Essential Albums: Nine Inch Nails, “Year Zero”

Today is the first of several “essential album” reviews that might be controversial. Some of my picks might not seem to fit the normal metal mode, might not be considered “metal” enough by some – and one or two might not appear to fit the “metal” category at all. But I’ll argue that each is indeed metal, even if they tend to break the rules and throw conventions aside.

To kick this off, I couldn’t think of a better first choice than the most metal-non-metal I’ve heard in the last four years – Nine Inch Nail’s mesmerizing 2007 release, “Year Zero.”

NIN auteur Trent Reznor has always skirted the line between metal, industrial, alternative and pop. Often, Reznor mixes elements of all (with beats that seem occasionally inspired by hip-hop) into a genre-defying roar that can be violent and frightening at times and danceable a few minutes later.

Lyrically, Reznor’s music was often intensely personal, although he did begin venturing into politics on “Year Zero’s” immediate predecessor, “With Teeth.” But “Year Zero” went beyond the debates of its time and plunged fully into a dystopian nightmare of religious fanaticism, unending war, environmental collapse, mass disillusion (and, perhaps, mass hallucination) and world-ending apocalypse.

The very nature of the work probably turned off a lot of people. “Year Zero” is a political broadside against then President George W. Bush, whose policies post Sept 11, 2001 led the United States into two wars. The tax cuts of the Bush years and the administration’s rejection of the Kyoto climate treaty (which Bush had indicated he would sign when he was a candidate first running for president) are also addressed – although not as current events. Instead, Reznor sets “Year Zero” in 2020, postulating what the world would be like if the Bush policies were continued and the “Religious Right,” which was certainly a large part of Bush’s political base, became the dominant political force in American life.

“HYPERPOWER!” the brief intro, sets the tone for what’s to come. A military drum starts the march and a heavily fuzzed guitar layers on a wall of electronic-distortion noise. Voices (chants, screams) are interlaced with half-hidden gunshots, falling bombs, terrified shrieks and explosions. It’s a nasty, jarring 50 seconds.

“The Beginning of the End” opens with an almost undistorted guitar over a simple beat. “Down on your knees/you’ll be Left Behind,” Reznor’s speaker intones, later turning the supposedly Christian tenant of charity on its head with “You wait your turn, you’ll be last in line/Get out the way, cuz I’m getting mine … God helps the ones that can help themselves.” The song is one of compromised beliefs and ideals rejected for political expediency and comfort, but the speaker is not unaware that what has really been given away is both the planet and his soul: “We think we’ve come so far, on all our lies we depend/We see our consequence, this is the beginning of the end.” A “solo” of raw noise blasts through before the roar cuts out and the drums march to a close.

“Survivalism” is the sound of society coming apart in the face of environmental collapse. The earth is exhausted, the speaker knows it, but it’s too late for anything more than passing regret. “You see your world on fire/don’t try to act surprised,” the speaker says. Musically, the songs a head stomp of dark noise rumbles juxtaposed against a chanted chorus and a wall-of-sonic-hell riff that leads the song to the disintegration point.

“The Good Soldier” is a change in tone. While the first three tracks were unabashedly heavy, “The Good Soldier” is slower and less musically jarring. While not exactly a pop song, the track is content to groove, with a hip-hop beat, mildly distorted guitar and a vibraphone at the chorus. Lyrically, the song is about losing faith in all the things that once were thought important. “Blood hardens in the sand, cold metal in my hand,” the solider says, “… There’s nowhere left to hide, cuz God is on our side/I keep telling myself.”

“Vessel” is another lumbering march, with a “riff” of pure electro-noise and a chanted chorus. The layers of noise overwhelm the ears pretty quickly, fitting well with the predictions of collapse. “Me, I’m Not” is a creeping, insidious track, with the lyrics half-whispered at moments and a slow bump for a beat. Everything is lost and all that’s really left is false denial and regret; “I define myself by how well I hide,” the speaker says. “I feel it coming apart but at least I tried … If I could take it all back, some way, somehow/If I’d known back then what I know right now.”

“Capital G,” however, arrives with a very different point of view. The speaker is a supporter of both the endless American wars, the decisions that led the planet to ruin and the president who started the descent. “I pushed a button and elected him to office/He pushed a button and he dropped a bomb/You pushed a button and could watch it on the television/Those mother f*ckers didn’t last too long …” The compromise has been made (“traded in my god for this one, he signs his name with a capital G … I used to stand for something, forgot what that could be.”) and the only option available is to grab everything that’s left. Musically, “Capital G” is practically a dance track – it’s not hard to visualize oblivious frat boys and their dates – completely unaware of the lyrics – grinding on the club dance floor.

“My Violent Heart” is again another change in perspective – this time to the “have nots” dismissed by the speaker in “Capital G.” They’re threatening to explode and the music mimics the growing dissent, with an opening rumble swelling into a bellow for the chorus.

“The Warning” takes the story to another level, with a heavy bass line and a tale of either a mass hallucination or a revelation of things to come if people can’t (or won’t) change. “‘It said it was up to us, up to us to decide … ‘you will change your ways and you will make amends, or we’ll wipe this place clean/Your time is tick, tick, ticking away.”

“God Given” is Fox News Christianity taken to its logical extreme, where salvation is only for the “right” people. While “The Warning” contained heavy distorted guitar,” God Given” is again nearly a dance track. There’s a certainly black humor here, as Reznor blasts the self-important religiosity of the radical right: “How hard is it to see/Put your faith in me/I sure wouldn’t want to be/Praying to the wrong piece of wood.”

“Meet Your Master” takes the holier-than-though attitude of “God Given” and transfers it to the military and CIA torture chambers, where “terrorists” are all who don’t conform to the beliefs of the ruling class. The song is bass heavy during the verses with a chaotic chorus and a noise wave that threatens to wash away all in its wake. “Meet Your Master” bleeds immediately into “The Greater Good” a frighteningly minimalist chant about control – both physical control and mind control. It’s Orwellian and technodystopian – a nightmare set to computer noise.

“The Great Destroyer” is half-song, half wail of industrial rage. After the first two choruses, the song devolves into a blast of piercing noise, so shrill it’s hard to listen to all the way through. Fortunately, the “song” quickly gives way to “Another Version of the Truth,” a piano line played over an increasing groan of static until the fuzz subsides and a piano melody, filled with loss and nostalgia for all that’s gone, takes over. It’s a rare moment of beauty in the world of despair Reznor has created.

“In This Twilight” is the approach of the end. The world, with either a whimper of bang, is nearing its stopping place. There’s sadness to be sure, but also a moment of hope (perhaps irrational) that something better will follow when humanity physically ceases to exist.

The final track “Zero Sum” is the best of the disc. A slow, meandering song about the end, as the speaker holds tight to those around him, watching the darkness descend. “I guess I just wanted to tell you/As the light starts to fade/That you are the reason/I am not afraid/And I guess I wanted to mention/As the heavens will fall/We’ll be together soon if we be anything at all.” But the song is also one of loss – lost opportunities, misguided or greedy decisions and numerless failures to act, all of which  led to this moment. “Shame on us … God have mercy on our dirty little hearts.”

“Year Zero” is, musically at least, not “metal” through and through. The “metal” is often interlaced with songs that otherwise have a very unmetal feel (the guitar in “Capital G,” for example, or the obliterating noise of “The Great Destroyer” are very “metal,” I’d say). While not following any metal formula, “Year Zero” is heavy enough stylistically to qualify as metal, and lyrically and musically dense and challenging enough to be required listening.

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