Eight months ago, Nine Inch Nails released Not the Actual Events —the first in a trilogy of new EPs and their first music since 2013’s Hesitation Marks. In its press release, the group’s frontman Trent Reznor accurately called that EP “an unfriendly, fairly impenetrable record that [he] needed to make.” If NtAE was supposed to be the result of Reznor trying to get some unfriendliness out of system, he certainly accomplished that—it’s a harrowing, loud, and plodding EP that overstays its welcome even in its short 21-minute runtime, like the musical equivalent of Reznor coming into your home, breaking things, and yelling at you. In fact, it was sold with a “physical component” of artwork whose ink (intentionally) falls off, marks your hands, and gets everywhere as you read it—it’s the first time a musician has sold me something that damaged my clothing.
Add Violence marks the second entry in the series—and comparatively speaking, it’s a subdued record. The constant fury of NtAE can be heard in parts of “Less Than” and “Not Anymore”, but on the whole, whatever beast was unleashed on the first EP here has been caged and controlled—muscular guitars may instill fear in the listener, but they never pounce. Reznor’s raw voice is often restrained by a low-pass filter, so when he does scream, it sounds like we’re hearing him through a glass wall, not directly. For the most part, this is a positive development—it gives a bit more weight to the music’s destructive outbursts.
But problems with Add Violence arise nonetheless, even if not from the same sources as NtAE. “Less Than” opens the EP with an ‘80s throwback drum machine and arp synth. Grimy filtered guitars enter with Reznor’s voice. The chorus adds stronger guitar chords and more vocals. The song builds from there into an extended chorus/coda—a classic NIN song structure. It hits all the marks of a typical Nine Inch Nails single, and its ‘80s-video-game tinge gives it its own peculiar flavor (further explored in its music video). That said, “Less Than” simultaneously reminds the listener that, in the actual 1980s, NIN was making forward-thinking music with exceptionally unique synthesizer engineering. For example, in the classic Pretty Hate Machine track “Terrible Lie” the starter-pack snares are mixed with excellent Industrial sampling and several other percussive elements to give the track an abrasive power and motion. The arpeggiated synths in the chorus and coda cut deep and sound like nothing else from its time. “Less Than” consequently leaves the experienced NIN fan wanting something with more punch, more detail, better production—it sounds more like a joke-y NIN parody than the real thing. Reznor’s vaguely political lyrics don’t salvage the song from that feeling of lazy self-parody—especially the winking reference to Welcome Oblivion, Reznor and Ross’s album with the side-project How To Destroy Angels.
The highlight of the EP has to be the 12-minute-long closer “The Background World”, which splits into two discrete halves—the first 4-minutes are the song proper; there’s a weird sound signaling its end; and then an 8-second loop repeats until the EP ends, getting progressively more distorted and destroyed as it goes along. It’s an incredible perpetual explosion, an experiment that would have marked the most innovative production on a NIN record in at least a decade—if the idea hadn’t been taken straight from Tobacco’s 2016’s album Sweatbox Dynasty. Let me explain that claim a bit, because often times it’s very difficult to tell whether an artist has repurposed another musician’s idea for a song or come up with it independently: Trent Reznor said Sweatbox Dynasty was 2016’s “album of the year” the day it came out ; Tobacco then opened for NIN on July 19th at the first show supporting Add Violence, so it’s safe to say Reznor has heard the Tobacco album and appreciates his sound. On Sweatbox Dynasty, Tobacco cuts, re-loops, and destroys magnetic tape to make his brand of dirty, distorted experimental Hip Hop—and the gritty, arrhythmic results aren’t very far from the NIN track. But even with that qualification, the NIN song remains an unprecedented experiment—something rarely accomplished by such a popular group.
Of the EP’s other three tracks, the soft, delicate electronic waltz of “The Lovers” is the best. A careful piano and a funky synth bass-line colorfully play on each other’s idea over building drones and suspense—finally, two-and-a-half minutes into the song, Reznor’s voice interjects with a certain feeble beauty, and the three melodies come back together as complements. “Not Anymore” makes an aggressive push—one that sounds like NtAE more than anything else on this EP.
We’re left with a hit-or-miss release: each quality highlight is matched by a painful failure. The best parts of the EP are the more subtle, textural, and instrumental ideas—which seems to confirm the assertion of our recent blog article on NIN’s future. That said, it’s a welcome improvement upon Not the Actual Events—and its moments of experimentation give us hope for the third EP in the series.