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Review: Nine Inch Nails Find Compelling New Ground on the Experimental ADD VIOLENCE

When Not the Actual Events, Nine Inch Nails’ inaugural EP of a supposedly-busy coming year, surfaced in December, it didn’t really feel like the “band” had gone anywhere since their last release, 2013’s Hesitation Marks. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the duo responsible for the band’s past several recordings, spent that time working through various soundtrack projects, even contributing the occasional track with vocals along the way. In 2016 alone, they released two major film scores. If Not the Actual Events tried to reclaim some of the band’s old pre-Hesitation-Marks fury, the group’s follow-up miniature ADD VIOLENCE finds Reznor and Ross focusing back in on the windswept, nauseated ambience of their film-music work, with some quick bursts of Reznor’s career-standard industrial maximalism. At its best moments, the EP is experimental and detail-oriented. At its worst, it sounds like an empty pastiche of ideas drawn from a time-tested deck of Reznor-patented Oblique Strategies.

The previously-released lead single, “Less Than,” sounds all-too-expected stylistically; in its lyrical and melodic details, it’s a composite of Nine Inch Nails from the distant and most recent past. It’s the most pop-forward and catchy song the band has delivered since “Copy of A” or “Came Back Haunted,” but also isomorphic to endless other Reznor songs, and rewarding in exactly the same way. Probably luckily, ADD VIOLENCE is not a short collection of standard-issue Nine Inch Nails anthems along these lines. Outside of “Less Than” and the forgettable, sneering hailstorm “Not Anymore,” the EP is actually one of the most reserved releases of the band’s career. At points, it’s also extremely compositionally intricate. If Not the Actual Events channeled more of the sound of a live rock band playing through real amps in a room, ADD VIOLENCE feels more like starting at grids of notes on a ProTools or Max/MSP window. This music is pristine, finicky, inward-pointing–the kind of elaborate musical latticing only Reznor at his most obsessive could have built.

The most interesting anomaly on the EP is “The Lovers,” which is dominated by an aural Magic Eye of a backbeat: a composite of several different rhythmic feels laid on top of each other to disorienting, headache-inducing effect. Together, it all amounts to a strange unstable gallop, over which Reznor murmurs typical nu-metal-ish paradoxes about “return[ing] to the place where I already am“ and being “rotten and perfect,” whispering like he’s trying to stimulate Satan’s ASMR. The song leaves space for the listener to get lost in the grooves, letting snippets of melody crest to break up the action into scenes, and makes for an engaging curiosity.

The more overt challenge to the listener on the EP, though, is its sprawling twelve-minute closer “The Background World.”  The song begins as a bit of thumping techno-metal which recalls “Closer” as soon as the full drum loop kicks in. Quintessential NIN tracks like this, as with those of any other artist who dips back into the same database of textures and grooves throughout their career, can still be memorable and compelling. In this case, the small variants to the formula save the day: Mainly, Reznor’s ascendant, sometimes-beautiful lead melody, which pushes him toward the top of his range.

At roughly the four-minute mark, though, the game changes entirely: A blown-out chord progression gets stuck in an asymmetrical locked groove, like some looped ad in a hidden pop-up window. Reznor and Ross let it play out maddeningly until it deteriorates entirely into a thin roar of static; the slow-death process recalls William Basinki’s 9/11-associated masterwork The Disintegration Loops. Here, Reznor abandons song form entirely and veers into avant-garde process music for an unsettling finale. “The world is bleeding out,” he sings just before (check out the cover art) the sonic “violence” takes over.

With that last grand gesture, it’s clear that something new may indeed be happening with the prolific, familiar-sounding 2017 Nine Inch Nails, despite some indications to the contrary. Reznor and Ross are dipping their toes into a couple of different stylistic pools, and some of the results are among the most compelling compositions they’ve released this decade. One might not earnestly be hankering for a middle-aged sequel to The Fragile–wild, paradigm-shifting, full of potentially disposable detours, always on the cusp of pretension–but it’s hard not to wish Reznor and Ross, who are definitively free to do whatever they want, had committed more fully to some of the left-field threads here and teased out a larger project with a more daring, rarefied vision. One imagines that Reznor is, as a creative officer at Apple, aware of people’s diminished attention spans in the current era. If consistent, headline-grabbing smaller releases are the way to keep music fans listening and interested in Nine Inch Nails, then keep them coming.