The demise of the CD as the format of choice for top-tier artists, as well as the steady shrinking of our attention spans (down to an average of eight seconds, according to one controversial study), might have been the best thing to happen to Nine Inch Nails. Or maybe it’s the bitter bargain they’ve had to enter into that keeps core members Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on the road more than ever and doing film score work to make ends meet instead of tinkering in a studio for ages.
Whatever the reason, the narrowing of their vision to an EP’s length has only made them stronger, more direct. Less time for interludes and meandering passages. Much like Broken and the comparatively lean full-lengths Pretty Hate Machine and The Slip, their recent releases — last year’s Not the Actual Events and the new Add Violence — waste precious little time. Scabbards to the side, they make their impact and get out of the way while we try to assess the damage.
As impactful as many of NIN’s more focused statements have been, Add Violence makes its impact felt with even more authority than its recent predecessors. Not the Actual Events, the first part of this supposed trilogy of EPs that these two are set to release over the next year, had some evident strain to its writing. Its five songs stomped and snarled like a caged animal. On this new collection, the mood is more insinuating and sensual. You’re getting off on feeling the snake slither around your body but don’t realize that it’s crushing your spine until it’s halfway done with the job.
It doesn’t feel like the band is exerting much effort on these five songs. Which doesn’t mean that they are tossed off and insignificant. Rather that they have fully embraced their strengths and know how to use them to the best effect. There’s an ease to which they slip into the middle section of this EP that is so alluring. “The Lovers” and “This Isn’t the Place” are sexy, little numbers with unhurried tempos and bubbling, droning foundations that massage the senses into submission. The rest of the material on Violence is NIN in their comfort zone, pushing and pulling at their seams through the arpeggiated synths and Reznor’s agitated vocal turn on “Less Than” and the frothy, fuzzy roll that explodes into rage through the course of “Not Anymore”.
Most heartening for the future of this project is the little ways that Reznor and Ross continue to mess with the formula. The tweaks are minor but mighty. Like the strained falsetto that Reznor uses on “This Isn’t the Place”. He sounds vulnerable throughout the song, broken and shaken, singing: “I thought we had more time/ Carry me home.” They also allow some musical indulgence at the end of the EP. After building to a swirling conclusion on the main part of closing track “The Background World”, the next seven and a half minutes is given over to a knowingly ill-constructed loop that gets more and more fucked as it rolls forward. By the final minutes, they’ve turned into a harsh noise act that specializes in scratchy and lurid compositions.
Another important element of the EP format is its use as an appetite suppressant. In years past, it was primarily a stopgap for bands to tide their fans over while they were between albums. Or to presage the release of a new full-length. These days, the EP is there to serve not only as an outlet for new music but also to help keep the promotional train rolling, an excuse of sorts to justify new tours or festival appearances. Gone are the days when an artist could be sustained on a big album/big tour cycle. Reznor and Ross can’t stop lest the wheels fall off the train.
However, that also means that the two men can’t devote everything to this music. Since the release of Not the Actual Events alone, they’ve recorded music for two films and contributed to the soundtrack of another. On top of playing a batch of live dates. The feeling of inhibition on Add Violence starts to feel like less of an artistic choice and more a necessity. The two mashed together tempos and moods of “Not Anymore” could be just a quick and dirty way to stick two otherwise incomplete musical fragments together — the long outro of “The Background World” simply a way to make the rest of the song feel less unfinished. Reznor and Ross held something of themselves back on this EP, and while it doesn’t completely upend the great work that’s here, it does open up speculation about how it could have been even better if it had their full attention.
Essential Tracks: “The Background World” and “This Isn’t the Place”