June 23, 2018

Nine Inch Nails - Bad Witch & the EP trilogy Review




Prelude

After Nine Inch Nails's last studio album, 2013's Hesitation Marks, underpinning an even more polished and poised electronic-industrial Trent Reznor, expectations were reasonably high for his eventual follow-up album. However, Reznor had been neck deep in scoring feature films and television shows with multiple time collaborator and director David Fincher, and the eye-opening documentaries Before The Flood and The Vietnam War, essentially fulfilling his lifelong dream of writing musical scores for films, and winning a Grammy while at it. No one could blame Reznor for being so ambitious, but it seemed almost impossible to imagine how he could fit Nine Inch Nails into such a tight schedule. Nevertheless, Reznor announced that 2016 would see new NIN material, and so anticipation ramped up. That same year, Reznor's longtime collaborator, Atticus Ross, was announced as the first official member to join Nine Inch Nails (Reznor would always use repeated and dedicated touring musicians to help him fully realize his primarily solo musical visions on stage). During the final month of the year, Reznor and Ross made good on their promise, finally announcing Not The Actual Events, the first EP in a series of three planned releases to comprise of an EP trilogy to be released right before the end of the year. Although this is a review of their final release of the three, Bad Witch, this is also a retrospective look at all three releases, and how the trilogy fits together as a whole, starting with Not The Actual Events.


Not The Actual Events



This first EP is surely a doozy. Its murky sub textures and post-apocalyptic soundscapes throughout highlight the the overall themes of desperation and anguish. As a title, Not The Actual Events serves as an interesting choice in opening up this trilogy, having a clear resemblance to the phrasing of Reznor's live album, And All That Could Have Been. It has a implication of a smokescreen or a coverup, which is echoed in tracks like "Dear, World", the second track of the EP, as the voice of someone seems to affirm that "yes, everyone seems to be asleep" in the beginning and end of the track. The artwork also serves as a white blank canvas, with classic Nine Inch Nails font etched over the bleak frame, indicating Reznor's want for listeners to focus in on the music. It also does fit in with the bleak aesthetic of an uncertain and post-apocalyptic future which is put forth in the music.

The EP's opener, "Branches/Bones", is a tough one, jump starting with a quick static-y drum beat and Reznor making statements which realize his maturity, as "parts of him are slowing down while time is speeding up". It is in this track where he utters the line, "cold and black and infinite with nothing left to lose", which just so happens to be the name of his 2018 tour in support of Bad Witch, Cold, Black, and Infinite. There are classic NIN tropes to be found here which can teeter on the verge of cliche, since most of the themes in his work seem to repeat themselves and come back around, however, Reznor displays a self-awareness in his lyrics which still render his music fresh for new ears and older fans alike, as he sings in the chorus, "feels like I've been here before, yeah I don't know anymore, and I don't care anymore, I think I recognize", indicating Reznor's awareness of coming back around to the same sentiments that have tortured him all his life. Furthermore, the meaning of branches and bones in the title is that both Mother Nature and humanity are bound to break and succumb to a disparate future.

"Dear, World" follows through without pause as "Branches/Bones" reaches its psychotic crescendo and gets cut off, allowing Reznor to display his tenacity and exploration of electronic programming and experimental drumming. Similar to groups like Radiohead, another personal favorite of mine, Nine Inch Nails is always willing to push the envelope into rhythmic dances of electro drumbeats and tempos to bring listeners into a variety of soundscapes and moods, and it's one of their defining features to be able to continue moving forward in electronic music experimentation. "Dear, World", therefore is the cleanest song of the bunch, both highly calculated in its instrumentation and thematically clear in its delivery as Reznor sings about seeing the world changing before him and the unfolding of events passing before everyone's eyes as he repeats, "and you didn't even notice, yeah you didn't even notice." This first EP thus serves as a cryptic warning or a statement that things are changing beyond repair, and it's a message that cannot be more topically relevant in this day and age.

"She's Gone Away" serves as the divider of this five track release, and almost immediately bears an uncanny resemblance to one of Reznor's much earlier released songs, "Reptile", off of his breakout album The Downward Spiral. Both in the theme of coming to terms with an unfaithful lover and subsequently having chased them away. Both songs keep the same dark tempo and atmosphere of industrial sludge and Reznor's emotional anguish couldn't be any more powerful than it is today in his pained screams on "She's Gone Away", furthering my personal theory that this track is the spiritual sequel, pushing forward the narrative of Reznor's damaged heart. Despite writing and recording "She's Gone Away" at the personal request of director David Lynch for the then-upcoming revival series Twin Peaks: The Return, one can't help but draw comparisons to his past material. As a side note, there also lies the connection between Not The Actual Events and The Downward Spiral with the vinyl version of this release. Since all 5 tracks are pressed on side A, a flip onto side B reveals the final 3 tracks of A Downward Spiral, but played in reverse, starting with "Hurt", then the title track, and finally ending with "Reptile" in reverse, deepening the connection and begging the question: what is Reznor's intention of connecting both this trilogy and his breakout album? The answers may or may not be revealed.

In "The Idea of You", Dave Grohl guest drums on this frenetic, alternative rock and metal track, with Reznor's desperate vocals continuing to question who he really was to someone else, and if it was really him, asking the listener to go back to "the idea" of him and forget what he has been. It's a tough track for anyone who feels like they compromised their selves for another and can't take the inner suffering that goes along with it. It makes a fast and heavy approach for the closing track, "Burning Bright (Field on Fire)", which returns to Reznor's final statement of defiance and strength of who he really is. "I'm going back, of course I am, as if I ever had a choice, back to what I always knew I was, on the inside", Reznor sings alongside the droning guitars and slow and heavy drums, creating an anxiety-ridden tension that reaches its peak in Not The Actual Events. He sings, "Breathe, breathe, break through the surface and breathe", as a message for listeners to break through the bullshit in their own lives and take back control.

Each of these tracks have their own distinct style of foreboding, atmospheric dread, and set the bar high for the next couple of releases in the trilogy.


Add Violence



Seven months after Not The Actual Events, Reznor and Ross announced their second EP in the trilogy, Add Violence, and released it less than a week later on July 19, 2017. As quite a departure in tone from their first release, this EP serves up a much cleaner sound than Not The Actual Events, and references the systematic addition of violence in the media and western culture both in title and the artwork, which shows a machine designed with dials set to "add violence", "amplify chaos", and measure levels of anxiety.

"Less Than" is the first track and single that opens up this second EP, with sequenced synths and a new-wave style, Reznor aims at political leaders, "shut up, silence, add a little violence, and offend and pretend, and defend and demand my compliance". He sings, "and you can always justify, the missile trails across the sky again", pointing the finger and holding our current and past leaders accountable, then in the chorus flipping the focus onto the general masses who vote for their prophesized saviors, "So what are you waiting for? You got what you asked for, did it fix what was wrong with you? Are you less than? Go and look what you gone done, welcome oblivion, did it fix what was wrong with you? Are you less than?". In this chorus Renznor calls out the general masses of enablers, voting for leaders who have only caused more war and death, and makes a clear reference to the album title of his other band How To Destroy Angels, which he fronts with his wife, Mariqueen Maandig Reznor. Nine Inch Nails has long been using themes of chaos and destruction, political intrigue, and apocalypse in his work, and although feeling somewhat tired, it still is just as relevant today as it has always been. This track is probably the strongest track on Add Violence, and it leads into some of the most subdued material Reznor has released in many years.

"The Lovers" works to seduce listeners into Reznor's world, with synths and plucks that slowly build over minimalist percussion. He whispers sensually to someone throughout the piece, as if he's floating astrally through space: "I can hear you breathing, I've slipped out of time again, Leaving all of you behind, And I'm free, To return to the place where I already am, And have always been, If I just really looked and allowed myself, To see". Reznor is cool, calm, and collected here, and sounds self-aware as everyone else seems to still be sleeping. "Take me, into the arms of the lovers, Free into the arms of the lovers", Reznor sings, apparently longing for the feeling of being loved by someone, and the liberating feeling of it being all he really needs. The emotional heaviness which resides in this quietness isn't over yet though, as the EP moves into the middle track of Add Violence, "This Isn't The Place". Low humming synths and cautious piano melodies slowly rise out of the silence, and are eventually joined by eerie vocal moans that create a slow-building canvas of quiet dread. Reznor sounds choked up when he finally sings, as if he's fighting back bitter tears to deliver the shortest lyrics in the EP. "And if you see my friend, I thought I would again, A single straight line, I thought we had more time, Carry me, Carry me home", a possible reference to losing a close friend, which could quite possibly have been David Bowie, who passed away in January 2016, a year and a half before Add Violence, and who Reznor has had multiple run-ins with and shared various live performances with. This reference would seem to make the most sense, considering the very apparent Bowie/Blackstar influence in Nine Inch Nails's final release in the trilogy, Bad Witch. After this slow, churning, and emotional event, we get to the final two songs on Add Violence.

"Not Anymore" follows the same trend as "The Idea of You" did in Not The Actual Events, in the sense that it's more of the chaotic outlier of the EP and builds up the energy as it runs toward the final track. Reznor's lyrics again are full of doubts, disappointment, and trying to not change into somebody else, as he tries reminding himself who he is and what his purpose his, but responding with a negative, "well not anymore", pulling the song into a downward spiral of chaos and despair, and running into the last song, "The Background World". This closing statement before the third and final Nine Inch Nails release in the trilogy comes off powerful, as Reznor describes being unable to escape fate, despite feeling the disillusions of grandeur in previous tracks. "I know what’s coming, I feel it reaching through, There is no moving past, There is no better place, There is no future point in time, We will not get away", before speaking on the perpetual decay of everything in the world, "The world is bleeding out, It folds itself in two, Behind the background world, It's always bleeding through". The track finally falls into a catchy riff when Reznor asks us, "Are you sure, this is what you want?", over and over again. Before long, the song breaks down into a broken loop, slowly decaying and disintegrating into static and distortion, setting up the sound for the final release in the trilogy, Bad Witch...


Bad Witch



Bad Witch released. Just under a year after Add Violence, June 22, 2018 brings the closing statement to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's industrial trilogy, almost exactly a year and a half since Not The Actual Events started it all. If there ever was a feeling of coming back around full circle, but going even deeper into terrifying experimentation and breaking the cycle with horror-centric cinema soundscapes, then this is it. There hasn't been a release that so accurately reflects Reznor's affinity toward and work with scoring films as Bad Witch does, as the two instrumental pieces of the release here break into an overall sense of dread and atmosphere that cannot be matched by any other contemporary artist today.

Clocking in at 30 and a half minutes, it's the longest of the three, and for this reason Nine Inch Nails classifies it as an LP, different than the first couple EP's, at 21 and 27 minutes respectively. Starting with the first track, shamelessly titled "Shit Mirror", there are beats that almost sound identical to the first track of NTAE, "Branches/Bones", but takes off with distorted fuzz, and Reznor jumping in without hesitation, "Got a new face and it feels alright, power and strength and appetite, I eat your loathing, hate, and fear, should probably stay away from here", most likely commenting on his new formation with Ross in NIN, the feeling that they are not slowing down, and with this confidence comes at the listener with his signature industrial aggression with the chorus, "Hey look what's staring back at you, caught reflecting in your eyes, well I'm becoming something new, it's getting hard to recognize... New world, New times, Mutation, Feels alright" Reznor is as much a part of the world of contemporary music as he was decades before. This opening declaration proves Nine Inch Nails is here to stay, adapt, and mutate with the times.

If the first track doesn't revitalize interest and fascination with Reznor's artistic capabilities, "Ahead of Ourselves" doesn't wait for you to make your decision, because it takes off with a breakneck pace and dirty synth that assaults your sensibilities and pulls you in with Reznor's phased out vocals, bearing resemblance to his decades old industrial speed track, "Gave Up", from 1992's Broken EP. Commenting on the inability for humans to evolve past a primitive way of being, Reznor is most likely describing the selfish and egotistical side of human nature, adding that as we're supposedly created in "His" image, "we just can't seem to help ourselves", and asks "why try change when you know you can't?" in the violent chorus. According to Reznor, "we got ahead of ourselves" thinking that we could ascribe to something more as human beings, leaving a hard truth on the floor before hitting the brakes with his brooding instrumental piece, "Play The Goddamned Part".

The third song of the bunch, one of the two instrumental tracks, leaves space for growth, and allows listeners to breath for a moment, only for the eventual buildup of cinematic dread. Bass, ugly distortion, and a band of saxophones slowly enter the arena, with tapped percussion and a repeated mantra by all. Nine Inch Nails has never been one to shy away from use of a more full and organic, orchestrated sound in his music, but this is the first that we hear of the woodwinds since their last cameo in his penultimate track "While I'm Still Here", on 2013's Hesitation Marks, his last proper full length album before this trilogy. When thinking of how his last album ended, it is almost foreshadowing that Reznor would weave in further orchestration and experimentation for his trilogy and this final LP in the trio. The song breaks down halfway through, only to slowly build up the dirty minimalist percussion and an arpeggiated piano line before it settles back into quietness, clearing the canvas for his pre-released single of Bad Witch, "God Break Down The Door".

In terms of other artists that Nine Inch Nails has worked with in the past, there are probably none that affected Reznor as emotionally or on a creative level as much as David Bowie. Having been personal friends with him since they first collaborated in the mid 1990’s, Bowie’s sudden passing no doubt had a large impact on Reznor, and it’s most apparent on this new single, as well as Bad Witch’s closing track. Almost as if allowing Bowie to speak through him, Reznor allows his free jazz industrial flair of “God Break Down The Door” to break from his NIN formula in new and exciting ways, and his vocal performance just as much shows new promise as he seems to sing in a similar style to Bowie. If one were to compare, it has a not-so-uncanny likeness to one of Bowie’s final tracks, “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)”, off of his final album before death, Blackstar, both with the fast drum n bass style beat and the style of saxophone drones, which were used prominently in Bowie’s album. Reznor sings a warning to those striving to uncover the truths of the ugliness of this world, stating that “you won’t find the answers here, not the ones you came looking for”.

“I’m Not From This World”, another terrifying cinematic composition, aims to slowly raise the tension once more, just like its predecessor, “Play The Goddamned Part”, except this one feels like it has its own callbacks to one of Reznor’s more memorable closing tracks, “Ripe (With Decay)”, off of 1999’s double album, The Fragile. Showing off Reznor’s aptitude for creating hypnotic, moving, and unforgettable soundscapes, this song has everything a fan of Nine Inch Nails can hope for: dark, brooding, industrial swagger that is unlike anything else in contemporary music today. It doesn’t overstay it’s welcome either, as it’s rise and fall makes way for the perfect send-off of Nine Inch Nails’s already captivating exercise in episodic music releases: the ultimate track, “Over And Out”.

A glitchy synth beat kicks right off, easily making this the most accessible sounding song on the album. It grows with slightly dissonant piano loops and slow melodic pads as Reznor sings the most poignant and memorable lyrics of probably all 3 releases: “Time is running out, I don’t know what I’m waiting for”. This deepening appreciation for Reznor’s own existential crisis makes this end all the more moving, most likely reminded of his close friend’s untimely death, and as a reminder to himself and others to not waste time, as it’s always ticking down. Not only does Reznor come off as sincere in this moment, but his singing style sounds like a departure from his usual tenor delivery, and his choice of melody and tone here suggest another direct tribute to his good friend David Bowie.

Bad Witch aims, and succeeds, to leave listeners breathless, with a sensory explosion that only disguises itself in its quiet moments, but nevertheless works to get under your skin and assault your senses. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are intent on letting everything up to this point in the series unravel here, and the result is a relentless tour through the hearts and minds of these industrial rock legends. This willingness of theirs to explore musically makes Bad Witch an exceptionally absorbing play-through, which is over almost as soon as it starts, being Nine Inch Nails’s shortest length album to date, and demands repeated listens to appreciate all the fine (or shall I say gritty) details. As gravelly and as abrasive as Bad Witch may sound, it is actually a highly calculated and polished record, and will be remembered as another classic in the Nine Inch Nails discography, and a marked departure into more experimental and exciting songwriting by Reznor and Ross going forward.


Conclusion



Bad Witch and it’s 2 predecessors purposely make multiple callbacks to previous Nine Inch Nails themes and albums. As a way of reminding listeners that they haven’t forgotten what made them, and that the amalgamation of all the decades of music prior have only strengthened their resolve and combine to make their music the pinnacle of what Nine Inch Nails is at its core: beautiful, dark, mysterious, heavy, a reflection of the times, and a window into the eyes of its creator and mastermind, Trent Reznor. Through Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have a vehicle to filter through the good and the refuse of the world and deliver a unique, musical reflection of the human experience as they see it. Whether their songs come across as cautionary tales, tales of loss, or of finding ones identity, they are masters in their craft and have promised with this trilogy and going forward that they’ll have more stories to tell.

Not The Actual Events - 8/10
Add Violence - 8.5/10
Bad Witch - 9.5/10
Trilogy average - 8.67/10

Recommended Tracks: Dear World, The Background World, Play The Goddamned Part


June 17, 2018

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 - Black Times Review


As a fan of the always captivating genre of Afrobeat (African funk, soul, and jazz) and the legendary leader of the social-musical-political movement in said genre, Fela Kuti, I was delighted to learn that his music has lived on in his two musical sons, Femi, and Seun, Kuti. As I confess to not being fully aware of these brothers' catalogues since I was always obsessively digging into Fela's discography, I was filled with joy and wonderment to listen to Seun's brand new 2018 album, Black Times, released in the beginning of March, and notably felt stunned when listening to the uncanny continuation of Fela's legacy. Seun continues to carry the torch with Fela's original live band, Egypt 80, formally known as Nigeria '70, then Africa '70, in what can only be described as a bombastic celebration of revolution and humanity personified through Afrobeat music.

Black Times has only 8 tracks, but each of them are the proper length to justify the short list, and each are so stylistically interesting, and arranged and delivered with so much heart for the genre and the people of Africa, that the feel-good messages are positively addicting and cannot be ignored. Reading even a little bit into Fela's history, it's easy to see that Fela's disposition toward progress and humanitarian efforts is inseparable from the music, and it's this fusion which creates a symbiotic relationship with the listener, and a level of empathy and belief in the Kuti's family mission for a better world.

The album opens with the track, "Last Revolutionary", a signature activist song that embodies the entire purpose of the Kuti's legacy. In it, Seun is determined to make certain that there will always be a push back against the government and militant oppressors, with the memorable line sung from his backup singers, "'til we free, you and me, they'll never see the last revolutionary!" It is one of the many Afrobeat chants or anthems sung throughout Black Times.

One of the more notable aspects of this album is the inclusion of featured guest artist, Carlos Santana, in the title track, a very tasteful decision and the only one to join Seun and Egypt 80 on this record. A virtuoso in his own right, with a talent for drawing in the listener, "Black Times" works to pull the listener in even closer and disarm them with heartfelt lyrics, "Time don't come my people, now are you ready to rise, to be free? To rise, to be free?", in a repeated call to action. The track takes off in classic Fela fashion, jamming with Santana's catchy licks and Seun's call-and-response with his backup singers, making it nearly impossible to not want to move with the beat. It's this ecstasy laced throughout the title and following tracks that capture the essence of what it is to love one another and be human.

Songs like "Corporate Public Control Department" and "Struggle Sounds" are high in their intensity and clear in their intentions. Other songs such as "Bad Man Lighter" and "African Dreams" slow down the pace and work to create a feel-good atmosphere where Seun can express more accessible and digestible messages of following one's dreams and keeping the thoughts of those who've struggled close to the heart.

Black Times is Seun's fourth full length album, and if there were ever any uncertainty that Fela's movement had died down, it couldn't be farther from the truth in 2018 with surviving sons Seun and Femi. While living in uncertain times, Seun delivers a much needed positive boost to the psyche and messages of hope for all people. There's something to love and sing along to in every song, and Seun's forthright need to bring humanity together in solidarity, through Afrobeat music, is a testament to the strength and groundwork that Fela laid down almost 50 years ago, and for this reason makes Black Times yet another gem in the genre's catalogue and marker in the music of human revolution.

Black Times - 9.5/10

Recommended Tracks: Black Times, Bad Man Lighter, African Dreams