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Nine Inch Nails: Ghosts I-IV; The Slip

Nine Inch Nails: Ghosts I-IV; The Slip

Label:The Null Corp.
Release Date:2008

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 5/14/2008

It's unclear which constituency will view Ghosts I-IV with greater favor: those who've been holding their collective breath for Trent Reznor to indulge fully his more introspective compositional tendencies or those who thought Radiohead's In Rainbows pay-what-you-wanna scheme was naively utopian. (This release is available in multiple formats, among them a $5 whole-hog download and a free download of Ghosts I.) What's certain is that Ghosts represents two significant firsts for the control-obsessed Nine Inch Nails auteur: It's at once his first post-major label release and his most collaborative, with Atticus Ross, Alessandro Cortini, Brian Viglione, and Adrian Belew sharing songwriting credits on its 36 film-score-ready interludes.

What's on the post-pop-industrial menu? A little bit of everything in itty-bitty servings: fuzzed-out, lumbering, effects-laden metal ("8 Ghosts I"), in-the-bloody-red roadhouse blues riffage ("23 Ghosts III"), somber-yet-beautiful Ambien piano pieces ("1 Ghosts I"), doily-like piano intros mutating into driven, ugly feedback sessions ("12 Ghosts II"), twangy funk breakdowns iced with eerie xylophones ("29 Ghosts IV"), and so on. Standout "4 Ghosts I" introduces a doubled nylon acoustic strum--reminiscent of The Downward Spiral's quieter moments--followed by a mass of apocalyptic, distorted electric guitars, alternately playing one off against the other without losing dynamic intensity. "10 Ghosts II" juxtaposes what sounds like handclaps, minor piano chords, ore striking ore, and ripping static into a clanking blast furnace.

As an unguided tour through NIN's sonic palette, the set works deliciously; as a cathartic, fist-pumping exercise, it falls flat minus Reznor's vein-straining angst. The Slip--which arrives as a free online download three scant months after Ghosts--does a far better job of hitting those big-rock marks, even if it doesn't recall the futuristic dystopian mind-fuck of 2007's Year Zero. The core theme is escaping the big, bad music-biz machine, making Slip kin to 1992's near-unlistenable Broken; that speaker-savaging EP celebrated Reznor's under-cover-of-darkness leap from TVT to Interscope, the very label he recently severed ties with. The difference? Artistically, he's matured enough to channel his rage at corporate suits into more nuanced, less noisy eff-you pop.

An oncoming drone collage punctuated by bursts of hissing steam and vocal samples that have been smashed then glued back together, intro "999,999" briefly harks back to 1994 NIN classic "Closer." Then "1,000,000" flashes its radioactive, inside-out guitar figure like a switchblade as a multitracked Reznor dubiously declares his independence: "I feel a million miles away/ I don't feel anything at all." On the pummeling, pedal-to-the-metal punk of "Letting You," it's implied that NIN was allowed to slip the major-label leash. Gnashing, buzz-saw lead single "Discipline" pokes sarcastic fun at the idea that musicians can't produce work without A&Rs looking over their shoulders, cracking whips, while "Echoplex"--a creature of measured, chiseling leads, stippled drumbeats, and intruding "la la la la" swells--makes a tightly wound case for holing up alone in the studio.

This is slightly better than average Reznor by-the-numbers: cracking good disdain that evinces an adaptable universality. But that's not all Slip packs. Stately, time-stopping ballad "Lights in the Sky" finds Reznor fashioning a candlelit intimacy from plangent, unhurried piano chords and the resulting reverb, his tender murmur high in the mix. It represents Reznor's finest go at ivory softness yet. But "Corona Radiata" ventures into new territory altogether, a fluorescent changeling of incrementally twisting, breathing dronecore that slowly becomes wider and deeper until the baton's passed to muzzled drum booms, chiming ax vrooms, and a feedback negative zone that brings to mind San Francisco noise-dude Axolotl. Both songs suggest an intriguing new direction; only time will tell if that's where Reznor's muse leads him.

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