For weeks, we've been feverishly following the ever-twisting web of promotion surrounding Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero.
From a simple message encoded on the back of a T-shirt, that web — or, more specifically, an Alternate Reality Game — has grown to encompass eerie voice mail, Web sites, Morse code clues hidden in MP3s and messages buried deep within music videos, all building an impressive (and generally terrifying) back story of a future society poised on the brink of spiritual, moral, political and environmental Armageddon.
And we're not the only ones hooked by it all. The buzz surrounding Zero is seemingly growing daily, with every blog write-up and each clue revealed (see "Weird Web Trail: Conspiracy Theory — Or Marketing For Nine Inch Nails LP?"). And while a certain amount of that interest can no doubt be attributed to the unbelievable thoroughness of the Year Zero ARG, even more of it is due to the harrowing believability of the concept Reznor's cooked up for the album.
It's not a stretch to say that the pressure is squarely on Reznor to deliver. After all, you'd be hard-pressed to think of another musician who's released an album backed by this much self-imposed, carefully crafted hype. With each week that passes, the stakes grow a little bit higher, the chances of Reznor falling flat on his face a little greater. How could Zero — which is due April 17 — be expected to support such an epic and far-reaching story line, one spanning 15 years and three continents, involving a cast of hundreds? How could it possibly live up to the brilliantly labyrinthine promotional scheme from whence it came?
You get the feeling Reznor sort of wanted it that way. It's probably the most adventurous, experimental and ballsy album released on a major label since Green Day's revelatory American Idiot, which also happens to be its closest kin, in spirit at least. Because for all its growling electronics, squelching guitars and plinking African kalimbas, Year Zero is essentially a punk-rock album, one born of the same bold attitude that drove Green Day to jettison traditional thinking while making Idiot.
But that's about as far as those comparisons can go. Because there's no jaunty, nine-minute rock-opera pieces to be found on Zero, nary a ballad on par with "Wake Me Up When September Ends." Shoot, there are barely any discernable guitars. Instead, almost every sound you hear on the album has been chopped, ripped, pulled, flayed, destroyed, flattened, squeezed or smashed beneath the massive, ominous bit-mapping of Reznor and co-producer Atticus Ross. Sixty-four minutes of disorienting, pummeling Sturm und Drang roiling atop a rumbling, certifiably bone-chilling layer of white noise that recalls the wind whipping through a war zone.
Album-opener "Hyperpower!" is all piston-like drums and bit-crushed power chords, a doom-laden instrumental that builds and builds to a snarling frenzy before falling away into silence. "The Beginning of the End" follows that with a fog of spooky synths and Reznor's order of "On your knees," all hidden behind a wall of feedback and guttural, demonic growls.
The first single, "Survivalism," is next, a certified stomper powered by a startling loud/soft dynamic and a menagerie of electronic baubles (fans of modern-rock radio are already well acquainted with this one). "The Good Soldier" snakes along atop a meaty bass line and squawking guitars, recalling NIN's "Closer." The verses are filled with Reznor moaning/singing couplets like, "Blood hardens in the sand/ Cold metal in my hand." The chorus makes mention of "I am trying to believe" (the first Web site revealed in the Year Zero ARG), and the whole thing dissolves into a bizarrely lounge-y composition featuring vibraphones and synths.
"Vessel" is a dissonant, dead-ringer for a Shocklee Bros. track, featuring blaring, siren-like synths and thudding drums. The chorus seems to make reference to the drug Opal (another cog in the Year Zero ARG) as Reznor's voice rasps, "My God/ Can it go any faster?/ Oh my God/ I don't think I can last here," and the song features another lengthy, somewhat dancey outro.
"Me, I'm Not" is a down-tempo excursion through howling, barely discernable guitar wails and electronic bleep-bloop that bubbles up like air escaping from an undersea vent. "Capital G" takes swings at American pig-headedness ("Don't give a sh-- about the temperature in Guatemala/ Don't really see what all the fuss is about") and a holier-than-thou commander in chief who just might be George W. Bush ("Traded in my God for this one/ And he signs his name with a capital G"). And "The Warning" tells the tale of a visitation from the Presence, who delivers a warning about mankind's selfish destruction of the environment (one of the earliest discovered sites in the ARG makes mention of a police manual that describes Opal users feeling as though they had been visited by a Presence, where they "feel the rape of Gaia").
"God Given" kicks off with a tribal, electronic spook show, then steadily quickens to a rush of guitars and a huge build that disappears as quickly as it came, leaving a glaring moment of silence and a sharply whispered, machine-gun missive from Reznor. "Meet Your Master" is a raucous, unsettling exercise in crunching chords, backed by animalistic howls and bellows and a supercharged chorus, all of which stop on a dime for a spindly, electro solo that builds again before slipping away into "The Greater Good," the album's most disparate track.
Starting off with Reznor imploring us to "Breathe" in barely there pants, the track slithers around on a sinewy bed of electronic noise and synthetic whispers, bringing to mind a windswept desert-scape. Through the subtle noise, a twinkling kalimba builds and builds, until being swallowed by a scraped and scratched ball of noise, which in turn is quickly eclipsed by a gently plucked guitar line. Then it's all submerged in inky blackness, while a looped vocal repeats the mantra "Slowly ... breathe ... a sin."
That's followed by "The Great Destroyer," which features drums that stomp like a mythical behemoth and Reznor singing, "Oh, they cannot see/ I am the Great Destroyer," in a lilting upper register. It crashes about until the second chorus, when Reznor's vocals are suddenly lifted through the stratosphere, and the whole song collapses into a grinding, shockingly placed drill-'n'-bass section that would make Richard D. James (a.k.a. the Aphex Twin) crack an evil smile.
And then we enter the homestretch. "Another Version of the Truth" follows all that clanging with an equally deafening mass of sonic fuzz and the sound of a piano being played in the other room. Perhaps in the haze, there's the buzz of a fly or the drone of a dial tone. The somber piano line is slowly brought to the forefront, as the instrumental track slows to a beautiful maudlin halt. It all falls away, save a single held note, then another wash of white noise and we're on to "In This Twilight," a grandfather-clock creaker spotted with respirator breaths. Reznor sings about what appears to be the detonation of a nuclear device ("And the sky is filled with light/ Can you see it?/ All the black is really white/ If you believe it").
And finally, we stumble into "Zero Sum," all wobbly, fuzzed-out bass and breathy whispers, sounding much like wind trying to move through ash-filled atmosphere. It all gradually rises, the clanging increases, and a multi-voiced army chants, "God have mercy on us." Then there's the slow washout, more somber piano and finally, the slow, low drone of hornets or the whispering wind. And then, nothing.
And in the end, we're left with a whole new series of questions. Has Reznor detonated the world, or are we to believe — as the title implies — that this is the beginning of something new? Has mankind ignored the warnings for too long, or is there still a faint glimmer of hope in the ashes? And, wildly switching gears, will Year Zero have the same effect on Reznor that Idiot did on Green Day? Will it lead a new generation of fans to rediscover his gloriously dissonant body of work?
As with all great art, there are more questions than answers.