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Album Review: Nine Inch Nails’ Add Violence

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With many forms of media competing for our attention, releasing an album these days doesn’t have the impact it once had. For Nine Inch Nails, breaking up an album’s worth of music into a trilogy of smaller EPs sustains fan excitement and diffuses pressure on creating a singular, definitive statement. It also allows the duo of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to take bigger risks. Add Violence, the second in the series following Not the Actual Events, continues exploring the territory Hesitation Marks started, with plenty of modular synth textures, industrial percussion loops, and the duo’s keen ear for cinematic atmospherics. Oh, and there’s also a twelve-minute track, two-thirds of which consists exclusively of harsh noise. We’ll get to that.

It’s more evident than ever how much Reznor has grown since his emergence in the ‘90s. He’s now a family man and an accomplished soundtrack composer. And, if the album cover of Add Violence, his inclusion in the modular synth documentary I Dream of Wires, and the retro arcade music video for “Less Than” are any indicators, he’s also now an unabashed nerd – a happier one at that. As a result, he’s less bogged down by personal strife, allowing him to flourish unencumbered with collaborator Ross in the shorter EP format.

At its core, Add Violence highlights the duo’s vibrant experimental sensibilities. Years ago, the synthwave of “Less Than” would never have come from this band, yet Reznor’s snarling vocals and his wall of guitars à la “The Hand That Feeds” remain comfortable territory.

“This Isn’t the Place” is a standout, foregrounding Reznor’s ability to build tension across an arrangement, one of his strong suits. He withholds his lyrics until halfway through the track, a classic Eno tactic. The song climbs, Reznor in panged falsetto, aided by the slow churn of a mechanical drumbeat and a slow, jangling Fragile-era piano. Its companion is “The Lovers,” an upbeat, bass-heavy thrum that develops its menace while Reznor alternates between whisper and serenade.

“Not Anymore” is the weakest of the quintet, the main point of interest an element of surprise as the song moves from verse to chorus and bridge to chorus. Unfortunately, it sounds like two separate ideas tacked together, the verse resisting its groove to its detriment, Reznor’s vocals overly reverberated. Its aggressive thrust does balance the three softer tracks, but he’s got to have more refined cuts than this one.

Then we arrive at the confrontational “The Background World,” its first section no doubt informed by the duo’s soundtrack work. This one’s going to divide everyone. An achingly beautiful orchestration complete with sinewy strings and bubbling piano coalescing around Reznor’s soft voice, it’s not embellishment to write that I’ve gotten chills with every listen (at around 2:35, 2:54, and 3:34). Its gradual development is on par with The Fragile’s “The Great Below” or “Ripe (With Decay),” and is easily among Reznor’s best output…

…at least for the first four minutes. Thereafter, the mood shifts, as if NIN was angry at creating something so luminous. The most difficult thing for artists to do is destroy their creations, and over the next eight minutes, Reznor and Ross do just that, first deliberately glitching the main beat and then subjecting it to a slow, heartbreaking degradation as if it were a family heirloom set aflame.

The song’s isotope decay is the violence of the album’s title made manifest. For the noise to last a minute or two would miss the point, as it would only partially consider the idea. Nine Inch Nails commits to erasing its creation utterly across eight more excruciating minutes, giving twice as much time to ugliness as to beauty. It’s the band’s riskiest move ever, and as cathartic. Sometimes that’s what this music thing is all about.

Nine Inch Nails’ Add Violence is out today. You can stream the entire album below and purchase it here.

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