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Album review: 'Bad Witch' by Nine Inch Nails

Marcel Thee

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Fri, July 13, 2018  /  09:12 am
Album review: 'Bad Witch' by Nine Inch Nails

‘Bad Witch’ by Nine Inch Nails (Nine Inch Nails/File)

American industrial-rock band Nine Inch Nails’ (NIN) latest release finds strength in looseness.

An aggressive experimental rock record, Bad Witch finds NIN shedding a good amount of their signature production tightness in exchange for something more crushingly raw, unguarded and deliciously challenging.

Though the last few NIN releases had increasingly moved toward these elements, Bad Witch offers something that basks in its table-flipping of popular NIN musical flourishes.

The third part of a trilogy of EP that started with 2016’s Not The Actual Events and last year’s Add Violence, the album (it’s 7 songs short, but not an EP, says Trent Reznor, NIN’s mastermind and, up until a few years ago, sole official member) seethes with a sense of delighted freedom. It may not be NIN’s most outwardly “rock” record, nor is it its most nihilistic or dramatic (characteristics that marked the band’s 90s era), but it serves up elements never found in previous NIN music, or at least merely hinted at.

While the idea of a band that reached its commercial zenith in the 90s borrowing elements from its own olden days often feels icky, or even desperate, Reznor has succeeded in twisting his music and identity into something that rarely relies on commercial nostalgia.

From the saxophone-driven industrial funkiness of stand-out album “God Break Down the Door” to the outer-world hums and space growls of the instrumental “I’m Not From This World”, NIN’s ninth official full-length may not immediately scream out that looseness; but repeated listening yields a sense of joy in its tendencies toward self-deconstruction.

Certainly, Atticus Ross, the British electronic musician and producer who has the honor of being the only person to ever share an “official member” title with Reznor instead of simply being part of the band’s live lineup, has influenced this drive toward further sonic frequencies.

Listen to the opener “Sh** Mirror”, which has to go down as one of the band’s best song titles so far. The immediate melodicism and fractured rock with crunchy production values stands with some of the band’s most popular songs from the 90s, but the overdriven crunch, which encapsulates the whole thing, is different from the distorted wrath of that era. Here, it is instead a low-fidelity abrasiveness of current punk groups cut with the kind of clarity only bands with production skills like NIN can serve up.

There is a break in the middle of the song, which almost feels like the end, but then it moves into the kind of whispering menace Reznor excels at, mashing electrical buzzes, metal guitar riffs and electronic pulses into a discomforting crescendo that dissipates suddenly as it peaks.

It moves toward “Ahead of Ourselves”. A hopping, almost drum-n-bass club beat slithering between processed vocals that sound invitingly alien in its distanced leveling. It pummels in contrast with “Play The Goddamn Part”, which puts many NIN-esque instrumentation tendencies into a single superbly uncomfortable package; broken single note piano motifs, percussions that range from deathly-processed to shifting beats — all in service to a saxophone that swells in and out, teasing but never really comfortable with its surrounding. It is a piece that manages to be terrifying and pretty at once.

It is only natural that album closer “Over and Out” feels like a wink toward NIN’s very early days in the late 80s, when Reznor leaned for a short while toward the era’s disco electronica. But the song quickly enough expands its club-house pinch with processed samples and sounds that waver in and out like odd-but-welcome guests; from twilight pianos that hover in the shadows to mountain-scape synth-work and circular ambient guitars, the song’s main draw is Reznor’s vocals, which are more theatrical than usual, and speaking of “Time (that) is running out”, the 53-year old pays homage to his hero David Bowie in one of his band’s most poetic tracks so far.

Brimming with confidence, yet comfortable in its experimentations, Bad Witch may be an album or an EP — whatever. What it is is a collection of strong tracks, some immediate, some mood-driven, but all feeling urgent and yes, fun. It is a compact, efficient record that is all meat and no fat.