Thursday, March 13, 2008

EXCLUSIVE: Nine Inch Nails-Ghosts I-IV Review

In 2007, Nine Inch Nails and its leader Trent Reznor shocked fans by releasing a brand-new album entitled Year Zero, two years after his last release With Teeth. While Year Zero marked a departure from Reznor lyrically, musically, and breaking the five-year gap between releases. The album was widely praised by critics and fans while Reznor seemed rejuvenated both creatively and spiritually. Then as Reznor and NIN toured around the world, tension between Reznor and his label Interscope Records came ahead over album pricing, promotion, and such where in October 2007, Reznor left the label and became a free agent. Following his departure from Interscope where he and the British art-rock band Radiohead became leaders revolting against major record labels, Reznor released The Inevitable Rise & Liberation of NiggyTardust! for Saul Williams which he co-produced as it was released on the Internet.

During this time, Reznor along with longtime collaborator Atticus Ross began to work in the studio freely on their own accord and without any major record company pressure. Along with NIN live keyboardist Alessandro Cortini, Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione, King Crimson’s Adrian Belew, and longtime co-producer Alan Moulder. Reznor decided to create a record that marks another departure from NIN. At the same time, it’s a record that Reznor and company decided to release as part of a series of instrumental albums that will shape NIN. The project called Ghosts reveals Reznor reveling in his role as an experimentalist trying new styles of music ranging from ambient to his own industrial sound.

The first release entitled Ghosts I-IV is a collection of 36 untitled, instrumental tracks that has Trent Reznor and his associates performed and created in the studio. The album marks the first time that the entire album is not written solely by Reznor. Instead, a majority of the tracks are written by Reznor and Atticus Ross with additional credit going to Alessandro Cortini, Brian Viglione, and Adrian Belew. The album is described by Reznor as a soundtrack with the listener given imagination into what they’re hearing and seeing. While the album is really four EPs with nine tracks each, it’s an exploration of what Reznor and his associates are doing. Produced by Reznor, Ross, and Alan Moulder, Ghosts I-IV is a daring album that pushes NIN’s sound to new limits while straying away from conventionality.

Ghosts I

The first track appears as a piano-based ballad with Reznor playing melancholic notes to convey a mood that is harrowing for what is to come. Even as background vocals appear to present a haunting quality as it then segues into a sinister background of fuzzy noises that is reminiscent of Reznor’s industrial work. With siren-like backgrounds of electronic noises from Atticus Ross, Reznor accompanies it with a stark, piano strike that later become melodic in its notes. Beats arrive for the third track as Ross and Reznor create a layer of bass beats with fuzzy electronic backgrounds for a mix of rhythms. Then a staccato riff from Adrian Belew’s guitar appears along with Reznor playing a thumping bass line on the bass guitar. Even with an eerie melody reminiscent of Indian flute instruments, it intensifies with its bass and guitar. Belew then goes into a washy guitar track as it’s followed by droning, metal-like guitar from the track’s co-writer Alessandro Cortini. With beats being played by Reznor, Cortini accompanies the song with bass and guitar as Belew plays wailing riffs through its chugging presentation.

Drone from the previous track appear as it continues to surface in the background with slap-like beats playing along with loopy bass lines and Reznor’s smooth, piano accompaniment. The piano then becomes more stark with higher notes as Reznor continues to play. Then comes chiming accompaniments in the background behind a swooning background of keyboards similar to a string performance. With a fuzzy background behind along with a bass drone, the chimes continue to dominate the new track as it would then segue into a beat-heavy track with electronic scratches and shimmers.

Then comes some droning guitar work from Adrian Belew as hollow bass rhythms start to appear in the background. Live drums start to appear through a sinister drone of bass-heavy fuzz and electronics as wailing guitars with noises and such chug through the entire track as the musical presentation starts to get meaner. Things finally quiet down a bit through sputtering beats and Reznor playing a melancholic piano accompaniment. After for more than a minute-and-a-half, everything stops except an eerie, siren-like electronic background that appears briefly until the sputtering beats return.

Ghosts II

Opening with hammering, trash can-like beats, the fuzzy electronic background chugs throughout the entire track as Reznor accompanies it with a dark, piano performance. With Reznor now adding a melody, Adrian Belew returns with a droning guitar solo as it’s just piano, guitar, electronics, and beats playing throughout. Belew then brings in some droning guitar riffs that is followed by hollow yet sputtering beats and a swooning electronic background. With the beats and haunting background coming, it’s only Belew and co-writer Alessandro Cortini who creates more disturbance with their guitar drones. Things quiet down as Reznor starts to play a chilling yet melodic piano track that is played for a minute until Atticus Ross creates a template of shoegaze-inspired guitars and thumping, bass-driven electronic backgrounds with Reznor still providing the basic piano track. Reznor then changes the mood for heavier notes on the piano to create a melancholic mood with Ross using soft beats for the background along with a chilling synthesizer that builds up to help in its tone.

Drones from the previous track then segues into beats that pulsates throughout the track as Adrian Belew strums his guitar to accompany its fuzzy electronic background. Belew’s guitar work then gets more plucked as if it sounds out of tune while he plays on through Reznor and Ross’ electronic presentation before bass-heavy beats start to emerge. Even as Belew’s playing starts to wail until it stops for a hollowed sound of electronic sound collages with animal noises as it’s accompanied by hammering beats that scratch and pounds throughout the new track. Even as a chorus of screams and chants start to pop out, the main track still plays on until noisy, sputtering beats start to emerge with scratchy noises and shimmering synthesizer bass lines are played. With Adrian Belew returning, he adds some sinister guitar work that growls throughout this new track. Even as vocals pop up through the background.

Things start to quiet down for a momentum-building guitar track by co-writer Alessandro Cortini as he chugs through the track’s chime-like instrumental background as a vibraphone plays throughout the entire track. Then comes a synthesizer-driven track with pulsating notes and warbling, guitar drones in the background. Then the guitar starts to drone in much louder with dissonant notes followed by hollow bass beats in the background. With soft chimes starting to emerge, the guitars start to washy and then sound intentionally out of tune as everything starts to get chilling until it fades out.

Ghosts III

Layers of metallic percussions and beats arrive from performers and co-writer Brian Viglione and Alessandro Cortini appear as Viglione pounds throughout the track as Reznor and Ross bring in guitar drones that chugs throughout the track as noises of drum clangs appear along with scratchy backgrounds. Drones then start to appear through an electronic sequencer as Cortini’s chainsaw guitar starts to accompany the ominous, pulsating electronic background. With more fuzzy sounds and sinister guitar riffs, the three-minute, thirty-second track starts to fade out for a pulsating, up-tempo track of wobbly bass lines, fast guitar washes, and piano flourishes. Chiming electronic backgrounds start to appear with tribal-like beats in the background as a more traditional beat structure starts to follow along with Adrian Belew’s soft yet warbling guitars. The guitars get louder along with Reznor playing dark bass lines as they reach into elements of psychedelia.

An eerie, melancholic piano riff start to appear with soft, droning electronic backgrounds and a washy dulcimer performance from co-writer Alessandro Cortini. Co-writer Brian Viglione then starts to play a powerful drum track filled with beats on trash cans and other objects to help accompany the track’s eerie tone. Scratchy drones of electronic fuzzes then appear for a new track as chugging guitars start to arrive with noises of sirens and such also pop up. Even as more drones start to appear for this mean, snarling monster of a track. Thumping beats and shimmering synthesizer melodies start to appear along with scratchy backgrounds for this pulsating, industrial-like track that features kinetic rhythms and background vocals. Alessandro Cortini’s guitar start to accompany the track with such fury as the entire track intensifies.

Hollow wind chimes start to appear through warbling drones of electronic textures and guitars from co-writer Adrian Belew as Ross creates a background of slow tribal beats to help convey a mood of horror. Thumping bass lines start to appear with fuzzy drones and live drums playing for this quasi-industrial track along with snarling guitar riffs as things get more rhythmic as Reznor also pounds on the piano for the track’s slow yet intense presentation. Things slow down as a tambourine is heard in the background along with vibraphone taps as the snarling drones start to fade until co-writer Adrian Belew brings a new guitar presentation as he wails through the new track with his guitar. Armed with a sinister rhythm of hammering beats, sinister bass lines, and siren-like electronics as Belew’s guitar playing is all over the place to close down the third section of the album.

Ghosts IV

The fourth section begins with a hollow, thumping bass line that is followed by a ukelele performance by Reznor as it is followed by soft, pulsating bass beats. An ominous electronic background starts to appear as Reznor continues to play the ukelele with its eerie melody. Timpani drums start to appear as the track builds momentum in its slow tempo with Alessandro Cortini playing a snarling, guitar track to accompany the five-minute, twenty-two second track. A new track emerges with a more up-tempo presentation with flourishes of electronic beats and thumping synthesizer lines along with guitar strums. Chiming electronic beats start to come in from co-writer Cortini as he brings in fuzzy bass drones to the track. Hammering beats then emerge slowly with a soft chug of electronic flourishes as it’s then accompanied by a marimba performance by Adrian Belew. With warbling vocal distortions in the background, the track continues to play with Belew leading the way with marimba.

Belew then switches guitar for a new track as live drums start to play for a sinister, growling track with menacing synthesizer distortions as the track starts to gain momentum with intense drones of synthesizers and then a wailing guitar solo from Belew. Melodic, hollow synthesizer lines start to come in as breathing noises start to appear with a thumping beat in the background as Belew plays a washy, plucky guitar track. Reznor then arrives with a thumping bass line to accompany the synthesizers as he and Belew play with the main synthesizer track. Distorted beats and chiming electronic textures appear with scratches of electronic fuzz from co-writer Alessandro Cortini as Ross brings in thumping electronic beats to accompany Cortini’s scratchy electronic presentation.

A slow bass line then appears with strums and plucks from Reznor’s ukelele playing as it’s later followed by Reznor on the piano as he sets the mood for the entire track as a shimmering yet soft electronic background occurs with chimes until a heavier, bass-driven synthesizer occurs to give the entire track a more ominous feel that includes a snarling guitar in the background. With more guitar chimes and the synthesizers getting more intense in its ominous tone that includes hollow beats. New beats start to emerge with clap-like rhythms and echoes as scratchy textures of synthesizers also appear along with Adrian Belew’s snarling guitar popping up and then going into full accompaniment. The final track of the entire album is a piano ballad where the album has gone full-circle with Reznor playing a melancholic piano track as the mood of the entire album is channeled through his performance as wind-like backgrounds appear in the last fifteen seconds of the album.

Through its layered production by Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Alan Moulder, the album itself is unique in not just its sequencing but also in how one track would set one mood and another would go into another. The result is an album that is meant to serve as a mood soundtrack for daydreams and such. While some of the material might not be considered to be called ambient music. It’s really more of a record that channels the dark mind with elements of melancholia which is Reznor’s forte in his musical style. In some cases, it’s him doing what is considered to be dark ambient music. A style of ambient that is meant to be unsettling and moody. While Reznor isn’t trying to make the kind of record that will send bad images but rather to convey the troubling state of the world but without lyrics or any kind of message.

What is more startling about this album is that Reznor seems to try and push himself musically where along with Atticus Ross and their collaborators, create a record that can act like a jam session but without delving into any kinds of pretentiousness that often hinders albums with long instrumental breaks or even instrumental albums. Yet what is more baffling is that here is someone as known as Trent Reznor and his NIN outfit. An act known for bringing industrial music to the pop charts. Here, is a record that is the antithesis of not just Reznor’s more well-known, commercial albums like Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral. It’s essentially the antithesis to practically every album or musical style that’s in the pop charts with the exception of a few bands and artists.

To compare this album to many of NIN’s other albums, it’s hard to compare and contrast. Albums like Pretty Hate Machine and With Teeth were albums that pop hooks and melodies while often venturing into extreme musical territory. The Broken EP was a record of nihilism that can be considered metal but more confrontational in its industrial-rock format. The Downward Spiral, The Fragile, and Year Zero were essential art-rock concept albums that featured instrumentals while delving into thematic subjects. The Internet-only EP Still was a stripped-down collection of NIN songs and instrumentals set to piano that conveys melancholia through its performance.
Ghosts I-IV is more likely to be akin to both Still and The Fragile but unlike these two records, it pushes itself to extremes as it reaches into the unexpected through its performance. Of all the NIN records, Ghosts I-IV is definitely a record that is hard to divulge to after the first listen. While some NIN records have to be appreciated in repeated listening, this record takes a little bit more time depending on what style of music the listener often listens to. It’s not a record that’s easy to listen to as it takes a lot of time to appreciate while getting into certain moods to enjoy. Of all the NIN albums and EPs, this one is definitely the most difficult to describe and divulge into.

What is more surprising is that given Trent Reznor’s recent emancipation from the recording industry after being from one bad label when he started out to being in another awful situation where he’s now working for a conglomerate that has no interest in music. He feels relieved in what he’s doing to himself as an artist. Without working for a record company, there’s no recording schedule, a release date, or any kind of idea to promote it or price the record. In some respects, Ghosts I-IV is the record that Trent Reznor has been wanting to make for years. What took him so long to make something like this is the fact that major record companies like Interscope will not release an album of instrumentals to the public without a single or any kind of major promotion.
Bottom line, instrumental albums, especially from someone like Trent Reznor or even someone that is well-known don’t sell. It’s because records like this have a limited audience unless that artist or group is very well-established and have a loyal fanbase that’s willing to go along with them. So no matter how many copies or albums a record like this sells, it’s not going to be viewed as a success to the industry. An industry that is now becoming irrelevant as they continue to put flash-in-the-pan, flavor-of-the-week records that will be here for 15 minutes and then, gone once it reaches the 15 minute mark.

Now it’s a definite no-brainer that Ghosts I-IV is a record that will appeal to NIN fans as well as fans of industrial music, dark ambient, and instrumentals. Mainstream audiences however, are not likely to enjoy this record and it’s understandable. It’s because a record like this will seem like a bore to listen to while others might not get the idea of an instrumental record. That’s not their fault because a pop audience wants to hear a three-minute single. Unfortunately, there’s no three-minute single or any kind of dance song in this record. It’s just an instrumental record filled with dark ambient textures, punishing industrial rockers, and pulsating electronic numbers. So in many respects, Ghosts I-IV is Trent Reznor’s most inaccessible record to date. Yet in the end, for anyone that wants to listen to mood music that is true to a listener’s state of mind or someone that wants to hear great instrumentals. Ghosts I-IV is the record to get.

NIN Reviews:

Halo 2-Pretty Hate Machine (1989):

Halo 5-Broken (1992):

Halo 8-The Downward Spiral (1994):

Halo 14-The Fragile (1999):

Halo 17-And All That Could Have Been/Still (2002):

Halo 19-With Teeth (2005):

Halo 24-Year Zero (2007):

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