Soundtrack 07/11/2007: Nine Inch Nails “Year Zero”

Shame on us, doomed from the start
May God have mercy on our dirty little hearts
Shame on us for all we have done
And all we are worth is just zeroes and ones

“Zero Sum” Year Zero



Over the past few albums Nine Inch Nails has gotten more and more rock and roll, and a little bit away from the electronic industrial that made Pretty Hate Machine and Downward Spiral so huge. With Year Zero, Trent Reznor has gone back to his roots and created an industrial concept album very much on par with The Downward Spiral as far as quality and relevance to me personally. I don’t know how many people have noticed, but he even pays homage to the downward spiral by using the main recurring theme of that album in reverse on “Survivalism”, the first single. Lyrically this album relates to my personal headspace today as much as the Downward Spiral did around 15 years ago: somewhat obtusely it captures some of my mood and expresses it fairly accurately. That somewhat concerning feeling that I (and alot of other people these days) have that we may be jeopardizing our very existence by passively allowing dangerously reckless and near incompetent leadership is prevalent throughout this album.


Year Zero is a fictitious concept album, a story about a possible near future where fascist government has taken over America and is bringing the population to their knees through both xenophobia and coercion (hrmm…fictional?). Trent Reznor has built a whole mythology around this concept, including various websites, a 1-800 number purportedly being the “US Bureau of Mortality” (USBM) and a heat sensitive disc with hidden messages and url’s on it. Seriously. If you dial the 1-800 number, a female voice warns the listener that they are “implicitly pleading guilty to the consumption of anti-American media and have been flagged as potential militants.” If you look at title to “Another Version of the Truth”, there is a faint HTTP:// in front of it and a .com behind it. Visiting the site takes you to this fictitious USBM site that has all kind of interesting fun on it (ie: there’s a site under the site, try erasing the picture paint style and clicking to see an interesting message board). The disc itself is made via a technology called “thermo chrome”; basically when the disc heats up, the label changes color. This color change reveals some copyright info and some binary code that translates to, which is another cool website. You can see the thermo-chrome effect in this U-Tube video.


Aside from all this cool mythology building, Trent Reznor did some fabulous viral marketing for this album. In February at various NiN concerts in Europe, USB keys were found in the bathrooms, each with individual songs from the album in high quality digital format. These all circulated onto the web, created a viral buzz. There were 3 that I know of, 1 from Lisbon, one from Barcelona and one from Manchester, but I have to wonder how many others were left that never got discovered or looked at? I personally would be a bit leery of putting some random USB key into my computer, not knowing what’s on it. There was also a ‘leak’ of the album in early April, which I suspect was done by NiN on purpose. The third thing they did to virally market the album was release the first single in March in multitracked “garage band” format and then in “Logic Pro”. This created a community of remixes and eventually a kind of adhoc contest developed around the remixes. They eventually released a bunch more songs in the same formats. This is brilliant, and nothing creates a fan “community” like letting them be interactive with the music. It’s not something that has never been done before, but it’s a valid way to create buzz, and I think a pretty cool one as it’s not so passive as spending money on mass marketing.


All that aside, what about the music? Trent Reznor has put together some of his coolest sound palettes since Pretty Hate Machine, and his standard songwriting and hooks are there as well. Right from the first track, we’re treated to a massive wall of sound that is original and yet not too crazy. The song hooks are all great, and most every song on the CD has a memorable lyric and melody part. The high points for me are “Capital G” “God Given”, “The great Destroyer”, “Zero Sum” and “Meet Your Master”. Having said that there are not really any songs that I don’t like. My least favorite would probably be “In the Beginning”, but even it is pretty good. I must admit that the first time I heard “Capital G” I didn’t really like the way he phrased the vocals, but the sounds he used kept me listening and it really grew on me. The coolest part of the whole album for me is the back half of “The Great Destroyer”, where he takes one short sampled polyphonic synth melody and absolutely deconstructs it, analog synth style. It’s not one of the most musical moments in rock history, but it’s definitely one of the coolest from a sonic standpoint. Basically what he does is changes parameters of each sound in the mix individually, so that each time it plays it’s a little different. He does put a couple of rhythmic changes in as well, but it’s mostly one sample.


Another thing he does a couple times in the album that I think is cool (and something I’ve never heard before) is bring down the volume of the whole track slightly and subtly, then play one sound and one melody back at full volume. The effect is that you’re listening and don’t even really notice the volume dropping, then all of a sudden there’s this little bit of sound that’s substantially louder than the rest of it. The first time he does it it’s a guitar line, the second time it’s a synth line, but both times it’s the audio version of a jack in the box popping up…totally unexpected. Brilliant! It took me several listens to figure out how he did it (if you’ve ever mastered a CD you know that there is a peak level that you can’t really go beyond due to compression).


I was glad to see him go back to his industrial/electronica roots on this album (although WithTeeth was one of my favorite albums a couple years ago) and change things up a bit. I dig Nine Inch Nails’ rock stuff, but I really dig the industrial bit. Sonically they have created an impressive product here with all kinds of innovative sounds and recording techniques, lyrically it’s as good as anything else he’s done, and storyboard wise…well I can’t wait to see the movie! (Although some might say we are kind of living it…) It’s not often that I put a CD in the player and I love it first listen and then it stays in my favorites list. But that’s what happened with Year Zero. I bought it on release day (April 16) and it has been locked in my player pretty much continually ever since. Of course my iPod is always set on shuffle, so it’s not that this is the only music I’m listening to, but if I’m in my car and not on the radio or listening to a CD at home, it’s probably this one right now. Trent Reznor now has two albums on my desert island list.


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