It’s astounding that Trent Reznor has any time at all to devote to Nine Inch Nails nowadays. It seems like he and his best pal Atticus Ross are always busy composing Academy Award-winning scores or remixing old material. But there are only so many hours in a day. How does Reznor manage to get so much done all the time?
Everyone’s favorite brooding industrial rocker is back with Not the Actual Events EP, the seminal group’s first batch of original material since 2013’s Hesitation Marks. Except it doesn’t really feel like it’s been four years – at least not four Nine Inch Nail years. The difference this time around is that Reznor’s work on the Gone Girl soundtrack and a few massive world tours didn’t really allow him his customary extended retreat from the public eye between releases.
How has this prolonged exposure to sunlight affected his creative process, one might ask. Well, if the music contained within the six tracks of Not the Actual Events is any sort of indication, Reznor has definitely been living in the past as of late, falling back in love with ’80s-era synths and indulging in a bit of Depeche Mode idol worship with the bouncing oscillations of “Dear World,.” Aside from Trent’s trademark, brooding, angsty whisper that we’ve all come to know and (mostly) love (“I have been entirely patient / but I know I can’t trust myself / oh no, this time,” he seethes, quietly), “Dear World,” could easily be a relic of the same era that spat out Pretty Hate Machine. Reznor also plays it old-school on “Branches / Bones,” relying on mechanical sound effects, the filter of condensed grime and a purposefully wonky singal-to-noise ratio that has become so quintessentially Nine Inch Nails – and, by extension, so quintessentially industrial. The usually forward-thinking frontman continues his pattern of nods to days past with “She’s Gone Away,” a sparse, ominous march into technological darkness. With a gigantic, rattling snare sound and power drill-esque guitar effects that seem to echo off the walls of some vast cavern, it’s an impenetrable vortex of despair that would certainly have felt at home amidst the ambient maelstrom that is The Fragile. “The Idea of You” is a classic ’90s, hard-driving riff-a-thon that sounds more like Helmet than Throbbing Gristle in the vein of Reznor’s early hits like “Heresy,” except here the vocals are played through a megaphone instead of merely shouted over the sonic melee.
Taken as a whole, Not the Actual Events is a brief, bleary ode to dissociation most akin to 2008’s sprawling and primarily instrumental Ghosts series. As individual pieces, however, the EP is a career-long sampling of all the tricks that Reznor’s picked up and polished over the years. As time invariably marches on, it’s impossible not to notice that Reznor’s more structured and lucid material is beginning to emerge as his strongest (the hardstyle dance beats of The Slip and the slick disco-funk of “All Time Low,” NIN’s strongest single in recent memory) as opposed to the 1990s when his nebulous, experimental stuff garnered more positive attention than his radio hits. Strange how these things turn about further down the spiral.