Sunday, June 08, 2008

Album Review: Nine Inch Nails - The Slip (4/5)

In a market of dwindling album sales, acts for whom losing the album format itself would be artistically detrimental are increasing turning toward high jinks to get us to buy, or rather, acquire them. Radiohead famously offered In Rainbows last year at whatever price a consumer was willing to pay, Raconteurs didn't announce they had a new album until moments before releasing it, hoping to cut down on pre-release piracy.

Now comes Nine Inch Nails, a big name act that, perhaps inevitably, decided to offer its latest work, The Slip, for free. Like his last album, the instrumental Ghosts I-IV released in March, Trent Reznor licensed The Slip to allow you to remix it however you like as long as you give NIN credit.

"999,999" is just ambient synths, setting the stage for "1,000,000," an insistent rock track driven by the fuzziest of rock guitars and a simple-minded drum and tambourine beat. Next up is "Letting You," even more propulsive, with Reznor's vocals further distorted, the vocals louder. It's layers of hectic, frenetic noise, yet pure melodies peak through.

Through the urgent opening of the album, each track improves upon the previous through "Discipline," the album's single. It's the most conventional track on the album--upbeat, danceable even, with piano and hi-hat competing in the mix of dark and fuzzy guitars and synths. It reminds me a bit of "Closer," NIN's biggest hit, and to be honest, the only thing from him that ever interested me, although not as exciting as that peak moment in NIN's history.

"Echoplex" throttles back on the sound, thinning the ambience down to, at times, just beats. I love how Reznor layers various sounds throughout this album. I've been experimenting with Apple's Garage Band lately, so I can appreciate the complexity of making that work well. "Head Down" shows this off as well. It's dark mix includes loud beats, squelchy guitars, random sound effects, clear keyboard chords, and Reznor's vocals, at times plaintive and at others more like a yell.

The tempo slows down and the mood gets even darker on the last few tracks. "Lights in the Sky" is just Reznor--his vocals almost a whisper now--and a piano. Is there an instrument that can better express melancholy than a piano? I think not, and Reznor coaxes such sadness out of its keys.

Perhaps its just my iTunes settings, but I didn't notice when this track ended and the next, "Corona Radiata" began. At over 7 minutes, this is the album's longest track, and least "song-like" of the bunch, as there are no vocals. This is the sort of music you'd imagine the space travellers in the Alien movies would listen to. The composition begins with just synth chords; slowly as more layers are added, melody emerges briefly and then fades; eventually those synths deepen and flutters of deep, far off percussion kick in and then come forward; the synth keyboards stop, while the synth beats amplify, then the keyboards return more sinister than before. I don't think I'd call this track a favorite, but it's certainly interesting.

"The Four of Us Are Dying," another instrumental, layers stringed instruments and eventually noise over the rich synth keyboards, building in volume and intensity toward the end. Closer "Demon Seed" kicks up the tempo and the noise, returning us to the more conventional "song" territory of most of the album.

Whether the music industry will migrate to singles format exclusively is still an open question. Contrary to what some prognosticators may say, the album isn't dead, although it is on life support. Those artists who prefer their work organized in the format are fighting for its survival--through whatever means it takes. Is the act of releasing ones album for free an innovation or a failure to embrace change? Are we holding onto the past or remaking it for the future? The Slip, like In Rainbows, is an argument for keeping the album format around. It's a dark journey that throttles through a mix of upbeat tracks before pulling us back into the quieter mysterious ones at the end. Unless you're into mammoth singles like "Bohemian Rhapsody," rarely is such terrain effectively traversed within a single track.

Best: Discipline, Head Down, Letting You, Lights in the Sky, Echoplex, 1,000,000

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