Nine Inch Nails are back! The Trent Reznor led industrial-rock giants have made their triumphant return with the masterful Not the Actual Events. The five song EP arrives as the band’s first release since 2013’s Hesitation Marks. Clocking in at a brisk twenty-one minutes, the EP feels more grandiose in scope than its run time would suggest.
It was barely a year ago that Trent Reznor took to Twitter to declare, “New NIN Coming IN 2016.” With the clock running out on 2016, Reznor made good on his promise. Not the Actual Events comes at the perfect time, serving as an early Christmas gift for fans of the band and rock alike. Building on top of the excitement are the surprise guest appearances from a couple of Famous Dave’s included on the EP.
Reznor and company are no strangers to releasing an EP rather than a traditional studio album. Following the surprise success of their 1989 debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, the band opted to follow that up with an eight song EP; 1992’s Broken.
When Broken was released, it was apparent Nine Inch Nails had evolved during the three year gap. Broken produced a heavier, even more industrial-tinged sound. Tracks such as “Happiness in Slavery” and the Grammy Award winning “Wish” were darker, angrier and more manic than the tracks on their debut. Which honestly could not have been as easy task for the band.
Where Broken truly succeeded though is that rose the stakes for Nine Inch Nails. And with that, it rose expectations as it showed what Reznor truly was capable of as a songwriter and band leader. It is a masterfully crafted collection of songs that serve as the line in the sand dividing what people thought they were and what they would ultimately become.
Counting Broken, Not the Actual Events is the band’s tenth album. Realistically, this release will not have the same impact as Broken. Nine Inch Nails, and more specifically Trent Reznor is known for producing a high quality, interesting and absolutely unique vision through his music. At this point, he has nothing to prove. He can sit back and rest on his laurels and continue to be renowned for his amazing body of work.
But if that were the case, then why is Not the Actual Events so great? It’s because Reznor is not someone to rest on his laurels. He’s an artist in every sense of the word. Whereas some bands become content to ride the coattails of their former triumphs, the same can’t be said for Nine Inch Nails. Let’s take a look, track by track at material that comprises Nine Inch Nails’ triumphant return.
Reznor along with frequent collaborator Atticus Ross, in his first official release with the band waste no time getting down grabbing the listener and refusing to let go. With its pounding backbeat and distortion-drenched instrumentation, the opener sounds more like the soundtrack to a post-apocalyptic nightmare than an album opener. That is until Reznor’s vocal comes in. His delivery is so smooth and straight, it almost sounds friendly in comparison to the chaos playing underneath it. His voice aches with cynicism and vulnerability. A classic trait of the Nine Inch Nails sound.
The track oozes with whooshing soundscapes, building momentum and tension until both Reznor and the music take a turn towards the aggressive in the chorus. Reznor agonizes, “Feels like I’ve been here before.” It feels like we’ve been here before as well. And by here, I mean at a place where Nine Inch Nails is completely firing on all cylinders.
For fans who hold 2005’s With Teeth in high regard, “Dear World,” will likely be your favorite song on the EP. The track is pure drum-machine bliss. Synthesizers bounce throughout the track, like sonic ping-pong balls. Eerie but comforting. Familiar yet fresh. Reznor’s haunting vocals start off low in the mix with him merely whispering; increasing gradually but never surpassing normal conversation level.
“Dear World” is Reznor’s battle cry to a world he no longer recognizes yet he cannot escape. His lyrics touch on themes not unfamiliar to the NIN catalog; alienation, discontentment and disillusion. “I’m locked inside here. Have to stay. With people who aren’t here. All the way.” Well said, Trent.
“She’s Gone Away”
What NIN really succeeds at on Not the Actual Events is they set a mood and they stick to it; without sounding stale. Reznor and Ross have a successful established working relationship. Together, they have worked on a number of movie scores. Most notably, a trip of David Fincher films; The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl. “She’s Gone Away” is the track on this EP that most sounds like the duo’s work in the movies.
The track ebbs and flow with an almost tribal like drumbeat. The rhythm sways back and forth setting a hypnotic feel. Distorted guitars and synthesizers bleed over one another pushing the tension to near points of breaking. Reznor’s grainy, guttural delivery as he repeats ”She’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone away” sounds almost Mark Lanegan-ish. Artistic choices such as vocal delivery and vocal effects are what take a seemingly catchy chorus and pushing into another realm. Rather than simply rely on the “hook,” Reznor excels in adding to the atmospheric sound and making a good chorus a great, unique chorus.
“The Idea of You”
“The Idea of You” is the most straight-forward sounding song on the EP; musically speaking. It may also be the best because of this. The truly unsettling single-note piano line throughout the verse is just that; unsettling. If you like to dissect songs and find out what it is that makes them so instantly remarkable, pay close attention to the high-hat throughout the verse. In what sounds like the only track that does uses a live drum set rather than a drum machine, it’s really quite impressive. On top of that, the drums are handled by none other than Dave Grohl! Grohl has a history of helping Reznor dating back to 2005’s With Teeth where he absolutely massacred the drums. The main guitar riff stands out as an album highlight as well.
A reoccurring theme throughout this EP is the use of dynamics. Here, Reznor dabbles in whispering, in not even straight up mumbling with a distorted effect during the verses. The chorus sounds like an explosion, in the vein of say, “Head like a Hole.” Reznor reverts to a rapid-fire delivery along with a sea of background vocals screaming and shouting in beautiful syncopated mayhem. The change in vocal delivery catches you off guard but works magically in its execution. This track has all the makings of a Nine Inch classic, written with the intent to be performed live.
“Burning Bright (Field on Fire)”
The first track released from the EP; and, just wow. The angst in Reznor’s vocal. The surprise sounds of some lead guitar almost catch you off guard. Thank you Dave Navarro. The Jane’s Addiction guitar hero lends some of his frenetic fretwork to the explosive track. The marching rhythms set the backdrop for this crushing track. Your pulse almost syncs beat. The lyrics, similar in tone to “Dear World” are mesmerizing. Reznor declares, “It’s getting hard to know which side is the dream. I can’t tell if I’m dreaming anymore.” Very telling lyrics of the time in which we are living.
The song closes the EP in grand fashion. Epic in proportion. The track has a strong “everything but the kitchen sink feel.” Reznor and Ross pull out all stops, the crushing rhythms, the synthesizers, uncharacteristic-like guitars and a variety of vocal deliveries populate the track. Like pieces of a puzzle, they all come together to not only produce a true masterpiece, but to close out a truly fantastic collection of songs.
Not the Actual Events deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as not only the Broken EP but also The Downward Spiral and Year Zero. The EP flies by as you listen and leaves you wanting more. The chemistry between Reznor and Ross is magnetic. You get the sense that the presence of Ross may have pushed Reznor to produce this material at such high level. Together, along with some help from a couple of living legends, have truly succeeded in creating another classic Nine Inch Nails record.