Last Friday, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross gave fans an early Christmas present with the release of their new EP, Not The Actual Events. With a band that spans such a long history of producing and releasing original music, there are always some conservative fans who lament against changes, or evolutions, in what they deem an “original” sound. With Nine Inch Nails, I find this argument silly, because they just get better and better with time - you can hear the sophistication in Trent’s voice, you can sense the maturity with the more refined, fine-tuned ensembles of instrumentals and digitally produced sounds. Not The Actual Events furthers all that we love about Nine Inch Nails, with their signature industrial, post-punk sound, but adds an experimental element with more variations on synthesizers and digitized loops throughout the five tracks featured.
If I ever write a screenplay for a dystopian film, or have creative control over the soundtrack of such a film, Nine Inch Nails would be a must (with a bit of Telepopmusik, Massive Attack, and FC Kahuna too, of course). Their compilations never fail to paint an eery, creepy, horror and science-fiction environment, always melding a bit of social commentary with creative fantasy to yield a sonic experience that takes the listener to a whole new perspective. The experience offered by this EP came together with the help of Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters, Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction, and Mariqueen Maandig Reznor, Trent’s wife and fellow singer in their (amazing) electronica group, How To Destroy Angels.
The first track, “Branches / Bones,” starts off with a fast, almost dance groove, complete with horror-industrial noises. It’s a short song at a duration of less than two minutes, but the energy really sets the whole dystopian, sci-fi tone of the EP. As Trent sings, “parts of me are slowing down, time is speeding up,” the song progresses in both volume and pace to climax at the chorus, with Trent yelling, “Feels like I’ve been here before/ Yeah I don’t know anymore.” Right as he says the word “before,” his voice gets cut off and instead the song rewires to a muted voice singing “cold and black and infinite, with nothing left to lose.” The concept of the track is the perfect mix of horror and dystopia, illustrating an image of a digital prison infected with so much white noise, one is unable to think or finish thoughts - mimicked in both the lyrics and sound, as the song comes to an abrupt halt.
The next track, and my personal favorite for its sheer conceptual genius, is “Dear World,” which sounds like it came straight out of a 1980s video game or computer program. The synthesized instrumentals really reminded me of Hito Steyerl’s “Factory of the Sun” video installation I saw at MOCA, which deals with issues such as surveillance, freedom, imprisonment, and authoritarian control in a virtual world. A robotic, mechanized voice is heard throughout the song, stating, “we’ve become obsolete/ A frame at a time.” Maybe here, Trent is commenting on social media, shorter attention spans, and the fleetingness, and consequential meaninglessness, of the over-saturation of content in the digital age. He sings, “Dear world, I can hardly recognize you anymore,” and the track concludes with the robotic voice hinting, “Yes, everyone seems to be asleep.”
“She’s Gone Away” has a rhythm reminiscent of The Downward Spiral, and features Mariqueen Maandig Reznor’s beautifully haunting, soft voice - so subdued that it is hardly audible, matching the title and concept of the track. Although this is the longest track on the EP, and is similar to a lot of their previous work, this was probably my least favorite out of the bunch because it didn’t really add much to the whole compilation, it more so sounded like an extension of what we’ve heard before. “The Idea of You,” featuring Dave Grohl on drums, emphasizes the guest drummer’s strengths with a heavy repetition of percussive riffs. The concept deals with the idea of reality versus simulation, with a lot of contemplative whispering and pondering (akin to what we heard on Year Zero) interjected with “(Wait!) None of this/ (Wake!) is happening” throughout the track.
The EP concludes with “Burning Bright (Field on Fire),” which was released earlier as a single along with a video, and features Dave Navarro on guitar. Perhaps this is a time-related, contextualized interpretation of the track, but it sounds like Trent is delivering a speech and people are cheering as he says, “I’m goin’ back/ Of course I am… Back to what I always knew I was/ On the inside.” It may just be me, but this really seems like an adequate representation of the American state at the close of 2016, especially with lyrics like “Look at this pathetic place I made.. I think I may have even, listened to you!/ At the height of my demise.” The lyrics focus on being “free,” and the sounds mimic cheering and marching, creating a vision of hell unleashed - something that is no longer hidden or repressed, but rather fully embraced, almost apocalyptic. Reznor calls upon Biblical imagery with “blacken out the sky and every last one of you/ Like a plague of locusts/ Like an exit, like an end, like the end,” which is immediately followed by a post-apocalyptic silence. The song fades out with a whisper of “I can’t tell if I am dreaming anymore,” wrapping up the picture of a world where nightmare and reality are indistinguishable.
Overall, I found Not The Actual Events to be a real work of art, furthering the Nine Inch Nails discography with more sophisticated sounds, lyrics, and concepts. No other group is able to illustrate such vivid dystopian imagery, and as a huge fan of science-fiction and dystopian art and literature, I always embrace what Reznor and Ross produce as the next installment in their decades-long series of conceptual works. Each song on the EP stands independently, but in its entirety, Not The Actual Events is smart, reflective, intellectual, and damn good to listen to. With two major events planned for 2017, this EP may not be the actual event, but in the meantime, it will do more than satisfy.
By Pauline Pechakjian