Sunday, July 15, 2007

Another version of Trent

Nine Inch Nails
Year Zero
Score: 6

What happens when the man who famously yelped, "Help me get away from myself," finally gets comfortable with himself?

Torment and art have intertwined for ages, whether in painting, poetry or music. But for Trent Reznor --- who essentially built a career off his angst, mainstreaming the industrial genre in the process --- that braid is everything. Isn't it?

In a 2005 interview with Spin magazine, Reznor revealed that he went into a drugs-and-booze tailspin after The Fragile's release, shortly before the new millennium. "It was very clear to me that I was trying to kill myself," he said.

Reznor got help, and it showed (though it didn't necessarily help his music). Signs of his personal transformation flashed on 2005's With Teeth, from its looser structure to its desertion of past triumphs. Gone were the kinks and coils of Pretty Hate Machine, the blowtorch rage of The Downward Spiral, the labyrinthine corridors of The Fragile.

In its place were --- with a few notable exceptions --- straightforward rockers. Among the exceptions, standout track "Only" appropriated the early-'90s bass and synth sounds of Pretty Hate Machine and referenced the "tiny little dot" from "Down in It." Except instead of succumbing to it, as he did then, Reznor stood up to it. And with his newfound insight ("Now I know why / Things aren't as pretty on the inside"), he chose to rise above, snarling a defiant affirmation: "There is no you / There is only me."

But no sooner did he reclaim control than he found new grist for his songs. Ideas came to him on tour. Not even waiting until he returned to the studio, he tweaked them on his laptop.

Now, at Year Zero, Reznor has shifted from the personal to the political, and from the confessional to the fictional. He's pulled himself out of the downward spiral and found a world that disturbs him. A world that, with a few broad strokes of the imagination, becomes an Orwellian nightmare: one nation under the thumb of the U.S. Bureau of Morality, the result of a military-ecclesiastical complex stamping out dissent in the year 2022.

Part allegory, part rock opera, Year Zero is Reznor's first concept album. In keeping with this new direction, he adopts persona after persona, and he contorts his vocals more than on any other studio album, likely aiming to disappear into his characters. In "Capital G," a right-winger spouts his views on war, the poor and global warming. "The Warning" introduces us to The Presence, a giant hand that appears to extend from the heavens. It might be a hallucination, or an alien, or none of the above. "Vessel" follows the user of a powerful drug, by turns experiencing exhilaration, fear, clarity and megalomania. "The Great Destroyer" exposes a rebel's thoughts of "the limitless potential / living inside of me / to murder everything."

Clearly an ambitious project, Year Zero extends far beyond the album. Reznor and a group of specialists carefully plotted their viral marketing scheme, employing T-shirts, USB drives, online message boards and more. There's even a network of Wikipedia-like pages devoted to the album's concepts, Basically, Team Reznor created a Matrix for fans to escape into.

So if you feel like the music sometimes takes a back seat to the grand concept, it's not just you. For starters, there are no great songs on Year Zero. No "Head Like a Hole." No "Hurt." No "Closer." And while the album has better cohesion than With Teeth, its songs are less memorable.

Part of this could be a focus on rhythm at the expense of melody. Nowhere is this more apparent than on "Survivalism," the album's first single. It opens with a buzzy guitar riff, a drum machine snare and an ambient techno burble, all looped. Reznor sings a verse, and waspy sound effects fly in. Then he launches into an odd guttural chant for the chorus, the first line being "I got my propaganda I got revisionism." It sounds remarkably like, "I guh muh prupa-na I guh ruh-vishin-nuh."

Rhythm chains together the next three songs, always repeating elements in a tight loop. In "The Good Soldier," they're a bass line and a handclap. "Me, I'm Not" puts the beats in an airplane hangar. Synths take over on "Vessel," beaming lasers and blowing raspberries until noise hijacks the track in a fusillade of caustic riffage, feedback loops, beeps and blips, rat-a-tat-tating percussion and some kind of wind chime.

While these rhythms make the album interesting (and are among the most salient examples), they don't make it particularly memorable. This is not to say that albums heavy on rhythm and light on melody cannot be good albums. If that were true, Tortoise would never have enjoyed acclaim. Yet Year Zero's songs don't resonate the way previous Nine Inch Nails songs have.

Reznor's departure from personal experience plays a significant role here. Serving as omniscient narrator to his imaginary soundtrack or script, he cuts from one character to the next with minimal development, making it hard to care about their lives and situations. If Year Zero were a screenplay, it would be an action movie, perhaps in the survival-horror genre. Lots of explosions, little dialogue.

Rumor is, there will be a sequel. Look for it in 17 months or less; Bush leaves office in January of 2009.

That's a tight deadline, Trent. Better practice your Orwell.

Monday, July 9, 2007

The revolution will not be amplified

The Nightwatchman
One Man Revolution
Score: 4

Setting aside his greatest asset --- his bomb-rocking, gut-socking ax --- Tom Morello quietly picks up an acoustic guitar. For this is to be an old-fashioned protest. And while it will be old-fashioned, do not misconstrue "old-fashioned" to mean "wimpy" or "hippie." With his voice, those taut strings and a small posse of other instruments (even if it is producer Brendan O'Brien who plays them), Morello wields plenty of power.

Whether he knows what to do with it is another thing.

One Man Revolution, the Rage Against the Machine veteran's first solo album, under the alias the Nightwatchman, teeters on a mound of quality lines and clunkers, of heart and half-wittedness.

At times, Morello approaches profundity. In the title track, he declares, "In my nightmares, the streets are flame / and in my dreams, it's much the same." He offers a similarly deep phrase in "Maximum Firepower": "The skin you're in / makes choices for you."

Highlight "Let Freedom Ring" celebrates freedom with the kind of passion not native to people born into it. With a chiming piano and Morello's solemn sincerity, the song hits all the right notes. His voice boasts a compelling confidence, the kind that comes when you know you're right. This adds to the song's dignified and respectful air, and Morello never strays into overly sentimental territory.

If only he had an album's worth of those songs in him. More often than not, the discipline seems loose and the material amateurish. An excessive repetition of lines and a reliance on devices contribute to One Man Revolution's rudimentary feel. While it's true that many classic protest songs use repetition as a way to 1) Make a song easier to remember, and 2) Drive home a point, no one would mistake Morello's lyrics for Bob Dylan's, even though "The Dark Clouds Above" adopts the structure (and use of meteorological metaphor) of "Blowin' in the Wind."

Throughout the album, Morello clings to another device: numbers. Though used to good effect on the solidarity pledge "Until the End," which counts down from 10 to one, the presence elsewhere of the same technique, albeit in abbreviated form, diminishes its power. On "Flesh Shapes the Day," Morello includes the lines "ten letters I am writing" and "nine circles I am drawing." That's in addition to the album's "seven summits" and "seven seas" and "forty days in the wilderness" and "forty sleepless nights" and "one man revolution" and "two steps toward you" and "twelve fine friends" and "three more seconds" and a patridge in that tree with the yellow ribbon (maybe).

These grievances alone could not quite derail the album, particularly with the strong work in "Let Freedom Ring" and "No One Left," a requiem for fallen soldiers. But "Flesh Shapes the Day" proves up to the task. What begins as merely a substandard, generalized diatribe turns laughable about a minute in, when Morello starts hooting, growls "mic check," then follows with another round of hooting. Ruling out momentary insanity, this happens again later on. It's the chorus.

Such decisions endanger the credibility of One Man Revolution, making it border on campfire sing-along rather than well-conceived studio recording. Which is unfortunate, because the album deserves to be heard --- if only to prove the man can hold a tune. Morello's vocals, scratchy and radio-friendly, fall somewhere between those of Jakob Dylan and Everlast.

If there's anybody who can relate to Morello's situation, it's Everlast. When House of Pain, the sole source of his success, disbanded in 1996, he found his way to an acoustic guitar. The resulting album, Whitey Ford Sings the Blues, was a smash. It launched Everlast to heights he and House of Pain had never known. Suddenly he was recording a duet with Carlos Santana, then picking up a Grammy (whatever that's worth these days) for that collaboration.

But the chain of events was due in large part to the crossover appeal of Whitey Ford Sings the Blues. One Man Revolution doesn't span a lot of genres, so the chance of it following such a path seems beyond remote. If Carlos Santana likes it enough, though, maybe there's hope --- of a guitar duel. That would be pretty cool.

Plugged in, of course.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Dude, what happened?

OK, so illness and several projects kept me from posting for a while, but more reviews are coming soon.