Add Violence is the most interesting work of Nine Inch Nails’ career

“AMPLIFY CHAOS.” “TERMINATE EVENT.” “SIMULATION ON.” “SATISFACTION.” “DEVIATION.” “ADD VIOLENCE.”

These are just some of things found on the mysterious and clue-laden cover art for Nine Inch Nails’ new EP Add Violence, an image of an analog machine simulating reality unlike any other found in the band’s extensive back catalog. Industrial, daunting, detached and intimidating, it’s an image that resonates with the material found inside — haunting, technologically terrified and filled with questions of reality, accountability, apocalypse and dread, Add Violence makes good on the promise of a follow up to 2016’s phenomenal Not the Actual Events EP.

With a dark, schizophrenic aesthetic suggestive of alternate identities, suppressed memories and a confessional quality, Not the Actual Events crafted an uneasy and seductive atmosphere of grime, contradiction and consumption. Denial, succumbing to the inevitable, futility of one’s own attempts at betterment and ascribing actions to separate identities are all classical themes for founding member and lead Trent Reznor, and Not the Actual Events explored them more interestingly and with more intensity than any release from Nine Inch Nails in years. With a defiant attitude and an accompanying art collection known as the Physical Component – itself as ominous and brooding, a warning label affixed to a black envelope that contained soot-stained lyric cards and a translucent sheet of a distorted image of Reznor and now-official member Atticus Ross – it instantly became one of the most unique and singular offerings in Reznor’s long and legendary career.

Serving as the second piece in a planned trilogy, Add Violence expands those horizons and adds clarity to the image of the concept at hand, one that’s not unfamiliar for the band — from 1992’s Broken to 2005’s With_Teeth to 2007’s Year Zero, Reznor & Co. have been exploring themes of reality being beyond our control, the end of the world approaching, existence as a question mark and alternate selves for decades. Add Violence is proving that the EP trilogy contains the clearest presentations of these themes from Reznor yet, helping it grow into something vivid, detailed and elaborate.

But rather than retreading the crime scene spaces of … Events, Add Violence continues the lyrical themes while broadening the sonic spectrum, fooling the listener into expecting something brighter, cleaner and more accessible with the opening track “Less Than.” It provides the catchiest, most infectious tune from Trent Reznor since 2013 Hesitation Marks’ “Copy of a,” building into more layers than anything found on its respective record, a blissful explosion of cool, languidly apocalyptic lyrics, imagery and moods, Reznor’s voice booming, punkish and harmonizing. Part of Nine Inch Nails’ success, from the very first single, “Down in It,” has been due to Reznor’s unashamed marriage of the abrasive and the experimental with the trappings and endearing qualities of poppy hooks and melodies.

While acts like Ministry were turning up the noise to levels that only devout fans of industrial could appreciate, Reznor was making songs like “Closer” into mainstream hits, nestled in the tracklisting of 1994’s The Downward Spiral alongside raging and anti-commercial gems “March of the Pigs” and “Ruiner.” That ability – to slip the subversive into the mainstream, to know how to blend and combine seemingly disparate musical sensibilities into one grand object greater than the sum of its parts – has been a hallmark of musical geniuses since the birth of the modern music industry, and Trent Reznor has more than secured his place among the pantheon.

“Less Than” is an exercise in how that marriage pays off. Reznor has, at times, been criticized for something of a formula – and for such an experimental, versatile musician, it’s fair to dislike when they repeat themselves – but “Less Than” is proof of when the pop-structure formula works, and why we find ourselves enamored with songs that abide by it still. Bubblegum goth, it’s a moody piece of sugary bliss, industrial candy, and what it lacks in nutrition is made up for in short-term euphoria. By the midpoint of the first listen, it’s impossible to not want to dance and sing along, hooks that get caught in mouths cast out, Reznor’s voice familiar, throaty and powerful, booming over the merge of synths, drum loops and guitar riffs that are to be expected from NIN.

It’s an echo back to the synthpop origins of the band, reminiscent of Pretty Hate Machine’s stylings and yet refreshingly modern, a 2017 take on the classic structure, textured and towering, suggestions of corruption, issues without solutions, the end of the world and a welcoming of it on display (a direct nod to Reznor’s other band, How to Destroy Angels, getting sang off without missing a beat). While vague enough to remain open to interpretation, the lyrics seem pointed politically, and not at leaders themselves, but at those who vote for them, questioning, “So what are you waiting for? You got what you asked for. Did it fix what was wrong with you? Are you less than?”

The song is an end of the world anthem in neon, layers searching, gothy and dripping with smiling cynicism, and it’s wonderful – only made better by the fact that absolutely no other song on the EP is even remotely close to being as radio-friendly. The moment it ends, the rest of the EP immediately crosses into territories less commercial, less short-term in their effect and more lasting.

As “Less Than” ends abruptly, noise blasting, “The Lovers” cuts it all back, no crossfades present, Trent Reznor quickly entering in with spoken word vocals submerged beneath the mix. Electronic noises similar to “The Eater of Dreams” bloop along, unsettling, Reznor’s words hard to hear, harder to comprehend, getting swallowed whole by a bath of building anxiety and intensity. “The Lovers” is smoldering, an exercise in packing on and then pulling back, a chorus that should feel angelic and relieving instead feeling sinister, twisted and corrupted. “Finally, everyone seems to be asleep,” he sings, recalling the “Yes, everyone seems to be asleep” found on “Dear World,”. It takes gracefulness and turns it into a horror story of embracing dissociation, delighting in detachment, finding romance in insanity.

There is no other song in the NIN discography quite like it – the strings are Fragile-esque, but any familiarity to be found here only cements the sense of an alien, incomparable feel to the rest of it. The sense of sonic security that “Less Than” provided proves to be a lie, “The Lovers” obliterating it. Reznor echoes the ending of Burning Bright (Field on Fire), repeatedly singing “I am free,” but where it felt defiant on Burning Bright, it feels disingenuous on “The Lovers,” the sound of someone insisting that their addiction is, in fact, their liberty.

It glides into “This Isn’t the Place,” the most heart-wrenchingly earnest and reaching song from the band since “Home” in 2005. “This Isn’t the Place” begins with Reznor’s distinctive piano trickling in, the instrumental intro sounding like the logical consummation of Reznor and Ross’s original score material and Year Zero, ethereal and electronic, distant and apocalyptic. There’s a claustrophobia found in the droning synths and detached guitars, haunting and lingering, holding the same empty hospital feel that “We Fade Away” from How to Destroy Angels’ album Welcome Oblivion evoked.

Tapping into the emotional vulnerability of Before the Flood’s track “A Minute To Breathe,” Reznor delivers the most fragile and sensitive vocal performance to be found on any NIN record since 1999’s The Fragile, giving up sweeping and epic statements and furious and driving rage for small, quiet moments of falsetto that’s gorgeously mournful, a man without a defense mechanism on display. “I thought we had more time,” he laments, a million miles away from the eruptive and volcanic assertions of antagonistic freedom found at the end of Not the Actual Events.

It’s the closest thing to a return to the delicate and powerful compositions found on the beloved but lesser-known 2002 release Still., a collection of material filled with unique, frail and beautifully heart-wrenching pieces, but merged with the digital sensibilities of modern NIN, and could possibly be the finished version of teased-but-never-heard With_Teeth era track “My Dead Friend.” Reznor’s most emotionally puncturing moments have often come not from the loudest songs, but from the somber ones that follow, and “This Isn’t the Place” taps into that space, no distortion hiding the feelings at hand, no self-destructive storms of choruses and crashing guitars disguising the human loneliness below. These moments add a dimension and a depth to NIN that few of their 90’s contemporaries ever were willing to show, and they’re part of what has made Nine Inch Nails so enduring, so lasting and potent in their effect. Reznor doesn’t just craft angsty, angry music — he makes honest, revealing music, and “This Isn’t the Place” is a perfect example of that honesty producing incredible results.

The second single from Add Violence, it feels to Reznor’s quieter, more poignant songs as “Burning Bright” did to his louder, more explosive songs – it’s a culmination of the style as seen across his entire career, transmuted and blended into something more than before. Ross’s presence is felt in the ambient, echoing production and the clean, sterile sound to it all, images of cold machines and impersonal tapes looping filling the head. As sound designers, Reznor and Ross have no contemporaries, and their ability to pursue, explore and illustrate the concept of Add Violence through noise, production and musical cues is second to none, master storytellers using notes instead of words, speaking in a different language but writing just as powerfully as any authors could.

A concern with “Less Than” at release was the suggestion that the sound of Not the Actual Events was abandoned forever – but what follows “This Isn’t the Place” is clear evidence that noise is still in the mix. “Not Anymore” sounds like what can only be described as an insult to the idea of clarity, the mix dirty, the verses staggered, stumbling and off-kilter, the chorus a sludgy and doom-filled assault. “I can’t seem to wake up,” Reznor shouts again and again as guitars blast, a bed of electronics being lain before the entire song erupts back and out of them, a sound that is dangerous, fresh and unprecedented in the NIN discography taking over. “Not Anymore” is a direct continuation of where “Burning Bright” left off, messy and violent, and it adds to the fugue-state amnesiac event that these EPs seems to be detailing.

“The Background World” returns to Reznor and Ross’s distinctively clean sense of space and layering, drums and synths thumping in unity, Reznor’s voice aching out while guitars drone and loop.

“I know what’s coming; I feel it reaching through; There is no moving past; There is no better place; There is no future point in time; We will not get away.”

A string section in the middle of the mix provides a stunning, beautiful reprieve from the anxious noise of “Not Anymore.”

“Are you sure this is what you want?”

Reznor’s vocals have never sounded clearer, and yet they regularly get tossed away again, the sound of a man finding a sense of certainty, only to have it wrenched away once more. “Are you sure?” is torn into its own statement, an existential question of identity, of reality, of belief in anything. The unsteady footing of these songs across both EPs momentarily seems to be escaped from, only for the entire composition of “The Background World” to eat it all alive. Four minutes in, what is a powerful and building song suddenly disintegrates. The simulation restarts. Any sense of structure, any sense of sonic certainty, any sense of what a song is even allowed to be gets beaten to death inside of your skull with a sledgehammer, the exact same segment of music looping, repeating, skipping again and again and again.

You become convinced that new sounds are emerging, but they’re not – you’re just noticing different layers of the same snippet of music. Progressively, more and more distortion is introduced. The sound dissolves. The layers merge. Any difference between instruments begins to disappear. For anyone who has ever dealt with anxiety, or PTSD, or depression, or derealization, or has simply had the sense that terrible things were happening, and that they had happened before, and that they were happening again, and that you were trapped inside of a nightmare that you could never, ever wake up from, “The Background World” will sound like familiar territory – this is that nightmare, and this is it repeating, again and again and again, wearing itself and you along with it down every single time. It’s a transmission from nowhere being sent out to no one and being picked up by nothing. It’s the end of the world in stereo.

It speeds up.

It’s gone.

After two EPs of surprises, changes in styles, challenges to expectations and bold new sounds, “The Background World” makes you forget all of them. None of the other songs matter once it’s finished. None of the other songs exist. “The Background World” shreds the entire concept apart, and that itself is the concept – things falling apart, systems failing, and all of it repeating. “I can’t seem to wake up.”

This is what’s at the bottom of the downward spiral. This is what happens when the noise inside your head catches up with you. This is where you go when you head into the void. This is reality in a blender, your psyche scrambled, your sense of reality called into question, your own existence doubted.

All of this is meant in a good way.

This is everything Nine Inch Nails has always been about, and it has never been said this well before.

Add Violence is the continuation of the most interesting thing Nine Inch Nails has ever made. It is available now in digital formats and preorders for a physical tie-in can be found on nin.com. Nine Inch Nails are currently on tour for a limited run of US festival dates. The third and final installment in this trilogy is to be expected late 2017/early 2018.

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