Review | Nine Inch Nails —Ghosts V: Together & Ghosts VI: Locusts
“Friends — weird times indeed…”: In the midst of the perpetual doomsday news cycle, industrial rockers Nine Inch Nails without warning and without fanfare, released not one… but two extensive studio albums.
Collectively known as Ghosts V-VI, the two instrumental studio albums appeared on their website on Thursday morning. It's an unexpected, two-chapter addition to their Ghosts I-IV (2008) album; a joie de vivre celebrating the completion of long-standing contractual obligations to Interscope Records, in most unusual and artistic ways. The 2008 Ghosts was comprised of thirty-six nameless tracks, identified by their group and track number, (e.g. “12 Ghosts II”) and divided into four parts (two chapters per disc). An art-experiment — that had no clear agenda, according to Reznor — with each track commencing with a visual reference that would be defined by a sonic texture or mood, “as if it were a soundtrack.”
To match the unorthodox approach in recording, Reznor chose to release the original project under a Creative Commons license, allowing freedom to distribute, remix, and share for non-commercial purposes. This business model, which gave fans plenty of choice, ranged from DRM-free high-quality files to a luxurious $300 ultra-limited package (all of which netted the band $1.6 million almost overnight) and showed Reznor was more than ready to break the confines of record label contracts. The new Ghosts V-VI were released under much simpler terms: click and download directly from nin.com with no price tag whatsoever, or stream on your preferred service.
The well-received, raw, and noisy collection of short demo-like tracks that was Ghosts I-IV, was simply referred to as a “soundtrack for daydreams” by Reznor. Ghosts V-VI, on the other hand, are something else and almost a completely separate entity from the original Ghosts, coming with much more explanatory, heartfelt messages from the artists. They are much more reminiscent of Reznor and Ross’s unsettling dramatic film and TV scores of the last decade, featuring analog synthesizer and acoustic pianos much more prominently. At the height of their prolific solo-scoring career, and having just released a trilogy of acclaimed work under the Nine Inch Nails moniker, it's a refreshing return to the band's industrial roots, so it’s curious that these two albums don’t carry the composer's names on their covers. It is the first time they have released what is truly a soundtrack album under the NIN logo.
Ghosts V: Together: “…for when things seem like it might all be okay…” is the official description; of the two albums it’s by far the most optimistic, but that is not saying a lot.
The first track begins with a gentle vibrato of relatively pleasing synthesizers, un-alarmingly evolving into a collection of Trent Reznor’s vocalizations, before taking a turn into a slow crescendo of somber fields. There are immediate hints of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Async (2017) and Brian Eno’s Ambient series (1978-1982); the motif of evolving, transformative melodies, moods, and textures is a factor in the majority of Ghosts V-VI. Several songs like the title track, with its mediation-appropriate progression, and the tense “Out in the Open” bear strong similarity to their work on David Fincher's Gone Girl (2014).
There’s a general darkness behind every track, as if analogous to the human brain masking unresolved worry with distraction; the optimism found in the more pleasing melodies soon dissipates. “With Faith” has a funereal background choir that progressively gets more ominous, yet is saved by those intriguing synth arpeggios. “Apart”, one of the highlights of the album and the longest track between both releases, is a set of endlessly sustained, serene synth-orchestral strings with no identifiable start or finish, instantly reminiscent of Max Richter’s work in classical re-composing, until the trademark Reznor piano kicks in.
The record slowly unfolds and, as songs lack structure, is quite a laborious event, listening at times can be outright painful (like the high-frequency rise in the middle of "Hope We Can Again”) but it is ultimately rewarding. Especially when you reach “Your Touch”, reminiscent of the instrumentals found in NIN’s oft-overlooked EP Still (2002), and the most melodic moments in Ghosts I-IV. The track opens beautifully with a full-bodied bass, haunting strings and piano, and a malfunctioning synth lead that fits perfectly well, in true NIN style. The closer, “Still Right Here”, with its sudden cacophony of percussion and distortion wrapped in between several minutes of ambiance hints at the swarm of bleakness soon to appear in the next chapter, Locusts.
Ghosts VI: Locusts, is a whole different story. More experimental, dissonant, fearful, and nightmarish… the name says it all, really. “The Cursed Clock” presents itself as a modern John Cage sonata, While the sinister “Around Every Corner”, and agitated “The Worriment Waltz”, feature a satisfying Miles Davis-esque solitary trumpet wailing in the background that belongs in the alleys of a noir film. In fact, the unusual use of jazz instrumentation combined with Reznor’s electronic capabilities gives a strong Angelo Badalamenti vibe to several of these pieces. “Run Like Hell”, a fine, rhythmic, uptempo tune that features a riotous midsection patch of live drums, also dabbles in brassy territory; befitting of NIN’s Bowie-inspired Bad Witch (2018).
The halfway point of the album features a varied set of short interludes, presenting some interesting moments: “Another Crashed Car”, built on a clattered found-sound loop, and “Temp Fix”, with its instruments struggling to stay in tune, belong in a Lynch scene. Even the most apocalyptic moments, such as the thirteen-minute despairing of “Turn This Off Please”, and prepared-piano horror tune “So Tired”, are balanced out by more melodious ‘piano ballads’: the arpeggiated “Trust Fades”, glitchy “A Really Bad Night”, and reverb-friendly “Right Behind You.” The record closes with “Almost Dawn”, a gentle, pensive nocturne, devoid of possibility, of hope; yet before its overdrive into noise, some really elegant subtle granulations of melody put a glimpse of light in an otherwise pitch-black sky.
In this global crisis, caused by the spread of an undetectable, seemingly unstoppable virus, daily life feels as apocalyptic as displayed in film. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have perfectly captured these moments of fear, tragedy, and confinement into two and a half hours of music. It is an unprecedented, direct artistic response to the current pandemic and it should be embraced. While Together and Locusts are not revolutionary, or as exciting as NIN’s last trilogy of releases, they are a solid addition to the catalog, and for free, it is truly hard to complain. In a way, these releases are the culmination of Reznor’s and Ross’s scoring career. They have now proved they can score both fact and fiction, and quite fittingly for that matter. All in all, If Ghosts I-IV were a “soundtrack for daydreams,” then Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts are the soundtrack for introspection and isolation, respectively.
Best songs: “Letting Go While Holding On”, “Together”, “Apart”, “Your Touch”, "Still Right Here", “Around Every Corner”, “Worriment Waltz”, “Run Like Hell”, “A Really Bad Night”, “Almost Dawn”
Worst songs: “Hope We Can Again”, “Your New Normal”, “When It Happens (Don’t Mind Me)”