Industrial, Metal / The Null Corporation / June 22, 2018 – Reviewed by Jon Lindblom
At approximately 30 minutes, Bad Witch is Nine Inch Nails’ shortest album to date. However, as those who follow the band probably know, it is really the final part in a trilogy of EPs (following Not the Actual Events from 2016 and Add Violence from 2017) that was ‘rebranded’ as a full-length LP because of the lack of visibility of EPs on streaming sites. But at the same time, turning it into an actual album seems somewhat appropriate also aside from marketing strategies, insofar as – despite its brief length – it is actually Nine Inch Nails’ most complete release since their landmark The Downward Spiral (1994).
After a string of well-made but somewhat flat albums following the extraordinary rabid sonic outbursts on The Downward Spiral and its preceding EP Broken (1992), I have slowly come to terms with the fact that Trent Reznor will never make a record of that calibre again. Perhaps it is, a bit ironically in that case, the fact that he managed to get his life in order following years of depression and drug-addiction during the 90s that is the reason for why all his subsequent releases have felt somewhat defanged in comparison with the extraordinary blend of metal, noise and industrial that characterised his output in the early 90s. For even though the idea that all great art is born out of misery is nothing but a tiresome cliché, it does nevertheless point to something important: that negativity and dissatisfaction can be crucial for fuelling aesthetic production. And while Reznor certainly keeps using his music as a vehicle for articulating negativity (e.g. towards US politics and the music industry), I have always thought that Nine Inch Nails ran into somewhat of an artistic paradox once Reznor overcame the existential nihilism that was its initial premise. Hence, what initially felt like diving into a painfully authentic existential abyss gradually turned into its mere simulation through the turning into conventions and expected postures of concepts such as ‘darkness’, ‘dread’ and ‘misery’.
This is something that still haunts NIN’s music – and probably will for the rest of its existence – but recently, things have slowly taken a somewhat more interesting turn at least on a compositional level – perhaps because of Reznor’s collaborations with underground musicians such as Alessandro Cortini, or because of having made Atticus Ross (his partner when making film soundtracks) into the first full-time member of the band aside from himself. Whatever the reason, Reznor’s more recent work has at least to a certain extent moved back towards the compelling arrangements of metal, electronic and acoustic components that he excelled in on Broken and The Downward Spiral. This is really the main strength of Bad Witch in particular. And with the band’s appearance in the remarkable eight episode of David Lynch’s and Mark Frosts’s extraordinary Twin Peaks: The Return in 2017, it somewhat felt like the 90s subversive US pop-cultural context that Reznor once thrived in had made an unexpected return 20-25 years later. For Lynch was in many ways somewhat of a fellow traveller with NIN during that decade – like Oliver Stone and David Fincher – in terms of their shared interest in exposing the repressed underside of American life and popular culture in films such as Lost Highway (1997, soundtrack produced by Reznor), Natural Born Killers (1994, soundtrack produced by Reznor) and Se7en (1995, with the famous opening sequence that is accompanied by a Coil-remix of NIN’s song ‘Closer’). (Of course, Reznor and Ross have collaborated a lot with Fincher throughout the past decade as composers scoring his films – yet Fincher’s more recent work has for the most part similarly felt somewhat flat and lacking the subversive edge that his key films during the 90s are steeped in.)
It remains to be seen if there is more to this or not, but Bad Witch is regardless a more than solid effort. For whereas basically all NIN-releases following The Downward Spiral have sounded somewhat one-dimensional by failing to live up to its sonic complexity, there is a lot on Bad Witch that is reminiscent of what makes that album so good: the wide range of sounds (including great uses of saxophone), the dynamic shifts between noise and silence, the sudden twists and turns within most tracks, the mutated vocals and extended instrumental passages. Indeed, it was Reznor’s capacity to synthesize all these sonic registers into a complex whole that made his early music so compelling. The two opening tracks ‘Shit Mirror’ and ‘Ahead of Ourselves’ are short and intense fusions of noise, metal and drum rhythms, whereas the following two tracks ‘Play the Goddamned Part’ and ‘God Break Down the Door’ intriguingly puts the saxophone rather than the guitar at a key position in the mix. Finally, the two longer concluding tracks are more atmospheric – with ‘I’m Not from This World’ being a compelling experiment with noise and abstraction that sounds like somewhat of a sonic equivalent of Twin Peaks: The Return. The final track ‘Over and Out’ is the only one that does not quite live up to the rest of the LP, but rather progresses quite comfortably (i.e. predictably) over its near 8-minute duration. It is a bit of a shame, since the album would have benefited a lot from a solid finishing piece (like the great ‘The Background World’ on Add Violence), but everything else on it is pretty impressive compared to the otherwise slightly underwhelming music that NIN has produced over the past 20+ years. Hopefully, this is just a sign of more material to come of this calibre.