Trent Reznor has been the creative force behind Nine Inch Nails for 20 years of dark, brooding industrial innovation. He has embraced a role as a furious auger drilling at the inanity of the modern condition, and his vision of the world as a desolate, rusting place has drawn throngs of rabid fans and fervent idolizers.
The result is more than 20 million albums sold, two Grammy awards, 26 official releases, critical praise and legions of mimicking clones. Even Rolling Stone, that bastion of musical mediocrity, placed NIN on its list of the 100 greatest rock artists of all time.
This success has done little to soften Reznor's edge. He is still the embittered, angry artist crafting angst-riddled masterpieces while spitting in the eye of authority. This guy makes jaded cultural commentary an honest-to-god art form. After all, when he won a Grammy for “Wish” in 1992, Reznor remarked that his epitaph should read, “REZNOR: Died. Said ‘fist fuck' and won a Grammy.”
The last NIN release, Year Zero, is a concept album based on the dystopian portents Reznor saw in today's America. After a series of heated confrontations with music labels that culminated in very public feuds, Reznor promised that his next album would be released independently. He followed through in spades.
The latest NIN offering, Ghosts I-IV (set for retail release on April 8), was initially unleashed online in March, following a path trod by Radiohead's In Rainbows and Saul Williams' (Reznor-produced) The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!.
Like those artists, Reznor allowed fans to download the first volume of Ghosts minus the privacy-invading Digital Rights Management that mainstream online retailers inject into music. However, NIN being NIN, Reznor upped the ante.
In addition to offering free downloads of Ghosts' first volume, he's offering at least four other versions. There's a $5 digital version with all 36 tracks, a $10 download that also includes a two-CD set and a $75 version with deluxe album packaging and a set of the prints for each track. In addition, Reznor autographed and numbered 2,500 copies of a $300 super-deluxe version that has already sold out.
It's actually enjoyable to watch the gleeful (insomuch as he's capable) lengths Reznor will go to skirt the establishment he so loathes. In fact, instead of working with an independent label, he's elected to release the album under a Creative Commons license.
And that's all before any discussion of what's actual on Ghosts.
Reznor assembled a group of friends and NIN associates, including Brian Viglione (Dresden Dolls), former NIN and My Bloody Valentine producer Alan Moulder and longtime collaborators Atticus Ross and Alessandro Cortini. Most impressive, though, is the addition of Adrian Belew, who played guitar for King Crimson, Zappa and David Bowie.
The first volume, Ghosts I, like the rest of the collection, is expectedly ambitious. Instead of pointed lyrics, Reznor embraces the obliqueness offered by instrumental means. The nine untitled, unidentified tracks mark a departure for NIN (or most any band, really), and while it lacks the bombast and vigor of most NIN albums, that's not a particularly bad thing.
Ghosts opens with an appropriately haunting piano, which serves as an entrée to the overall sparseness of the entire album. The first and second tracks, with the repetition of piano supported by muted, distorted guitar, are reminiscent of the minute ornateness of Valley of the Giants or the bare poeticism of Papa M's Live from the Shark's Cage.
In terms of solid techno, Reznor is either a didgeridoo away from being Aphex Twin or an Arabic sample away from being Gun Aramaic-era Muslimgauze. But he could have chosen worse as far as electro signposts go—we're lucky Reznor hasn't been head-bobbing to the glossy shine of Oakenfold or the vapid jazz-vomit of Mark Farina.
Beyond the first nine tracks, the remaining 27 Ghosts are essentially elaborations on the same theme. There are certainly standouts—“2 Ghosts 3” and “2 Ghosts 4,” for example—but the other tracks are mostly derivative (albeit, at times, incredibly gorgeous derivatives) of the first nine.
All four albums are inevitable departures from NIN tradition, but nothing that Reznor does with his Ghosts is particularly innovative. That said, message always seems paramount to medium for him, and Ghosts I-IV is strikingly indicative of that.
This message, however, is of truly cinematic scope. The “modern” era of Nine Inch Nails—starting after the lapse between The Fragile and With Teeth—is characterized by a linear progression from Reznor's co-opting of actual reality to a more symbolic one. More and more, it seems the wretched mimesis of the world that Reznor presents is honestly a dream. And, within the realm of Ghosts I-IV at least, it needs no voice.