Nine Inch Nails devotees have been well aware of Trent Reznor’s prowess in the field of instrumental music for decades, long before his recent Grammy-winning stint scoring film. Between the furious buzzsaw eruptions of the industrial rock tracks led by his iconic bellow, the brilliant producer has managed to slip in some of his best work in the form of instrumental pieces. Tension building segue’s like Broken’s ‘Help Me, I Am in Hell’ or the glowing glimpse of nirvana of The Downward Spiral’s ‘A Warm Place’. From then on, he would dole out his vocal-less work in larger spurts. The double album The Fragile was a boon for his instrumental work with powerful tracks like ‘Pilgrimage’, ‘The Mark Has Been Made’, ‘Complication’ and ‘Ripe (With Decay)’. ‘Just Like You Imagined’, with its tempestuous piano solo courtesy of Mike Garson is one of Nine Inch Nails’s finest works, lyrics or no lyrics. There was so much inspiration in that well that Reznor produced a third album during that period, the tempered Still record.
It was this album that steered his trajectory into the world of motion picture soundtracks. Still is composed of four stripped-down reworkings of previously released tracks with very “live in the room” sounding vocals, one new vocal track (the immense ‘And All That Could Have Been’) and four new instrumentals. These four tracks possessed the same maritime feel of The Fragile yet communicated in a much more subtle way, as if adrift at sea disappearing in the fog. It was evident that he had found a new avenue for his talents. If you aren’t acquainted with Still yet, do yourself a favour and check it out. A perfect album for these days in limbo.
The following releases were almost entirely devoid of instrumental works. Both 2005’s hooky industrial rock rehab album With Teeth and 2007’s dystopian cyber-drama concept album Year Zero had too much to say to allow space that was lacking a lyrical message. However, there was a backlog of instrumental works piling up, begging for a release. In 2008, NIN released Ghosts I-IV, a sprawling collection of dark ambient works spring-boarding off of the vibe of Still. Reznor collaborated closely with Atticus Ross (who is currently the only other permanent member) and mix engineer Alan Moulder. Live keyboardist Alessandro Cortini and prog legend Adrian Belew (King Crimson, Talking Heads, David Bowie) also figured prominently in its creation. With Ghosts, Reznor had room to create sonic environments that you could swim around in. This led to a string of soundtracks commissioned including The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, Bird Box, Mid90s, and even Ken Burns’ Vietnam series.
Trent and co. have released these two volumes as a surprise, timing them perfectly when we are all in mandatory isolation and are ripe to let our minds drift untethered into uncharted territory. Ghosts V and VI offer a yin and yang dichotomy with their white vs. black colour schemes and their divergent titles. Volume V titled Together stays hovered in an ethereal cloud with music box melodies and titles that reference communion, perseverance and better days ahead. Volume VI inhabits darker territory. Under the moniker Locusts, this album gets jarring, anxious and foreboding with reference to a biblical doom. The titles, though possibly rendered in short order in response to the pandemic, are tremendously apt and allow your ever-buzzing thoughts of late to pour themselves out into the empty vessel of these wordless choruses.
GHOSTS V: TOGETHER
This album really does feel like one continuous piece. It floats in a nebulous space, filled with synth pads and verbed-out piano. It isn’t until the final track ‘Still Right Here’ that we are met with real discernible guitar and drums. ‘Letting Go While Holding On’ offers a Buddhist type of meditative energy. Gently breathing baritone pads support the cautiously optimistic synth line and jangling wind chime in the background. A welcoming sense of home. As is often the case, the sheen of perfection wanes and those pure synths turn more strained and dire as the song works its way out. The title track offers a similar glimmer of hope. Reznor’s piano has had all of its edges rounded off and softened. In previous releases, he favoured keeping some of the mid-rich “tonk” of the piano to cut through the mix but here its all muted and mellow. Cumulus pads keep the melody adrift as winds pick up and dissipate, leaving us miles away.
‘Apart’ begins to show signs of discord. Unison lines that sink a semitone like the strings during a tense scene of a thriller. Warm flute tones populate the middle section, implying a nervous flutter of anticipation. This quiver is met by the burly swells of a tuba-like moan. A slight warble grows to a warping of space-time, sending ripples throughout the sonisphere. Things are being torn apart at the molecular level. Really great ambient art often gives the sense of being a soundtrack to the physical world on scales we don’t perceive, be they infinitesimal or infinite. ‘Your Touch’ perhaps harkens back the most to the Fragile/Still era with low string progressions and ocean wave-evoking atmospherics. Like a sequel to Still’s devastating final track ‘Leaving Hope’
‘Still Right Here’ closes out the first album of this dual release. Very likely a reference to the Downward Spiral hit ‘Hurt’ (“You are someone else/I am still right here’). A nod to an affecting line 26 years in the future. A tubular guitar emerges out of the fog and is met with some of the static contortions Nine Inch Nails fans have known for decades. Then, like a veil being lifted, drums and beeping electronics. Technological society encroaching on the organic comfort of home. The prelude to the second instalment.
GHOSTS VI: LOCUSTS
The plague is upon us now. Part two of Thursday’s release dives into the profoundly disconcerting feeling of living through a global crisis. The titles and order may not have been as such when originally conceived but grouped together like this, the album directly mirrors the psyche of the world right now. A zeitgeist of fear and uncertainty when many felt they were already at the brink.
‘The Cursed Clock’ astutely captures the tense anxiety of waiting for news, slowly watching the world burn. A lone piano, insidiously repetitive, counterpointed by a descending figure slowly transmogrifies into a piercing ringing. Unshakable, unforgettable. The ring modulation becomes a ghost, haunting you as you unravel. ‘The Cursed Clock’ is genuinely unnerving. Masterfully built to be the score to a horror-thriller, ominously announcing the killer’s presence.
He takes another odd turn with the entrance of muted trumpet on ‘Around Every Corner’. The audio trope can’t help but conjure shady downtown backstreets blurred in a haze of sewer vapour. The atmosphere is ever-evolving in deep yet subtle layers. Clockwork gears and surging guitars, dulled drums and patiently placed bells. Reznor and Ross craft with the depth and scope of two innovators who occupy rarified air in the musical community.
Titles like ‘Worriment Waltz’, ‘Another Crashed Car’, ‘A Really Bad Night’ and ‘Trust Fades’ all intimate the dour nature of this sixth Ghosts instalment. Adding to this grim gang, ‘Run Like Hell’ brings the most racing and desperate music on the record. Savannah chase marimba is obscured by a low rumble and war horns. This erupts into a primal, albeit brief, drum crescendo. Like a hunt that ends soon after it began, when the gazelle stumbles and the cheetah is able to take it down handily.
‘Your New Normal’ is a quirky, inquisitive, evolving score that expands upon the style he discovered with the Social Network soundtrack. It is noticeably less bleak than its counterparts on Locusts, yet it has its own perplexing nature. You feel like a character dropped into a parallel universe where everything is very close to your world with this small, nagging difference. ‘TURN THIS OFF PLEASE’ brings us right back to the copy machine cyclic segue tracks of Broken and The Downward Spiral which ramped up the tension between sadomasochistic industrial outbursts. ‘Almost Dawn’ caps off the double album with a track that deceives you into thinking a happy ending is on its way eventually. This glimmer of a bright future is enveloped by the inexorable drive of industry. Bulldozing the beautiful. We’re left with uncertainty which is where we now sit.
With these latest editions to the Ghosts series, they have managed to not only score the far reaches of the physical world but the feeling of the psychological world as well. These sentiments are not a mere tugging at our emotional cores with archetypal sounds and melodies. They manage to capture if anxiety and safety and uncertainty and malevolence all had intrinsic sounds. Ghosts may not be the unbridled rage album that some Nine Inch Nails fans have been waiting for but it does befit these times of self-isolation and social distancing. Reznor released the records with this statement: “As the news seems to turn ever more grim by the hour, we’ve found ourselves vacillating wildly between feeling like there may be hope at times to utter despair—often changing minute to minute. Although each of us define ourselves as antisocial-types who prefer being on our own, this situation has really made us appreciate the power and need for CONNECTION.” Reaching out to those in isolation has always been part of the modus operandi of Nine Inch Nails. Who knew there would be a time when they’d be reaching out in a government-mandated one?