Nine Inch Nails - Year Zero
It's fair to say nihilism and black leather trenchcoats lost most of their allure in the mid-1990s. Ten years on, Marilyn Manson, erstwhile friend and collaborator of Nine Inch Nails supremo Trent Reznor, has finally become a parody of himself, wallowing in middle age, dating a 19-year-old starlet and releasing songs with names like Heart-Shaped Glasses. I'm expecting his take on Nabokov once he's finished interpreting Alice in Wonderland for the big screen. In contrast, Reznor's focus seems truer than it has for a long while and his sixth album is a masterclass in harsh, brittle processed beats.
Sampled screams and gunfire in opener Hyperpower! set the scene for the album's story of a dystopian near-future United States of America, a tale detailed elsewhere in greater length and detail than I could hope to explain here - needless to say it's your typical Orwellian nightmare, touching on the old staples of religion, politics and war. Although many of the ideas are recycled and plenty of stock imagery is used to express them, the album is still pretty effective at making its points, and it seems Reznor is eager to flesh them out using other media, with plans for a motion picture apparently in the works. But what's important right now is the music.
First single Survivalism (complete with backing vocals from Saul Williams) is the poppiest cut to be found on Year Zero - it even has something you could almost describe as a chorus. However a comparison with The Hand That Feeds, the DFA-remix friendly lead track from 2005's With Teeth, makes it crystal clear that Reznor has experienced a change of heart somewhere along the line, making a concious decision to embrace the darker side of his sound. This desire to take a step away from the mainstream is apparent throughout, impressively underlined on Vessel. Driven by insistent, hard drums it slowly mutates into a down-and-dirty dirge of distorted vocals and rasping synths. It's noisy and intensely satisfying.
It's not all quite so punishing though. The Greater Good's hushed tones, hypnotic bass and plinking keys are effective in creating an unnerving, moody soundscape while the affecting ballad Zero Sum could almost pass for a lullaby if it wasn't haunted by paranoid, whispered vocals and random bursts of static.
Not every song hits its target - Capital G is a lame duck, lyrically insipid and the most backwards-looking track in sonic terms on the whole album (it's telling that it employs a brass quartet, some of the few sounds not produced solely on a laptop on this LP). For the most part though, Year Zero is a triumphant return, re-establishing Nine Inch Nails as a force to be reckoned with.