An Infectious Sonic Maelstrom

After a brief hiatus following the release of Hesitation Marks in 2013, Trent Reznor returned to the scene last year with an outpouring of new material. He and frequent collaborator Atticus Ross produced several movie soundtracks (Before the Flood and Patriots Day), released a new EP, headlined FYF Fest and even made a guest appearance on an episode of Twin Peaks. Nine Inch Nails fans should be happy to hear that this creative torrent seems to have only just begun: according to Reznor, Not the Actual Events was merely the first in a trilogy of EP releases. With little warning, the second episode in this series, titled Add Violence, was released earlier this month. The five-track record builds upon the sonic experimentation of its antecedent, pulling from a wide range of stylistic chapters from Reznor’s storied career.

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The album opens with the pulsing, upbeat groove of “Less Than,” which — much like Hesitation Marks — returns to the band’s retro, ‘80s techno-metal roots. In fact, the track plays quite similarly to their previous LP’s lead singles, “Came Back Haunted” and “Copy of A.” It even shares a fair bit of lyrical content with the latter track. For example, the line, “Go and look what you’ve gone done,” in “Less Than” is almost identical to, ”’Now look what you’ve gone and done,” from “Copy of A.” Yet these similarities do little to detract from the opener’s memorable hooks and immaculately produced soundscapes. In fact, “Less Than” seems to be the clear standout on this EP. Its stripped, electro aesthetic gives way to rousing guitars and masterfully arranged vocal harmonies, making for a highly infectious chorus. This is truly Reznor at his best; the track manages to pull off a rare balance between brooding and catchy. And, to cap it all off, listeners are treated to a stirring guitar solo as the track builds towards one final crescendo.

After a seamless transition, Reznor takes us to track number two, “The Lovers.” Here, the band abandon the frenetic energy of the opener, instead veering into the atmospheric. Listeners are treated to a delicate, industrially-tinged soundscape that is reminiscent of NIN’s emotionally gripping, piano-led work from The Fragile. Lyrically, the song centers around this theme of “lovers,” yet Reznor manages to inject this theme with visceral, ominous undertones: “Hot swollen skin want me take me perfect embrace / black and bloody / rotten and perfect.” These dark thematic elements are underpinned by the eerie drones that wail in the background. The next track (“This Isn’t the Place”) picks up on this theme, featuring a simple, quarter-note, piano melody, while swirling synths whirl in the background, creating a sense of unease and tension. Neither of these tracks offer much in the way of harmonic movement, revolving around incredibly static progressions. But with Nine Inch Nails this doesn’t present much of an issue. Reznor — and his talented cohort, Ross — are able to do so much with only a few, simple motifs, stacking layers upon layers to prevent their songs from ever feeling stagnant.

The EP’s fourth number, “Not Anymore,” takes a sharp turn. Its heavily distorted guitars and industrial filth will bring listeners back to the rage-fueled days of Broken-era Nine Inch Nails. The track might be a little light on compelling hooks, relying instead on a barrage of in-your-face guitar riffage; however, for those NIN fans who miss the raw-er stuff from the band’s early catalog, it will undeniably please.

“The Background World” reverts to the techno-tinged and rhythmic-driven approach of “Less Than.” The hard-hitting, backbeat groove will undoubtedly remind listeners of one of the band’s most recognizable hits: “Closer.” This all builds to a catchy, yet dark, refrain in which Reznor asks the provocative question, “Are you sure this is what you want?” It is unmistakably Nine Inch Nails; Reznor captures the dour, slightly menacing tone that has influenced so many other artists, but that so few can imitate. Then, all of a sudden, the track careens toward a peculiar instrumental breakdown in which Reznor offsets the rhythm ever so slightly and loops it for nearly eight minutes. This may drive some listeners to the brink of madness, as the brief pause in between phrases results in an asymmetrical groove that abandons the rhythmic rigidity that usually governs NIN’s It is Reznor at his most daring and avant-garde. This extended outro plays like a blaring piece of noise rock. And as the distortion grows, the riff takes on an incredibly raw, dirty form that makes even Broken sound clean.

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Overall, the final track does feel a bit drawn out; on a full-length album these protracted experimental musings would be more welcome. Yet, aside from the sprawling finale of “The Background World,” Add Violence merely contains five rather abbreviated tracks. Fans should still rejoice, though. Reznor has managed to re-capture that dark, brooding tone that is so rife with emotion and that is so hard to find in mainstream these days. Add Violence may be fleeting, but it encompasses a bit of everything: the infectiously upbeat single (“Less Than”), the softer ambient musings that expose Reznor’s more delicate side (“The Lovers” and “This Isn’t the Place”), the unremitting industrial metal maelstrom (“Not Anymore”), and the throwback that veers into avant territory (“The Background World”). Reznor’s newest offerings may not be as hopelessly forlorn as The Downward Spiral, but they easily can stand up to his earlier work as impressive artistic achievements. And there is no reason to expect the next Reznor–Ross collaboration to be any less impressive.