Nine Inch Nails
Not The Actual Events EP
Didn’t enjoy 2016? It sounds like Trent Reznor didn’t, either, but he knew what to do with it. With Not The Actual Events, Reznor and long-time collaborator, now-official Nine Inch Nails member Atticus Ross have recaptured the exciting, brooding, spacey and experimental darkness that NIN has always embodied at its best.
Reznor’s voice is towering and terrifying; his lyrics pointed, foreboding and highly critical of anything and everything they find themselves directed at. The production is reminiscent of the now-classic The Fragile era colours the way while still feeling fresh, earnest and urgent. In just five songs amounting to 21 minutes, Reznor & Co. deliver their most interesting, immediately-satisfying and challenging work since 2007’s experimental left-turn Year Zero, with none of the lulls or room to breathe that record contains.
Not The Actual Events is too short, it’s too fast, it blurs on by and leaves you desperate for more, and it’s exactly what Nine Inch Nails should be. Claustrophobic, mesmerizing, self-proclaimed as being made to be played loud – it’s a white-knuckled blast of noise from a doomed industrial future as only Reznor knows how to envision it. It’d be easy to call it a modern Broken EP, but it’d be both dismissive and inaccurate. Broken brought more length and melody than this. If it were dubbed a sonic bridge between Broken and The Downward Spiral, it would be hard to make an argument against it.
Percussive, abrasive, full of droning synths and modulators seething in the void as drums clash and clamor, Reznor’s voice is equal parts blistering, ominous, haunting and horrifying. It’s classic; it’s fresh; it’s perfect; it’s grating up against itself, machines threatening to break loose from their designers, something organic caught up within the mechanical mess, except it doesn’t seem so upset to be there anymore; whatever used to breathe separate from the cacophony has accepted its place, and it’s moving forward with it, antisocial and malignant, booming and incredible.
“And you can hardly tell now, but, that was someone else who isn’t here anymore“, he groans beneath a wall of pianos and distortion, recalling the imagery and themes of The Downward Spiral’s quintessential ‘The Becoming’. Trent Reznor has returned to his seat at the industrial throne, and not a moment too soon, an aggressive, dark blast that fits perfect for the times it has been born out of.
This EP captures why many fans fell in love with Nine Inch Nails in the first place, and why many have continued to stick around, from the kinetic, propulsive and The Slip-esque ‘Branches/Bones’ to the Dillinger Escape Plan-leaning ‘The Idea of You’, one the best songs to be housed beneath the NIN name in ages. All five are intense, vivid experiences; all five well worth obsessing over, as NIN fans are prone to do. ‘She’s Gone Away’ is as Fragile as anything Reznor has constructed since 1999; expansive, layered and brooding and the closest thing to a break the EP offers as drums march forward and vocals coil around a microphone. If the title tracks of The Fragile and With Teeth had a child, it would be called ‘She’s Gone Away’. Tribal, exploratory and comfortable in its hollowed-out space, it’s the connective tissue between each half of the EP.
Fingerprints from Reznor & Ross’ The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo score loom in their cold, isolating beds in the background as guitars find their way back into the NIN sound after the synth-heavy Hesitation Marks, echoes of the industrial extremities of ‘Tetsuo: The Bullet Man Theme’ bleeding into the mix at points, every song threatening to go off of the rails at any moment, and the fact that none of them ever truly do, not until the very end, just adds to the tension, to the anxiety, to the pulse-pounding intensity.
Reznor has always been a master of the build and release that music can provide, from the studio to his boundary-pushing live shows, and Not The Actual Events utilises that skillset to the maximum extent that they can go, testing your limits of sonic stress, finding your buttons and pushing, and pushing, and pushing away at them, again and again, yet always backing away just as it reaches the point of becoming intolerable.
This is music that prods you with its very existence; searching for your core and looking to find what makes you tick inside. The title immediately makes you doubtful; its lyrics begging you to start a fight. It’s a cold, virulent, emotionally burning document of a set of feelings that want you to know something: that they do not like you, or anybody else, maybe not even themselves. Currently, Not The Actual Events can’t even be purchased without getting some form of a physical product, described as existing, quote, “for you to deal with,” an EP that knows its place, and seems to love it.
It’s this level of sadomasochism that Nine Inch Nails fans die for, swaggering in its lack of empathy, explosive in its smiling discouragement. If this poetic version of Reznor is isolated, alone, upset and pissed off, he wants to make sure you are, too, and few artists have ever known better how to make an audience love being handed their misery quite like him.
Whether he’s shouting defiantly about going back to his familiar misery on ‘Burning Bright (Field On Fire)’ or insisting his persistent isolation on ‘Dear World,’ Reznor delivers vocals with a bite, a fever and an urgency he’s not brought out since With Teeth. There is no song like the former in the entirety of the Nine Inch Nails discography. “I swear to god, I have missed you; it’s been so long, and I am stronger than I have ever been in my decline”, he shouts, defiant, menacing, all of the dark and manic threat of 1970’s Iggy Pop finding itself in his throat, and the misanthropic, gleefully destructive tone of the final song has strong echoes of Pop’s recent ‘Paraguay’.
Not The Actual Events is a remarkable, memorable and amazing addition to an already impossible-to-dispute body of work, proof that Nine Inch Nails still has plenty of coolant running through the machine, and Reznor has plenty of blood pumping through his veins, still filling him with fire, seething with this animosity. It’s authentic; it’s honest; it’s disturbing; it’s gorgeous. This is Nine Inch Nails music at its absolute creative and sonic peak, condensed down to a too-brief document of negativity in its purest forms, and it’s wonderful. “I can’t tell if I’m dreaming anymore,” he sings like a lullaby beneath the straining guitars and samples at the end, a possible reference to his other band, How to Destroy Angels and their 2013 song ‘We Fade Away’, the reality-doubting that’s been chronicled throughout his career still prevalent, still thematically reliable.
This is a homecoming for Nine Inch Nails fans and a fantastic cap to an incredible year in music (and a terrible year in everything else). Whatever motivated this release, it comes across as pent-up, collected, and blasted out in one intense, unfiltered burst of emotion and noise, Reznor’s voice married to the static and distortion that accompanies it, a coupling any long-time NIN fan is guaranteed to adore hearing once more. His lyrics are at their most pointed, their most desperate, and their most iconic, grand in their imagery, inward in their meaning, smirking in their moments of self-aware humor. The walls of sound the band was made famous for in the early 90’s triumphantly return, without ever seeming like a retread. There is an authenticity to the poison flowing through the veins on this release that makes it seem necessary, vital and alive beneath the surface, waiting to reach out, grab you by the neck and pull you deeper into its world of isolated noise.
Antisocial to the extreme, Not The Actual Events is the bitter, booming soundtrack needed just in time for the end of this terrible, no-good year, and hopefully a sign of more to come from Nine Inch Nails in the immediate future, with Reznor already stating that he has two more major NIN releases planned for the coming year. It’s an anti-Christmas present that those who grew up on Antichrist Superstar and Pretty Hate Machine are guaranteed to enjoy. Insular, not interested in whether or not you like it, and completely detached from the concept of being “accessible,” it’s an EP that is confident enough in what it has to say that it simply doesn’t give a shit if you’re interested in hearing it, and it’s all the better because of it.
It caters to no one; it gives in to no pressure. In all of its destructive, venom-coated misanthropy and desperation, there is a swagger, a certainty in its voice that many have felt has been missing for too long in the NIN catalog, and it’s irresistible. This is the same voice that sang the cutting and ecstatically-dark lyrics to ‘Reptile’; this is the same band that assembled out of leftover machine parts and agony the bridge to ‘Happiness in Slavery’. Too short to ever run out of ideas, but long enough to give a sizeable taste, Not the Actual Events is among the most concise, focused and potent releases in Trent Reznor’s entire career, and it comes not a moment too soon. It’s industrial, it’s electronic, and it’s punk-fucking-rock in the way that no one else but Trent can make such a risky mix ever sound.
If it feels like it’s on the verge of collapsing in on itself at all times, then it’s doing its job, and it’s doing it beautifully.