Title: Year zero
Band: Nine Inch Nails
Genre: Industrial Rock / Alternative Rock
Release date: April 17 2007
This April saw the release of ‘Year Zero’, the new album by Trent Reznor’s project NINE INCH NAILS. This album came pretty quick, at least in Trent Reznor’s terms as it often takes 4 to 5 years between album releases, and hit the shops only 23 months after the release of its forerunner ‘With Teeth’. I have to admit that I wasn’t too impressed at first with ‘Year Zero’ musically, I loved a few tracks but the album did not overwhelm me from the start just like earlier NIN albums (just for the record, it was already the same with ‘With Teeth’). But the more you learn about the whole concept and story around ‘Year Zero’ the more it takes you in and fascinates you. ‘Year Zero’ is much more than just the music, in fact much more than only the album in itself. While all NIN albums had some basic theme and a compact overall sound, ‘Year Zero’ is the first real concept album by Trent Reznor. In fact the powerful and mystical concept behind it even outdoes the music, and I can only adumbrate the concept here as so many parts of this puzzle are still missing. Feel free to check out the various internet sites that are part of ‘Year Zero’, and start with the official NIN site and the unofficial NIN wikipedia (links below).
Trent Reznor - vocals, production, songwriting, programming, all instruments
Alan Moulder - mix engineering
Atticus Ross - production, sound design
Brian Gardner - mastering
William Artope - trumpet on "Capital G"
Matt Demeritt - tenor sax on "Capital G"
Josh Freese - drums on "Hyperpower!" and "Capital G"
Geoff Galleos - baritone sax on "Capital G"
Jeff Galleos - brass / winds musical arrangement on "Capital G"
Elizabeth Lea - trombone on "Capital G"
Saul Williams - backing vocals on "Survivalism" and "Me, I'm Not"
Live Personnel “Year Zero Tour”:
Aaron North - Guitar
Jeordie White - Bass, Guitar, Synthesizer
Alessandro Cortini - Synthesizer, Guitar, Bass
Josh Freese - Drums
http://yearzero.nin.com - http://www.ninwiki.com - http://www.yearzero.de/ – http://www.nin.com/ - http://www.myspace.com/nin
Review per song
To put it prosaic, this is a brief instrumental to kick things off. It starts with a drum kit, a distorted guitar comes in, some weird noises and something that sounds like crowd noise join, more guitar, more distortion… it builds up quite nicely, it’s not NIN’s best instrumental by a mile but it sets the mood for the rest of the album. So it does its job!
02. The Beginning of the End
The first proper song on the album - and the title of the song is quite apt. ‘Hyperpower!’ - prepared you for ‘Year Zero’, this one introduces you to this alternate world. Musically it’s vintage NIN with distorted noises, a simple but interesting shuffle rhythm, and with less than three minutes runtime a rather short introduction.
Shuffle rhythms again? This is the single off the album and I guess most people are already familiar with it. It’s pretty electronic, especially the rhythm section with its churning, frothy industrial factory-press hammering, and has a pretty minimal sound for a band like NINE INCH NAILS. Not sure if it was really single-worthy but in the album context it works wonderfully.
04. Good Soldier
“I am trying to believe” is a line from this song, and also the domain-name of the first of many secret internet sites which are part of the ‘Year Zero’ enigma. The URL was only given away by highlighted letters on the back print of a NIN tour shirt! Trying to believe is what ‘Good Soldier’ should do, but there’s also a notion of doubt in it. The music resembles this, it’s moodier than the energetic ‘Survivalism’, but it has also a funky riff and the chimes in the background add a touch of naivety. Not much distortion. Who needs distortion when you question the world you live in?
Distortion all the way! ‘Vessel’ picks up the pace of ‘Good Soldier’ but changes the accent. After the questioning of the song before, awareness comes in, but it is still far from cognition or insight. The central character of the storybook that is ‘Year Zero’ lets something to be pumped in his veins and put in his mouth, he asks in the chorus “my god, can it go any faster?” and in the second verse he claims “I have finally found my place in everything, I have finally my home”. Is this true? Or is this an illusion resulting from a drug he was hinting at in the first verse? Maybe it’s Parepin? Maybe the swelling distorted and psychotic noises at the end of the song hint at the answer.
06. Me, I'm Not
The album stays mid-tempo with ‘Me, I’m Not’. It’s dark, it’s brooding, and it’s not very dissonant despite the cheeping synth sounds and the “wandering” guitar line. “You got something I need, kind of dangerous, and I’m losing control (…) Hey, can we stop? Me, I’m not.” Maybe the answer to ‘Vessel’?
07. Capital G
It starts with a stomping rhythm, it’s anthemic, classic NIN marrying disco funk. ‘Capital G’ breaks out from many patterns that the album has established so far. Also lyrically - the capital G is clearly a reference to George W. Bush, and the lyric also contains references to Guantanamo and some less specific things. But beware! This song is not a comment on recent US politics! It’s a flashback! It comments things that are 15 years ago from the perspective of the narrator! “I used to stand for something, now I’m on my hands and knees, traded in my God for this one, he signs his name with a capital G”.
08. My Violent Heart
Those who were only listening to the music so far and were hoping that ‘Capital G’ was the prelude to NIN Industrial Rock mosh fest might be disappointed. ‘My Violent Heart’ is a full braking; the pace almost stops when the song starts. The vocals are rather whispers. When the chorus comes in hell breaks loose. “On hands and knees we crawl, you cannot stop us all”. Hands and knees again, but this time there’s revolution in the air.
09. The Warning
“Some say it was a warning, some say it’s a sign”. This song introduces “The Presence”, a key element of the ‘Year Zero’ concept. Just look at the cover, or at the picture in the booklet next to the lyrics of this one. Musically this song could be an outtake from the ‘With Teeth’ sessions, and there are rumours that it actually is. On interesting side not, there’s a static noise at the end of ‘The Warning’ which reveals a picture of “The Presence” when ran through a spectrogram! “Your time is tick-tick-ticking away”.
10. God Given
“The Presence” has entered the scene, no surprise that the religious freaks come out of their holes. “I would never tell you anything that wasn't absolutely true that hadn't come right from His mouth and He wants me to tell you” – “Now we know we're right, when His kingdom come, and thy will be done, we have just begun”. This song has a certain Pop appeal but Trent Reznor decided to deconstruct this appeal by the NIN-typical loud/silent dynamics, glitchy synth sounds and a fractured arrangement.
11. Meet Your Master
The lyrics of this song could be either from a government perspective, directed to the people, or from a resistance perspective directed to the government - which makes a lot more sense, since parts of the lyrics are quoted on “Another Version Of The Truth” (not in the track!). The chorus of ‘Meet Your Master’ is pretty hymnic, though anger-fuelled. So far it has been striking that Trent Reznor doesn’t touch new musical ground too often on ‘Year Zero’, and ‘Meet Your Master’ is no exception. It reminds a bit of the ‘The Fragile’ era, though I could be wrong. But most fans will surely love this one!
12. The Greater Good
A very gloomy, layered, atmospheric and almost claustrophobic track. At first listen I mistook it as an instrumental interlude but there actually are vocals. Stupid me! The vocal lines are just a susurrus, hardly audible, and bulge a bit towards the end - a perfect of transformation of the lyrics – “Welcome to your new point view, we have disappeared into you”.
13. The Great Destroyer
‘The Great Destroyer’ starts as a typical Industrial Rock song, picks up opera-esque elements and then the sound dives into a completely destructive, noisy mess. It’s actually a sonic masterpiece by the second or third run you give this track. What seems to be a noisy chaos is perfectly pulled in place, and it’s just consistent that a song called ‘The Great Destroyer’ is destroyed itself before it can fully display its glory. A very ‘Downward Spiral’ moment on the album. But who is “The Great Destroyer”?
14. Another Version of the Truth
The line “Another Version of The Truth” is so significant for the concept of ‘Year Zero’ that it’s surprising that the actual track on the album is an instrumental! It’s a beautiful track, very layered and well structured, and it features a dreamy piano line. Nevertheless there are enough disturbing elements and haunting sounds in the background. Some people noticed that there is morse code between 3:33 and 3:55 with a hidden message - just another part of the puzzle. The track ends with nothing else but the piano and hushed, somehow menacing buzzy sound in the background.
15. In This Twilight
This starts with a looped and very low-key bell sound and soon develops into a mid-tempo anthem Trent Reznor is so famous for. It is one of the outstanding songs on the album, also in the sense that it works excellently outside the ‘Year Zero’ context. Fans will love this one! “And the sky is filled with light, can you see it? All the black is really white, if you believe it!” The chorus sounds uplifting but there’s a certain twist in the lyrics.
The song tile indicates that this is like the summary of ‘Year Zero’ - or the enlightment to the whole concept behind it. Well, not quite. The song leaves you with a sense of discomfort and confusion. In this regard it does summarize the album! Musically it is Trent Reznor at its best although it’s a challenging piece of music; there are a lot of things going on in this one. A beautiful piano line (again) is contrasted by bleepy, barbed sound patterns and a distant, vocoded and whispering voice. The chorus comes in, it sounds uplifting and clear but the words are again the opposite, full of doom and hopelessness:
“Shame on us
Doomed from the start
May God have mercy
On our dirty little hearts
Shame on us
For all we've done
And all we ever were
Just zeros and ones”
“It takes place about 15 years in the future. Things are not good. If you imagine a world where greed and power continue to run their likely course, you’ll have an idea of the backdrop. The world has reached the breaking point—politically, spiritually and ecologically. Written from various perspectives of people in this world, Year Zero examines various viewpoints set against an impending moment of truth.”
- Trent Reznor on ‘Year Zero’
Total playing time: 63:42
Extras: Thermo-chrome disc, digipack
As mentioned before, Trent Reznor doesn’t tread on new ground on NIN’s new album - musically! The whole idea behind ‘Year Zero’ on the other hand is outstanding and ultimately detailed. And we only have the first few details of the whole story in our hands. ‘Year Zero’ is the marriage of political awareness and science fiction - well, and Industrial Rock, apparently. The question behind it is “Where will we go if we continue like this?” Trent Reznor made up a science fiction story to give a possible answer. He doesn’t tell this story simply by writing a book, or with a concept album. He uses state-of-the-art techniques of today’s globalized world, and a kind of guerrilla tactics. T-shirts with highlighted letters giving away the URL of a domain, USB sticks with songs hidden in the bathroom at NIN shows, voice mail messages, numerous websites popping up through context, details you don’t notice on first sight on the official NIN site or in the booklet of the album leading to more parts of the puzzle, and so and so forth.. An amazing wealth of different things, and we’re just at the beginning of this “alternate reality game”.
The most unfair thing that has been said about ‘Year Zero’ is that all the websites and cryptic messages are just part of a marketing campaign. People who think that couldn’t be more wrong; it’s not about selling records. The album ‘Year Zero’ is just the anchor point of the whole concept, it’s impossible to understand the nature of the Year Zero World without all the extras. If you don’t care about the concept and story behind it, ‘Year Zero’ is still an excellent album. It’s less poppy than 2005’s ‘With Teeth’, it’s reminiscent of NIN’s best moments on ‘The Downward Spiral’ (1994) and ‘The Fragile’ (1999) although ‘Year Zero’ as a whole is not on par with these two classic NIN albums. But still a candidate for “album of the year 2007”!
[all links used in the text above are part of the ‘year zero’ world]