Trent Reznor occupies a strange place in the hard rock pantheon. Neither the non-threatening, arena filling cool uncle that Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder have become, nor the bloated embarrassment of his more goth leaning contemporaries Billy Corgan and Marilyn Manson, Reznor has remained a relevant, dark and foreboding household name, composing Oscar winning film scores and losing none of his “scary guy” street cred in the process.
When listening to NIN’s last LP, 2013’s Hesitation Marks, you may have been forgiven for thinking that Reznor didn’t have anything left to be angry about. A fine record in its own right, with a handful of standout tracks that sounded amazing during that summer’s tour with Soundgarden, HM still felt somewhat vague in its message and placid in its musicality. Was this Reznor phoning it in? If so it was still pretty great, but gone was the tortured, blackened soul fueled by outrage with just a hint of vulnerability that made Reznor a god on tracks like “Wish” and “March of the Pigs”.
45 seconds into Not The Actual Events, the “surprise” NIN EP that Reznor dropped last Friday, and you can tell that the “Mr. Self Destruct” of old is back in his burned out bunker of a home. The reasoning behind Trent’s return to righteous rage, be they professional, personal or political, I don’t know, and quite frankly I don’t care. I don’t need “Nine Inch Nails: Some Kind Of Monster”, but what I do need is some weird, abrasive, heavy shit to bang my head to like a twelve year old again, and Not The Actual Events fits the bill quite nicely.
Trent may have spent the last 10 years of his career rubbing elbows with Hollywood A-Listers, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still hand you a fucking beating, and not just because he’s built like a linebacker nowadays. Opener “Branches/Bones” grinds in with chainsawing guitars and bouncy punk basslines, Reznor transitioning between disturbed whispers and screaming his head off in what is thematically a more madcap and unhinged riff on “Everyday Is Exactly The Same”.
At a brisk 1:46 “Branches/Bones” begs to be replayed ad infinitum, and from a pure metallic, thrashing standpoint is hands down the high point of the record for me as someone who is primarily a metal fan leaning more towards the thrash/grind end of the spectrum. But the 5 tracks and 21 minutes of “Not The Actual Events” definitely hold further surprises and pleasures, no matter what kind of Nine Inch Nails is your Nine Inch Nails.
Reznor’s not just playing the hits here, experimentation abounds in “Dear World,”, with a head nodding groove element to rival “Only” over odd field tests in voice modulation and spoken word strangeness that meld into a hypnotic whole. An unease and dread nowhere to be found on Hesitation Marks permeates “She’s Gone Away” as primal drum loops and lyrical content and delivery assume vaguely predatory sexuality, calling to mind Broken classics “Suck” and “Physical”.
Reznor’s wife and How To Destroy Angels cohort Mariqueen Maandig guests on “She’s Gone Away” and both that track and “Dear World,” call to mind the slinking, reptilian and sometimes unsettling sensuality bubbling beneath the surface on most of that under-appreciated side project’s output. Though not always as explicit as on “Closer” and “Big Man With A Big Gun”, the serious undercurrent of sex and danger was a big part of Reznor’s 90’s persona that I found missing in his post Downward Spiral material, and it makes a welcome return here.
“The Idea of You” features live drums by Dave Grohl. That’s really all you should need to know. A rollicking stop/start staccato performance backed up by sinister piano keys, a shouted Reznor tirade and another pit ready metal riff, leading to a long instrumental section towards the end where Uncle Dave gets to show why he’s still the best hard rock drummer in the world. Unexpected and awesome.
Not The Actual Events‘ nadir comes in the form of its first (presumably only) single, “Burning Bright (Field on Fire)”. The song’s bones have been picked clean by everyone online by now but suffice it to say that it’s droning, arduous and sometimes triumphant. Simultaneously a self-flagellation and a victory lap for Reznor, and the perfect closer to this challenging, often confounding but ultimately rewarding EP.
Much has been made of the fact that this is the first Nine Inch Nails release to include Atticus Ross, Reznor’s longtime collaborator on his non-NIN work, as an official member of the “band”, the only other “member” listed besides Reznor himself. Maybe the best art is truly born out of collaboration, or maybe having another set of eyes (and ears) on this material stopped Trent from becoming too complacent. Either way, I’m happy to have Ross aboard, and will be anxiously awaiting the rest of the new Nine Inch Nails that Reznor says is coming in 2017.
Not The Actual Events is available digitally now, and through vinyl pre-orders here.