Review by Gregory S. Burkart
On March 3rd, something came into my house, drifted on the air, spun its way into my ears and reminded me just what music can do when freed from all limitations.
Freed from bureaucratic entanglements and corporate avarice. Freed from ridiculous notions of what is worthy of public consumption. Freed from traditional forms and format restrictions, including the abomination that is Digital Rights Management. Hell, even freed from publicity, advertising, marketing & promotional hogwash. Yes, I let actual music into my home, made by people who love nothing more than making it. So I promptly dropped everything I was doing and started writing to you about this week's sudden shocking release of Nine Inch Nails' epic instrumental collection Ghosts.
I write to explain what an artist's material sounds like when he stops thinking about what people want to hear and instead plays what he feels. The fruit of this idea is out there now, and a whole bunch of it is free for the picking. And by free, I mean dude, like free. Trent Reznor is giving a quarter of these tracks away.
So, you ask, why am I waxing philosophic about some weird, artsy-fartsy collection of experimental, instrumental music? Because it's some of the coolest music you're going to hear this year.
It all happened quietly, without fanfare, without press, without a whisper of publicity apart from Trent's cryptic February 17th news headline ?Two Weeks.? Then one night, it just suddenly appeared. Thirty-six instrumental tracks, two CDs worth, totaling at nearly two hours. Before even one day had passed, the album's official site [www.ghosts.nin.com] utterly collapsed in a blizzard of downloads ? three times more than the band ever expected. So Trent punted by making the nine free tracks available via BitTorrent sites like The Pirate Bay ? where he had once allegedly (wink wink) uploaded the entire uncut Broken promo movie that became the stuff of bootleg legend. Amazon's MP3 download section also sells all 36 hi-res tracks in case the NIN official site proves too buggy (and it is, unfortunately). At both locations, they charge the mere pittance of five dollars for the whole bundle, and there's a cool PDF kit you can download to go with it.
Following on the heels of Radiohead's first bold experiment with the ?name your price? online distribution approach for In Rainbows ? as well as Reznor's similar experiment last winter with Saul Williams' Niggy Tardust ? the release of Ghosts pushes this new paradigm further into the realm of the possble, while making dedicated Nine Inch Nails fans feel all the more privileged for gaining access to this gem under the corporate music-label radar.
The boldness of this effort is itself worthy of respect. But what about the music itself? At the risk of sounding elitist, this is music that you're either going to ?get? or you aren't. It's not music to win over those who are just waiting for Trent to record another ?Closer? so they can yell out the ?F? word at clubs... this is the kind of music that results from a group of like-minded artists (producer Alan Moulder and guitar legend Adrian Belew ranking prominently among them) coming together over a ten-week period to jam, experiment and throw ideas against the wall to see what sticks. What doesn't stick gets melted down and molded into a totally new form, then set on fire. The energy is so strong it almost feels dangerous turning the volume up too high, as if there were frequencies captured in the outer reaches that enter the realm of the occult.
?We began improvising and let the music decide the direction,? Reznor states on the album's info pages. ?Eyes were closed, hands played instruments and it began.? Thus what started as a concept for a 5-track EP turned into the mammoth epic now unfolding before us. ?The end result is a wildly varied body of music that we're able to present to the world in ways the confines of a major record label would never have allowed.? For these words alone, I would like to buy this man a nice dinner.
Though often grounded in the explosive drumbeats, melancholy piano drones and overdriven synth bass lines that are the band's stock in trade, this is still a wildly diverse sonic landscape, with instrumentation ranging from odd metallic objects to elaborate synth programming to bells and banjos ? all framed within minimalist song patterns, savage dynamics and endless layers of embedded samples. As on earlier masterpiece The Fragile (from which instrumentals like ?La Mer,? ?Pilgrimage? and ?Just Like You Imagined? often outshone the lyrical material), production is used as an instrument in itself, and even takes on a living, breathing character. The result is a study in horrific beauty, a sensual apocalypse that ranks among the band's finest work. What's also interesting is that much of the rage that permeates Reznor's body of work seems to be replaced here with a different, equally intense energy ? the kind that emerges when an artist's mind is freed from restraints and begins to explore the unknown.
If you still think what I've described in these paragraphs isn't cool enough (and shame on you for thinking so), try dropping by Artists In Residence.com for a peek at the physical CD and vinyl releases of Ghosts, scheduled for release in May. I went there, and shortly afterwards I had to wash my shorts, if you know what I mean. The Deluxe Edition packages both CDs in a bookshelf-style slipcase with a 48-page book of art prints, a data DVD with all the tracks in mixable multi-track format as well as a Blu-Ray DVD containing high-def versions of the tracks with accompanying slide-show. Those willing to plunk down some serious coinage can get a super-deluxe Reznor-autographed package with framed Giclee art prints and vinyl versions of both discs. You know what? I'm actually considering buying that... and yes, I'm quite insane. But today, I'm happy... because I experienced something truly unique.
Even in its simplest digital form, this project demands your attention, and soon. The history of music is changing all around us, and now is your chance to be a part of it, for mere pocket change. Let the fat cats know you're mad as hell about the state of the recording industry and you're not going to take it anymore. Rock your damn socks off while you are doing so.
But be careful... if you've ever entertained the idea of making music yourself, this is going to push you to the next level before you know it.
I'm done spouting off now. Go forth and download.