Three years ago Nine Inch Nails announced that they will call it a day for an undefined period of time, yet Nine Inch Nails has constatly renewed itself when it comes to music and lineups, ranging from synth driven rock music (Pretty Hate Machine), highly overdriven guitars and more aggression (Broken and The Downwards Spiral) and mellower synth (Fragile) before returning to a stripped down rock band sounds (With Teeth, Year Zero, The Slip). There was also an all instrumental album Ghosts with more complex and layered structures, paving way for NIN mastermind Trent Reznor to make scores to motion pictures and his project How To Destroy Angels. Since I wasn´t a big fan of With Teeth - The Slip era, the news about renewed NIN came as a pleasant surprise, and expectations were highest because of this legendary lineup: Robin Finck, who returned after making a long stint in Guns N Roses, Charlie Clouser, who did masterful remixes for e.g. White Zombie, Danny Lohner, who continued as "Renholder" while doing remixes and collaborations with bands like A Perfect Cirle etc, and Chris Vrenna gained attention with his music career as "Tweeker". So you can´t exactly blame a guy for having great expectations.
So how did it turn out? Well, let´s say that NIN returned being very different to what "they" were in their peak with The Downward Spiral. By "they" I of course mean Trent Reznor; other members have always been just a part of the NIN live shows. Long gone are the chaotic and madly overdriven guitars, Hesitation Marks puts guitars only as a ambient seasoning here and there, using them in the traditional fashion in only few of the songs. I mean REALLY few songs.
After the intro "The Eater of Dreams", the first track "Copy of A" sets the mood and a pattern for the rest of the album with minimalistic synth line and a drum beat that´s familiar from their breakthrough hit Closer, only faster. Then enter the vocals and some ambient sounds before the chorus; after every verse/chorus/verse transition the song picks up a little more groove along with ambiental elements and guitars that brings Swarmatron to mind. But 5:23 min repeating two parts over and over again wears out very quickly.
”Came Back Haunted”, the first single, doesn´t add too much to the mix. Same pattern: drum machine and a minimalistic synth after a whispered intro, a chorus that sports again a Swarmatron-ish guitar, building up a little bit more on the second verse until going to a more guitar-based breakdown after the second chorus. Without this breakdown the song´s structure would be a copy of the previous one. The song ends with a guitar melody that reminds a lot of the The Downward Spiral theme melody. Considering the similarities to The Hand That Feeds (guitar parts) and Closer (closing melody), it´s safe to say that much of this song is recycling old ideas.
”Find My Way” opens up, yet again, with minimalistic synth and a drum machine plus occasional ambient. After a while the song feels a bit familiar, but I can´t put my finger on it, until Trent sings "I´m just trying to find my way". He leaves the question open if he ever found it in the end, but one thing is sure, he certainly found his way to ”Teardrop” by Massive Attack.
On the subject of recycling ideas, the fifth song ”All Time Low” is the first not recycling song structures, but putting its focus on guitar noises and slide guitar, seasoned up with ambiental synths. Then off-sounding guitar parts that share similarity with The Big Come Down are combined with a familiar sounding drum beat – recycled from Closer. Yet again. However, the last third of this song brings a huge surprise, as the prechorus turns into Sly And The Family Stone-ish funky vocal melodies and an ass shaking chorus. This sends a welcomed breeze of fresh air to the mix and will hit like a bomb on the dance floors. Finally points for this album.
After this promising moment, ”Disappointed” brings the album back to the same pattern: drum machine, minimalistic synth, vocals enter, vocals end, ambient, chorus with Swarmatron guitar screeching.
”Everything” is a bit unusual for NIN, a shameless pop rock song with a huge energy and in your face chorus, combining the legacy of New Wave bands from New Order and Joy Division to The Cure-esque moods and punkish approach, before ”Satellite” once again brings back the very predicted formula so far used.
”Various Methods of Escape” offers such a needed variation as a song that actually stands out as surprisingly likeable, because of the vocals that actually carry out a surprisingly powerful and pretty chorus melody. For me, this is the strongest point of the album.
By the time you reach to ”Running”, you pretty much zone out from all the constant repetition - once again the same song all over again, with different synth sound and new drums. Which is a progress, since so far the album seems to have 2 different drum beats: the one from Closer and this other one. This time the chorus guitar is replaced with synth. Jesus H. Christ... Really?
Yep, nothing new in ”I Would For You either”, except the synth is harsher and the mandatory swarmaguitar chorus part is backwards. I would laugh, but the boredom has numbed my ability to laugh.
”In Two” wakes me up again with very cool synth intro and energy that breathes life back to this album. This song is just what I would´ve wanted the whole album to sound like - fresh, still recognizable, even if the swarmaguitars make a return. Very powerful song, if only it wasn´t the only one.
”While I´m Still Here” once again brings back the repeating formula. Oh look, it´s the other drum beat, not the one from Closer. Still one of the stronger songs on the album, despite the facepalming effect of the saxophone in the end. The transition to ”Black Noise” is very smooth, so smooth that you actually don´t even notice it. Because they´re both exactly the same song, the ending has just been divided as its own track for a reason that escapes me. But I´m sure that it´s higher logic that I don´t hold.
Over all, for music lovers this is an album that seems like Trent just gave up on trying anymore. Or he just focused on the synth and hoped that no one would notice that 9 of 14 songs have the exact same structure, 9 have almost identical guitar parts and in 2 this guitar part was just replaced with synths. Out of these 14 songs 1 is an intro and one is and ending of another song cut as a outro. 14 tracks, 12 songs and basically 2 drum beats. But synthporn lovers will be pleased, since Trent does what does best and conjures some seriously cool sounding synths and soundscapes that make you (and me) drool. But for everyone else, the music itself either just isn´t there or gets worn out from the massive repetition and recycling of very few ideas.
If this would´ve been one of Trent´s other projects, it just might´ve passed. But as a new Nine Inch Nails album, this was All Time Low and left me Disappointed. Pun intended. Without those 3 songs, this rating would´ve been 2 elks, but because of them it´s