No You Can’t Take That Away From Me
What does a record label mean to the career of a musician? Do CDs represent the past, present and future economic model for the music industry? What is the value of distribution and promotion? Trent Reznor, making another bold step in line with Radiohead’s name-your-own-price approach of In Rainbows last year, loudly raises each of these questions by releasing his now label-free band Nine Inch Nails’ new album Ghosts I-IV only through online means. Ranging in price from free to $300, fans could choose from five formats offering progressively better assets, from a sampling of the album all the way to DRM-free MP3s of each song, two CDs, a DVD with every song in multitrack format, four vinyl LPs of the material and a high-definition Blu-ray disc. A distribution tactic sans marketing or publicity and yet somehow still epic in proportions, the music of Ghosts I-IV is just as epic.
Written almost entirely by Reznor and recent collaborator Atticus Ross and performed with sporadic help from Alessandro Cortini, Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione and legendary guitarist Adrian Belew, Ghosts I-IV is a tour de force instrumental album. The nine tracks that make up “Ghosts I” start off simply enough: minor-key pianos push gently while high-pitched drones seep in. The drones convert to a form of frequency-modulated static until heavily tuned percussion begins to dance playfully with a processed bassline. A flutter of clanging guitars are added for spice until the elements strip away again and piano dissonance takes center stage joined by a pulsating, sucking sound. Watery bells, electronic drums and massively overdriven guitar all make appearances driving the piece to an invigorating crescendo.
A cross between the methodical precision Mike Oldfield would employ thirty years prior and what could be imagined as industrial music’s version of a jam-band, Ghosts I-IV emanates an eerily organic sentiment, managing to sound remarkably human in spite of the largely electronic nature of the music. “Ghosts II” has moments of uplifting joy, menacing ambience and noisy danceability. Each piece implies imagery of flowing cinematic depth or motion, enveloping without having to make abrupt stops.
Reminiscent of the instrumental work found on 1999’s The Fragile (and perhaps the work of Claude Debussy). “Ghosts III” delves deeper into the darker end of Nine Inch Nails’ sound allowing whole minutes to be comprised of supermodulated sine waves. Chaotic noise follows with an eerie tubular melody. Most thrilling is a short stretch where a synthesized track of noise bounces merrily while the players jam on various effects like master jazz musicians. The mood temporarily changes to a more ethereal one on “Ghosts IV,” making the best use of dance-y sequencing until the section grows increasingly sinister, a driving bass-note piano line heightening a feeling of dread.
Nine Inch Nails have pulled off a stunning achievement of composition, production, performance and distribution. Ghosts I-IV is expansive and forward-thinking, quite possibly the best value music your money can buy in this fast-changing landscape once known as the music industry.