Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Nine Inch Nails' 'Bad Witch' - Album Review

I am not sure that there is a more creative and vital force in alternative music at the moment than Trent Reznor. As a songwriter, composer, and producer, he has in many ways helped to define alternative music for the past three decades, and he continues to innovate and impress. There are few who can create music that can be so abrasive and alienating, and still be considered somewhat mainstream - but Reznor has somehow managed this. Who would have thought that the man who wrote, produced, and performed an album as caustic as 1994's The Downward Spiral would go on to win an Oscar in 2011 for the soundtrack to the film The Social Network? I doubt there were many people that genuinely predicted something like that would happen, but it shows how Reznor's music has crept into the conscious of so many. Reznor's main creative outlet over the years has been Nine Inch Nails, a band which continues to break convention and define genres today. After a couple of quiet years following the conclusion of their 2014 touring activities promoting 2013's Hesitation Marks (which I reviewed here), Reznor announced at the end of 2016 that a trilogy of EPs was in the works which would represent a new era for Nine Inch Nails. The first of these EPs, Not the Actual Events (which I reviewed here), was released shortly afterwards and saw Nine Inch Nails at their heaviest and most aggressive for some time. Raw guitars and pummelling electronic drums filled the EP's five songs, and certainly took fans back to the band's earlier works. Not the Actual Events was also significant because it was the first Nine Inch Nails release to credit Reznor's long-time collaborator Atticus Ross as an official member of the band. Reznor always been the sole true member of Nine Inch Nails, and Ross' elevation to such felt like a significant moment in the band's long history. Ross has been involved with every Nine Inch Nails release since 2005's With Teeth in a behind-the-scenes capacity, but Not the Actual Events saw him as a co-writer and co-performer of the material alongside Reznor. This EP was followed closely by Add Violence (which I reviewed here) last year, which focused more on the electronic and synthesised elements of the band's sound. The dense computerised soundscapes mixed in with occasional poppy melodies made for an interesting listen, and one that was very different from the raw, in-your-face style found on Not the Actual Events. It did not take long for Reznor and Ross to complete their trilogy, as last month saw the released of Bad Witch - although it has now been elevated to a full album rather than being released as an EP. It is still fairly short however, at just over 30 minutes in length, but there is a lot crammed into the six songs present. Soundwise, Bad Witch seems like a mix of the previous two EPs along with smokey, almost-jazzy sounds to take the Nine Inch Nails sound into rarely-explored territories.

The album's opening couple of songs are full of the pent-up, punky energy of the material found on Not the Actual Events. Shit Mirror opens proceedings with a barrage of distorted guitars and punchy electronic percussion that creates a powerful energy. Ian Astbury (The Cult; Holy Barbarians) and Mariqueen Maandig (West Indian Girl; How to Destroy Angels) add some additional vocals to the song, mixing in well with Reznor's trademark howls, with dense industrial soundscapes adding to the rawer rock of the guitars. It is a short song, at just over three minutes in length, but a lot is packed into the piece. A tribal-esque percussive mid-section is a particular highlight which sees Reznor chanting atop a catchy drum backing as the instrumentals build up behind him, culminating in a swagger hard rock guitar riff. The album moves immediately into Ahead of Ourselves which keeps up the high pace put pairs back the aggression somewhat with bass-led verses and occasional bursts of tortured lead guitar. Moments of the song are heavy however, with heavily distorted metal guitar chords cutting through the mix which really turn the clock back to The Downward Spiral. The bursts of metal really characterised that album, and it is great to see Reznor making use of that style again here. No-one does angry quite like Reznor, and his screamed vocals during these heavier sections really hit home and are easily the most abrasive moments on the album. The first of two instrumentals follows, and Play the Goddamned Part is a trippy piece of dark industrial electronica that slows the pace down and creates an unsettling atmosphere. Sombre, discordant piano lines are present throughout, with lots of other instruments joining the fray as the piece goes on. Synths and crackling, static-esque noises often fill the voids between the piano notes, but elsewhere the song descends into a murky jazz club from Hell with a demented horn section that fills the speakers with wonderfully abrasive melodies. Horn sections are not something that Nine Inch Nails have employed regularly, but the use works well here and really helps to create a strange, unsettling mood.

The horn section remains for lead single God Break Down the Door which mixes mournful saxophone lines with an upbeat percussion loop, driving basslines, and Reznor's strange vocals. It is well known that David Bowie is one of Reznor's biggest influences, and there is something about the late Englishman in Reznor's vocal delivery here. Gone is his usual part-sung part-spoken delivery, and instead we are presented with a dark, almost gothic, croon that fits the lyrics and distorted lounge-esque backing of the piece. Those familiar with Bowie's 2016 release Blackstar will instantly recognise the style here, although Reznor's interpretation of the sound is somewhat heavier with meaty synths and drum loops often crashing in to up the ante somewhat. I''m Not From This World is the second instrumental piece, and it is a song that revels in minimalist soundscapes to create a dense atmosphere. The dark, ambient, four-part instrumental album Ghosts I-IV, released in 2008, is probably the best comparison to make here. Droning synths drive the piece forward, while horror-esque sound effects often join the fray to create an unnerving feeling that is a good follow-up to the crooned despair of the previous number. The piece does slowly build up, with mechanical percussive sounds joining in towards the end, but on the whole this is a song that does quite a lot with very limited resources. I have to be honest and say that this end of the band's style does very little for me on the whole, but I appreciate what this song adds to the album as it builds am atmospheric bridge between the previous number and the final piece, Over and Out. Over and Out is packed full of classic Nine Inch Nails tropes, with a catchy synth riff providing an initial hook along with a groovy drum and bass backing. Reznor's vocals are sparse, but when he does sing he again employs the Bowie-esque croon found earlier on in the album. The extremely downbeat vocal provides a nice contrast with the catchy instrumental backing - although this soon gives way to another dense soundscape which sounds like guitar feedback mixed in with cold synths. This dense soundscape slowly fades out as the song comes to a close, with a more light-hearted, shimmering sound present as the song ends. This move from a dark sound towards the light works well, and ends the album on a more hopeful note than what otherwise would have been quite a downer. Overall Bad Witch, despite it's short length, is a powerful album from Reznor and Ross which fits a lot of sounds and styles into a short space of time. Long time fans will appreciate the nods to the band's past throughout, as well as styles that are not regularly part of the band's repertoire.

The album was released on 22nd June 2018 via The Null Corporation/Capitol Records. Below is the band's promotional soundclip for God Break Down the Door.

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