Nine Inch Nails Are Frenzied and in Focus on ‘Bad Witch’

Nine Inch Nails are an iconic artist that have stood the test of time, embodying a coming-of-age of the goth aesthetic. While the term “goth” is still associated, largely, with the likes of Bauhaus, The Cure, etc, Trent Reznor’s brainchild emerged in the late eighties, and rung in the ‘90s in a way that truly captured the zeitgeist. Anyone who has ever seen the “Closer” video can attest. Along the way, there have been several prolonged hiatuses, and a few quite dramatic reinventions; the spirit of the music, however, has always remained intact: restless, rebellious, subversive, and dark. In recent years, Reznor has teamed up with Atticus Ross for highly celebrated soundtrack work on the likes of “The Social Network,” tapping into a new level of nuance, and a new apex of sonic realization. Ross has recently become an official member of NIN, and the group’s latest offering, “Bad Witch,” delivers Reznor’s characteristic onslaught of aggression, combined with the painstaking detail of the film score work.

Opener “Shit Mirror” drops you headlong into an angst-ridden paroxysm, with Trent Reznor greeting you as a caricature of himself. Make no mistake, you are certainly listening to Nine Inch Nails, and decades of sweaty screaming, ranting and raging have scarcely chipped away at Reznor’s reservoirs of fury. The guitar tone has a buzzy distortion, situated neatly in the industrial space between hard rock and electronic music that has always characterized NIN’s aesthetic. The song is led by a monster riff, pretty punk rock in its simplicity, with a beat of hand claps that sound a bit out of place in the NIN songbook. Handclaps usually lend themselves to a “soulful,” “dancey,” maybe even “groovy” vibe, but here the unabashed rage that accompanies them serves to present them in a somewhat ironic light. It’s the feeling of being so overwhelmed by a wrath that would seem laughable if one didn’t acknowledge the over-the-top absurdity of it all — and what better way to do this than to slightly poke fun at oneself by setting the whole outburst to a beat with a tongue-in-cheek, punchy danceability  Synths enter the mix eventually, making the song take on whole new proportions, and it all comes to an abrupt halt that is so intense in its suddenness that it very well might be one of the most satisfying moments on the record. In a second, a hypnotic, distorted beat picks up, with Reznor alternating between demonic whispering and deranged blues in his trademark way. By the end of the song, any NIN fan will be excited and intrigued.

“Ahead of Ourselves” is a momentous, percussive stomp, with more buzzy guitars, and Reznor speaking and whispering, with his voice spontaneously getting altered, creating a man-versus-machine vibe. One can just picture him tangled in wires, throwing synthesizers against the wall, screaming at the top of his lungs. There’s a bit that he sings slightly off-key, giving the feeling of being slightly outside the operation of things, going through the motions with an eyebrow perpetually raised. Suddenly, a torrent of chainsaw distortion, and dry-lung screaming comes out of thin air, vanishes and remerges in odd-timing. It’s one of the most brutal and intense moments on the record. Details are piled on until there’s a cacophony of buzzing and wheezing tones, with Reznor repeating, “We got ahead of ourselves,” with the sarcastically over-enthusiastic tone of a motivational speaker.

“Play the Goddamned Part” begins with what sounds like renegades fiddling with matchsticks, amplified, on the eve of the apocalypse. There’s a melodic motif, played by a horn section, vaguely reminiscent of the little piano bit from NIN’s classic, “Closer,” and it develops gradually, with the horns getting steadily free and more adventurous. The free jazz stylings are a new direction for Reznor, and one that suits him well. It’s the most dystopian take on jazz imaginable, in the vein of Bowie’s swan song “Blackstar,” and it also inhabits the same sonic space of Radiohead’s “The National Anthem.”The next track, “God Break Down the Door” recalls the latter song even more, with a free-flowing, disaffected, murky trajectory. It also conjures the spirit of Krautrock legends Can, although updated to be more overtly electronic in a way that can be a bit jarring. The synths sound very, very synthy, bordering on self-parody — but this brings us back to the whole man-versus-machine aesthetic. The album is certainly coherent in the mood that it creates with its sounds. Reznor varies his singing here, opting for a more sinuous croon than his usual nasal, frenetic outburst, and he handles it masterfully. It’s a refreshing change, showcasing an unprecedented versatility.

The appropriately titled “I’m Not From This World” is a mechanical, industrial dirge, the most ambient number on the record, with pulsating, seething, twirling sounds. It’s testament to Atticus Ross’ contribution to the band. Reznor has always been attentive to detail, but he and Ross together are another thing altogether. This track recalls their layered, transcendent soundtrack work. Interspersed with the bangers and more immediate numbers of the record, such pieces elevate NIN to new heights, giving a new depth and poignancy to the music. Closer “Over and Out” continues in the ambient vein. The sound gradually opens and brightens, with an infectious synth bass grounding the otherwise distant atmospherics in the here and now. The song is at once immediate and ethereal, hazy and pointed. If earlier songs hinted at the influence of Bowie, Reznor now confirms your suspicions in the most definitive manner possible, channeling the very spirit of the legend in his intonation upon the line “Time is running out.” Then, ambiance envelops the track, and things go full Brian Eno until time eventually does run out.

At just thirty minutes, “Bad Witch” is hardly an “album,” in the conventional sense. It was originally meant to be released as an EP, but Reznor decided that the EP designation didn’t do it justice. Upon listening to the work, you will likely understand his reasoning. After all, it’s not merely running time that dictates what a body of music is; it’s how well the songs constitute a coherent whole. Every sound on the latest release packs a punch. Everything is so concentrated, so saturated, that any extra time would seem like overkill. The album is as intense and angsty as any of NIN’s classic releases, and as meticulously layered as any of Reznor’s work with Ross.

Bad Witch” is available June 22 on Apple Music.