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BLUNT review: Nine Inch Nails – ‘Ghosts’

Ghosts V and VI are the latest two albums in a continuance of the Nine Inch Nails series that originally began with a four-disc drop in 2008. Cat Woods reviews Together and Locusts.

Ambient is too gentle a word to use when describing the adventurous play between organic and industrial noise, instrumentation and juicy silence that makes up the imagined landscape of Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts. Like Aphex Twin’s mysterious founder, Richard D. James, creator Trent Reznor has divided the music world and listeners for over three decades. Is he a genius or does he simply think he is? Is this industrial post-punk or is it metal lite? Is he making music for the masses or tinkering in the studio purely to satiate the need to create for his own enjoyment?

Whatever argument you choose to make, Ghosts V and VI are packed to the brim with lush sonic journeys. While sometimes there’s so much peacefulness in the gentle repetition of chords and beats, you can become soothed by the melodic meditation, the introduction of some random, unusual sample that pulls you directly into the present reminds you of Reznor’s timeless genius for grabbing your heartstrings and licking your nerve endings to viscerally shock you awake, willing or not.

The industrial strength, nihilistic ferocity of 1990s Nine Inch Nails has evolved like the serpent that eats its own tail back to the very primal roots of what always made their sound so unique. Here, the spare, subtle build of foreboding that a tinkle of piano keys echoing into a chamber evokes isn’t burst apart by a raging, militant drumbeat, as Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral would have done. There’s a caged fury on Ghosts V and VI, but it is subtle in expression and with time and the freedom to create without limits, Reznor and long term collaborator Atticus Ross have turned an artistic project into a study of the expansiveness, adaptability and pure mysticism of sound. As anyone who is familiar with Nine Inch Nails may imagine, both Together and Locusts are rich with deadly creatures, the promise of violence, the threat of an apocalypse or Armageddon but also celebratory of the sky, the ocean, the forests, the enormity of an untouched world. On Ghosts VI: Locusts, the gothic strangeness of David Lynch meets the electronic mindfuckery of Aphex Twin’s early work. As in Lynch’s movie and TV soundtracks (think Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive and Eraserhead), no vocals and no distinct, definitive storyline is necessary to immerse yourself in the pure beauty, the imaginary plotlines, the dreamscape or the nightmare of what is actually being conveyed by samples, instrumentation and mindful, careful production. 

“It feels like primitive forces have taken over,” Ross told Mix With The Masters last year in regards to his attitude to not over-producing music. “One has to be careful with the tools we have today, not to suck the life out of [music].”

“Is is about the end of the world? Is it an unholy precursor to the arrival of interplanetary invaders? Is it about love, or hate, or losing your religion? Is it about environmental destruction and the takeover of machines?”

In the expert hands of both Ross and Reznor, synths can recreate and magnify the very primitive sounds of cockroaches scratching over floorboards, locust wings, the shake of dead leaves off branches, water evaporating, dust on pages. These elemental sounds of life intermingle flawlessly with the metallic clang of locks clicking shut, factory machines at full steam, drills, the trigger of a gun hammer, the whip fast shoot of energy through live wires.

Reznor has curated award-winning soundtracks for The Social Network and the American remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The sparse, enigmatic instrumental worlds he constructs are less about adding to the movie and entirely about establishing the very atmosphere for stories to live and breathe.

Without a movie, Ghosts is entirely a world in which listeners can construct their own visions, stories, concepts and theories. Is is about the end of the world? Is it an unholy precursor to the arrival of interplanetary invaders? Is it about love, or hate, or losing your religion? Is it about environmental destruction and the takeover of machines? 

Since both Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts are free to download, there’s no barrier to collecting them both and speculating wildly over numerous, repeated listens. One thing seems clear: Reznor no longer wants to fuck you and your auditory canals like an animal. 

It’s a tad over 30 years since the furious, blasphemous, beautiful Pretty Hate Machine marked Nine Inch Nails’ defiant debut. It was so boldly different to the grunge era albums that would come out soon after, so much more industrial and metal than any of the goth and new wave music that had defined the 1980s, and yet it found a window to breathe and smashed right through. Whether you counted yourself a Nine Inch Nails fan at the time or later, ‘Head Like A Hole’ raged on the radio and the videos – featuring pierced genitals, rope bound wrists and visions of sociopathic nightmares – relegated to late night screenings, often heavily edited so as not to scare viewers.

Even three decades ago, Reznor was preparing the scenario for Ghosts. He’d worked with major producer Flood (who had also worked with Nick Cave and U2) on Pretty Hate Machine. Underlying the conventional song structure of melody, chorus, intro, outro, guitar, bass, drums there was something else. A buzzing, almost cosmic energy that threatened to explode and destruct but always remained just below the surface, hinting and whispering and clawing, inescapable but also undefinable. On Together that energy has been channeled with greater nuance, control and moderation that comes from maturing fully into your own skin and making peace, to a degree, with the demons in your head. Together is the closest to classical music and ambient night music so far in the series. The pairing of both Together and Locusts is a little like asking for a guitar at Christmas and getting a mic and a drumset too. Each is brilliant in its own right, but to favour one alone would deprive you of the full spectrum of Nine Inch Nails’ sonic mastery.