is time for a real Nine Inch Nails release. It is time to hear Trent Reznor sing on an album’s worth of songs that represent what Nine Inch Nails is in 2020, the start of a new decade. Nine Inch Nails has always been surprisingly and refreshingly multi-faceted; fans have a high tolerance and a willingness to listen – let’s hear it. I am not sure whether Reznor needs to find something to channel – a feeling, an opinion, a figure or an idea – or to focus deliberately on crafting tighter, four-ish minute tracks with verse-chorus-verse structure, as he approached With Teeth, but it is time, and Reznor is a phenomenally intelligent, culturally-aware artist.

Should you listen to this record? Absolutely – particularly Together – and even if you have not got a clue about Nine Inch Nails, put this record on. It’s harmless. If you want to listen to Nine Inch Nails, however, there is simply just so much more you can turn to that is both more exemplary and more impressive.

For the fans, in my opinion, the Watchmen soundtrack was the real recent Nine Inch Nails album, until we hear Reznor sing. You could hear Reznor’s creative juices flowing in that one. Less so (perhaps unwarrantedly dismissively), this one.