Following four years’ abstinence from NIN activity, if never exactly inactivity, having picked up little pieces along the way – a Golden Globe for he and Atticus Ross’ soundtracking of David Fincher’s The Social Network, as well as a Grammy for that of the very same director’s frighteningly Americanised envisaging of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – chief industrial constructor Trent Reznor returns with a reconvened, and seemingly rejuvenated Nine Inch Nails. Back among his [backing] band are longterm cronies Alessandro Cortini and Robin Finck, while Reznor was aided inside the studio by everyone from King Crimson’s Adrian Belew to Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, all of whom look to abet Trent in wreaking further impactive havoc on a musical topography that has become that bit more anodyne since he last inflicted aural torture on any willing resident sadist within earshot.
His own tangential endeavours have, however, largely erred on the side of the aseptic: How to destroy angels_ for instance – a project ungainly as its stylisation, embarked upon alongside Mariqueen Maandig who Reznor married in 2009 amid much disgust from his more avid of female votaries, and in turn gave birth to both Lazarus Echo and Balthazar Reznor – turned out to be a counterintuitively frigid affair. Though most disappointing perhaps was its signalling of an increasingly jocular outlook on life, and with it Trent’s livelihood: his gradual unravelling began to harsh many a mellow and, Schadenfreudian though it might seem, you almost found yourself willing an element of discomfort on his increasingly comfortable lifestyle. That malevolent spirit within needed stirring; his mind destabilising if he were to evoke those same emotions smeared recklessly across his back catalogue, though with no tours and therefore no roadies able to slip him something steroidal, tranquility and contentment continued to stifle the flexing of his creative muscle.
In a sense, it’s saddening imagining all that nihilistic abrasion of yore – that of Heresy, say – to have since dissipated, and Hesitation Marks [aka Halo 28] is more an audiophile’s indulgence than it is an atheist’s delight. [Incidentally, several masters are to be simultaneously released with both 'the standard, “loud” mastering' and 'an alternate “audiophile” mastering' available, while purists, completists and the like have been reassured recurrently that the vinyl run was similarly 'mastered to sound the very best for that format.' Having shunned major labels and self-released both Ghosts I–IV and The Slip via The Null Corporation, it would appear the appeal of being able to luxuriate in this extravagance without having to pick up the check personally has ultimately overpowered any transitory independence.] Though the crystallinity intrinsic to the sound – whether accented naturally, or indeed artificially – means nothing if the quality of what’s been recorded fails to measure up. And although Halo 28 is not without those roisterous arena-slaying riffs of With Teeth, nor its very own moments of wild restraint reminiscent of The Fragile at its eggshell best, much of it fails to register beyond existential impertinence.
Starting on a positive note, as does the album itself [superfluous 8-bit intro The Eater of Dreams notwithstanding], Buckingham comes up trumps on Copy of A, his jarring guitars a caustic fit with a minimal rhythmic backdrop neutral as spent coal. “I am just a copy of a copy of a copy/ Everything I say has come before/ Assembled into something, into something, into something/ I don’t know for certain anymore” begins Reznor, his current identity crisis rendered apparent. Riddled with major chord progression and surges of outwardly sanguine cadence, this doesn’t sound like the work of a spirit who, seemingly once at the behest of Beelzebub, once also spat with such grim conviction: “Lay my hands on Heaven and the sun and the moon and the stars/ While the devil wants to fuck me in the back of his car.” That was then The Only Time – a metallic funk oddity to have featured on his ’89 début, Pretty Hate Machine. And incidentally, at its best, Hesitation Marks sounds not dissimilar to a hi-fi revision of that very record now going on twenty-four years on. Came Back Haunted, with its flatulent bass frequencies, gauche bits of glitch and angst-ridden sci-fi lyricisms [see: "I got something you have to see/ They put something inside of me/ The smile is red and its eyes are black/ I don't think I'll be coming back"] recalls a mildly tranquillised Sin to a not insubstantial extent, although again Reznor’s incertitude as to who he’s become – both as a person and of course a caricatured persona – swiftly rises to the surface. “Everywhere now reminding me/ I am not who I used to be/ I’m afraid this has just begun/ Consequences for what I’ve done.”
Now, were he really locked in civil turmoil within his innermost sanctum over previous addictions since kicked, he could do with exerting a bit more brute force in order to unlock more of this particular calibre. For when we’re next reminded of Reznor’s considerably more modest beginnings, the appositely christened All Time Low calls to mind the slinky metallics of a subpar Sanctified. Indeed, Belew’s squirming guitar part wouldn’t sound too incongruous on a Limp Bizkit record circa Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water, and we all know that’s a comparison neither he nor Fred Durst will feel particularly flattered by. “Like a fucked up punk with a fucked up mouth” it’s likely the kind to have both heavyweight metal titans clamouring to knock you the fuck out, though it can do little to facilitate the Nine Inch Nail’s rapprochement with hankering fans.
It’s followed by the again deflating Disappointed – a drab track featuring imperceptible involvement from Autolux’ Eugene Goreshter, that seems the quintessence of creative intemperance. Given that the track has already become a staple of 2013 comeback setlists, it’s seemingly one Reznor subjectively rates among the album’s finer moments, yet vapid and a kind of accessible industrial-by-numbers offering, it could have been better titled ‘Deluded’. “Can I ask you something, what did you expect?/ So disappointed with what you get” he sneers, seemingly almost uncaring of the wrath these slipshod minutes ought to incur. They won’t I wouldn’t imagine, although Everything already has.
By all means Reznor’s embracing of indwelling happiness should be celebrated, though whether it should be committed to record – irrespective of its sonic fidelity – is rather less self-evident. And for a song of such unabashedly upbeat nature to slip onto a CD cloaked in artwork designed by none other than Russell Mills [he who conceived that which decorated The Downward Spiral now nineteen years ago] feels almost sacrilegious. Not in the literal sense of the word, what with Reznor’s previous having irreparably severed all ties with every religious sect, but with regard to his own legacy. “I survived everything/ I have tried everything/ Everything, everything, and anything” goes its opening, whippersnapping verse as the song again assumes an omniscient tone of undiluted self-importance. It goes without saying that he could do with retrying some of the insinuated substances and experiences in the hope of him being able to rekindle a past form, for Everything goes so far as to show Reznor up as a spent force, himself long since past it. “Wave goodbye, wish me well/ I’ve become something else/ Something else, something else, it’s just as well” he stubbornly proclaims and while this may have some truth to it from a personal angle, from that more applicable professional perspective it’s a declaration that’s merely questionable at best.
In Two, another Buckingham-featuring number, oddly enough sounds rather a lot like Pendulum strung up, left to rot and grotesquely swung to the tune of Trent’s longtime compadre Josh Homme’s gritty, and with it infinitely preferable Burn The Witch. Satellite, an unorthodox [and unadvisable] foray into prototypal industro-funk, meanwhile boasts perhaps the album’s most despicably trite chorus: “Satellite, I’m watching you/ I’m one step ahead/ Satellite, I’m part of you/ I’m inside your head.” So not only is he now omniscient, but so too is the erstwhile heavy-duty overlord newly equipped to spellbind and brainwash. It’s a shame the same can’t be said for the song itself…
Though glimpses of an earlier form do recur: the skittish jitter of Running, during which Reznor’s breathy vocal loops compete with one another until the moment they abate entirely, absolutely exhausted, while Find My Way overcomes an initially overly whoompy segment to succeed in regenerating the porcelaneous touch of The Fragile that, although repeatedly attempted, has never been better replicated by anyone until now. “I have made a great mistake/ Pray the Lord my soul to take/ Ghosts of who we used to be/ I can feel them come for me” he confesses, his trademarkedly guttural snarl traded in for a redemptive soothe. And whether genuinely repenting of his sins or dredging up this pious rhetoric for dramatic impact, the desired, even divine effect is effortlessly made.
And so although While I’m Still Here may indirectly desecrate Hank Williams, Sr.’s Weary Blues From Waiting, Reznor left to again lament “all the things that might’ve been” while feeling the four walls around him closing in, in an album of extremes an explosive Various Methods of Escape more than makes up for that particular misdemeanour. Thus while the negatives probably outweigh the positives, Reznor certainly couldn’t have plumped for a more accurate title, for it’s one that’s acute as a razor blade: Hesitation Marks have begun to hung around again…
Released: September 2nd, 2013 [Polydor]