Nine Inch Nails flirts with new sounds

In acoustics, the term “white noise” designates an audio signal containing all frequencies of sound audible to the human spectrum, in the same way that in optics “white light” designates light containing all frequencies of light visible in the human spectrum. Similarly, the term “black noise,” while it might sound harsh, would in fact mean complete silence.

“Black Noise,” the final track on Nine Inch Nails’ newest album, Hesitation Marks, illustrates this concept perfectly. The same synth from the previous track loops over and over, underscored by a foreboding crescendo of mechanical noise. The noise slowly overtakes every other element of the track, building and building until suddenly, it cuts away to silence — the true black noise.

No hesitation · Nine Inch Nails sounds inventive in Hesitation Marks, which tries to balance musical ideas from different eras. - Courtesy of Columbia Records

No hesitation · Nine Inch Nails sounds inventive in Hesitation Marks, which tries to balance musical ideas from different eras. – Courtesy of Columbia Records

From one angle, Hesitation Marks represents band leader and only official member Trent Reznor’s attempt to balance white noise and black noise. Songs such as “In Two” and “Disappointed” spotlight similar build-ups of industrial dissonance. These droning wails excite listeners’ ears rather than hurting them, deluging them like tidal waves before disappearing into nothingness.

Hesitation Marks is the first Nine Inch Nails album since the band’s hiatus was announced in February of 2009. Reznor used his time off to start a new project called How To Destroy Angels with his wife, Mariqueen Maandig and British producer Atticus Ross. More famously, Reznor and Ross turned their talents to film scoring for David Fincher’s The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, taking home an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the first and a Grammy for the second. In a post on the band’s website in May of this year, however, Reznor announced the new album and remarked, “My forays into film, HTDA and other projects really stimulated me creatively and I decided to focus that energy on taking Nine Inch Nails to a new place. Here we go!”

And there they went. To guarantee the success of the new album, Reznor assembled an all-star cast of personnel to handle the direction of the new album. Atticus Ross returned as a producer, as did My Bloody Valentine and Yeah Yeah Yeahs producer Alan Moulder. Russell Mills, the album artist of NIN’s 1994 magnum opus The Downward Spiral returned to create all five alternate versions of the album’s cover. The most shocking of the new collaborators, however, is Lindsey Buckingham, guitarist and singer for ’70s pop band Fleetwood Mac. The new group of collaborators created a strong creative environment for Reznor.

Reznor strikes another balance on Hesitation Marks with the reconciliation of his familiar ’90s industrial sound with the sounds he and other artists explored over the past decade and a half. “I Would For You” plays the menacing synthesizers of Nine Inch Nails’ 1989 debut Pretty Hate Machine against a delicate piano that recalls 2010’s score to The Social Network. The reserved pomp of “Satellite” recalls 2000s era Muse. The album’s standout track and severest departure from the ’90s NIN sound, however, is “Everything,” sporting a Strokes-esque backbeat and a chorus resembling (believe it or not) the Backstreet Boys more than Marilyn Manson. Most importantly, Hesitation Marks brings the lo-fi buzzes and hums of ’90s Nine Inch Nails and cleans up the production to 21st-century standards.

Lyrically, the album resembles Reznor’s earlier output, minus the focus on addiction, madness and death that marked The Downward Spiral. In true Nine Inch Nails fashion, many of the lyrics smell of the same angst that everyone thought vanished when Linkin Park stopped being relevant. Lines such as, “If I could be somebody else / Well I think I would for you,” and, “I’m running out of places I can hide from this,” read like Reznor still writes lyrics in the same tattered composition book he got for his fourteenth birthday. The lyrics only seem overwrought, however, when he gets too long-winded. Reznor’s greatest lyrical strengths on the album are his short anthemic mantras, such as the quiet interlude of “Various Methods of Escape,” repeating, “I think I could lose myself in here,” or, “stretch across the sky,” from “All Time Low.” Many lyrics reflect personal struggles but are short on personal details, most notably the lead single, “Came Back Haunted,” which describes Reznor’s abandonment of and eventual return to Nine Inch Nails. Songs such as “Copy of A” describe more universal feelings of irrelevance in the face of a rapidly encroaching 21st century. In another shocking connection, penultimate track “While I’m Still Here” borrows the line, “God forgive me if I cry,” from country legend Hank Williams’ song, “Weary Blue from Waitin’.”

Among the pantheon of Nine Inch Nails albums, Hesitation Marks deserves a spot near the top. Not next to the tragic suicide saga that is The Downward Spiral or the frenetic synthesized nightmare of Pretty Hate Machine, but easily in the same realm. The album does have a few weaker cuts, but it has a few more amazing ones: “Everything,” “In Two,” “Find My Way” and “Various Methods of Escape.” Lyrically, Hesitation Marks is no masterpiece. But the album constructs a vastly expansive soundscape that is occasionally beautiful and occasionally terrifying.

You could lose yourself in here.


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