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Nine Inch Nails – Bad Witch Review

June 26, 2018 | Posted by David Hayter
Nine Inch Nails
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Nine Inch Nails – Bad Witch Review  

1. Shit Mirror
2. Ahead of Ourselves
3. Play the Goddamned Part
4. God Break Down the Door
5. I’m Not From This World
6. Over and out

Trent Reznor might be too honest for his own good. Bad Witch, officially the ninth studio album in the Nine Inch Nails cannon and the long awaited follow up to 2013’s Hesitation Marks, is actual another EP, the successor to last year’s Add Violence. Whether Trent simply wanted to come clean with his audience or deflate expectations matters little, what’s depressing is the rationale behind the move: streaming sites don’t promote EPs, they are treated as singles and become lost to the inner workings of algorithms. It’s already infuriating enough that artists are gaming the system by releasing unlistenably long albums (The Culture II) to artificially climb the charts, but now historically thoughtful musicians are having to risk their legacies to ensure that their music reaches its audience.

Well the good news is, as contrived and cynical as Bad Witch’s elevation to album status may have been; the result is the roughest and most energetic Nine Inch Nails record in an eternity. Sure it lacks the stately grandeur of Hesitation Marks, but clocking in at a mere 30 minutes and deviating wildly in terms of mood, tone and texture, Bad Witch feels thrillingly present tense. Reznor, the well-respected producer of Hollywood soundtracks and elder statesman of the industrial-alt-rock realm, had become precise and considered to the point of sounding labored. His embrace of ambient sounds had given Nine Inch Nails the feel of a band who operated within laboratory conditions: the music was often magnificent, but it was no longer born of the pit or the dancefloor, let alone the asylum. Bad Witch changes all that.

“Shit Mirror” comes seething out gate, mixing an arena ready riff with wilfully muted and scuffed up production. Reznor rocks and rages as if battling a dampening dial being twisted by some unseen hand. Despite the onrushing intensity, it’s hard to ignore the fact that these sonics are dated. The composition would feel right at home in the mid 2000s alternative scene (were it stripped of its grimy overlays). Nevertheless, Reznor and Ross are having a whale of a time and their energy proves infectious.

“Ahead Of Ourselves” slowly alters the album’s mood. The pace remains quick and sweat soaked, but a tubular droning quality begins to emerge from both the vocals and the guitarwork. The verse is a cocaine fuelled blitz of perpetual movement: feet never sit still and the beat is far too fast for any kind of coherent dancing, only lightening twitches and incessant bouncing on the spot are possible. Reznor drones, “we just can’t help ourselves”, and he’s right: we’re chained to the rhythm. The screaming chorus offers a stark juxtaposition, a petulant and deeply industrial lashing out at our own indifference: “Celebration of ignorance/Why try change when you know you can’t?”

From here on in Bad Witch begins to mutate away from thrashing exuberance towards a more somber and muddied state. It’s at this point that David Bowie’s influence begins to assert itself, both as personal symbol (the death of a great artist) and as an influence (Blackstar’s eastern jazz in particular). What’s remarkable, and surprisingly exhilarating, is that by embracing Bowie’s legacy and succumbing to the allure of the lockstep beat, Nine Inch Nails begin to take on the character of the Thin White Duke’s other great acolyte: James Murphy, aka LCD Soundsystem.  It’s a comparison that feels strange on the surface, but strip away their aesthetic differences – Murphy is a purveyor of middle aged ennui and romanticism atop disco beats, while Trent is still a screaming teen, distrustful of authority, steeped in the dark arts – then their musical touchstone and creative tendancies prove remarkably similar.

Bad Witch can roughly be broken into three fragments containing two tracks apiece. The middle section is a fugue: a morass of dense, clunking sound that is split beautifully by a lead saxophone part that twists, floats and billows with an ever so slightly malign magnificence. The foreboding nature of “Play The Goddammned Part” is undeniable, but there is a sense of mischief in the arrangement that echoes Nicholaas Jaar’s Space Is Only Noise. No matter how inhumane the traditional rock arrangement becomes, the horns have a humanity that defies the mechanical disorder that surrounds them. On “God Break Down The Door” the sax anchors the listener: like a pied piper guiding us through a wild onslaughts of pulsating, burbling grooves. When the relentless beat recedes at the track’s midway point, the sax offers a stately groan that recalls an ocean liner coming into harbor. It’s almost disappointing that Trent opted to include a chorus. The chant of “remove the pain and push it back in” is certainly catchy, but it feels trite: an empty Nine Inch Nails-ism when something that cuts a little deeper was required.

Speaking of sounds that feel passé in 2018, “I’m Not From This World” churns its way towards a mid-track climax: which sees the music being to decay, scream and loop as if a super eight film is being slowly burned while the projector continues to roll. The flames lick higher and higher as the images on screen wail and cry like ghosts of the verge of exorcism. It’s dramatic as all hell, but rather obvious at this point – schlock for a bad horror movie soundtrack rather than a Nine Inch Nails LP. These themes of decay and desolation have already been tackled directly by the likes of Tim Hecker (see Ravedeath, 1972) and while these same sounds could be used to devastating effect on a traditional Nine Inch Nails track, as a stand alone ambient work, they aren’t quite up to snuff.

Mercifully, whatever “I’m Not From This World” lacks, “Over and Out” has in spades. Blending Bowie, LCD Soundsystem, Steve Reich and countless other influences seamlessly, Reznor has created a sound that feels wholly his own. There is suddenly plenty of room to breathe. The beat has slowed considerably and, where there was once primal insistence, there is now a gloriously rich groove. Calling upon his own work on the Social Network soundtrack, “Over and Out” manages to speak to the head and the hips simultaneously. Sounds wind, shimmer, shake, oscillate and linger hypnotically, as Reznor does his best Bowie impression pronouncing: “Time is running out/I don’t know what I’m waiting for”. This is a stately reflection on mortality, that not only conveys the dread of knowing the end may be nigh, but the greater fear that we have lived so long (and have so long yet to live) accomplishing absolutely nothing of merit. Great men are dying left and right, while we oxygen thieves perist, barely poking our heads above the parapet.

It’s a staggeringly poignant end to a rough and ready Nine Inch Nails album that feels all the better for both its brevity and its intuitive nature.  Sure there are some old sounds and second hand ideas, but the high-minded standouts (“Play The Goddammed Part”, “Over And Out”) and rebellious rockers (“Shit Mirror”, “Ahead Of Ourselves”, “God Break Down The Door”) more than compensate. Bad Witch is an album designed to confront lethargy: if you are angry, don’t just sit there and take it. If your life is dwindling away, day after day, don’t succumb to apathy and easy ambivalence – make a change. This feeling of urgency in the face of decay may well have been lost on a more polished, longer form release – so regardless of reasoning behind making Bad Witch the Nails’ ninth studio album, the results more than speak for themselves.

The final score: review Good
The 411
Bad Witch might be a selection of EPs masquerading as an album, but the brevity, energy and experimentation of this collection proves revitalising for both Ross and Reznor. David Bowie's influence looms large and, while their are some dated and cumbersome moments, Nine Inch Nails succeed in delivery quality rockers, ambient pieces and even a truly epic closer.

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Nine Inch Nails, David Hayter