CD Review by Gregory S. Burkart
Right on the heels of Trent Reznor?s bold proclamation (before an arena full of fans) that he intends to ditch Interscope Records and go 100% indie from here on out, arrives what may very well be the final Nine Inch Nails release to fall within the clutches of a major label. I?m all in favor of this, or course, but this review isn?t the place to comment on that (although rest assured the appropriate venue is coming soon). I?ll say instead that Trent is not only one for bucking trends, but for inventing or re-inventing new ones as well, and although he didn?t invent the user-generated remix concept, he certainly propels it forward in his approach to the format ? including this collection, which contains the same tracklist as Year Zero, but with each mix submitted by a different artist. The CD is accompanied by a DVD-ROM containing the source files (in .wav format) for all 16 tracks, so listeners with their own home or studio editing systems can take a crack at a mix themselves and upload their finished product to the band?s website. For this inclusion alone, aspiring musicians, producers, DJs and fans wanting to dive into the NIN experience should seek this one out.
Given the fairly high benchmark set by Trent?s previous remix albums (Further Down The Spiral, Things Falling Apart), listeners such as myself were certainly expecting great things from this venture, and fortunately there?s a lot of worthy material compiled here, from a great diversity of creative sources. It?s not all golden, though, and I was actually surprised at some of the lackluster choices from the nearly bottomless well of remix artists, which ranged from home-studio hobbyists all the way up to major-label names. The approach is sound, and resulted in each track acquiring its own distinct personality? but, as with human beings, that doesn?t always guarantee something interesting. Still, as a huge fan of remixes in general and long-time admirer of Trent?s work, I can?t really complain about the arrival of any NIN release, and I applaud the innovative spirit behind this one.
Among the Reznor canon, Year Zero has received middling reviews, but I liked it overall, as a strong return to the edgy experimentalism and noise technique that pervaded much of The Downward Spiral ? though the production is sparse compared to my personal favorite The Fragile, arguably one of the 20 greatest rock albums of all time (and that argument is still going on). It?s this leaner structure that actually creates a more open playground for other artists to do their thing with these tracks, and this is where some of the inventive production techniques ? and even songwriting skills ? come to the fore. The results are a bit scattershot, but many of them bring fresh new colors to Reznor?s patented sonic palette.
Trent has lately sung the praises of Saul Williams, and produced Williams' debut release (The Inevitable Rise And Liberation Of Niggy Tardust) himself, so it?s no surprise to find Saul attached to two tracks: the opening ?Gunshots By Computer? is essentially ?Hyperpower!? with overlaid lyrics, and the original instrumental prologue becomes a canvas for Williams to paint broad strokes in his rantish, politically-charged poetic style ? which suits the original album?s Orwellian worldview, but still comes across as an awkward stylistic fit. Williams returns stronger in his take on the popular ?Survivalism,? which is a lot more interesting and has a real gut-punch of a kick, both sonically and lyrically.
Others win collective points for originality, catchiness and production quality: Ladytron?s ?Beginning Of The End? remix is retro-cool without being too kitschy (a line that band often walks); ModWheelMood turns out a pleasantly organic variation on ?The Great Destroyer,? and the Kronos Quartet completely transforms ?Another Version Of The Truth? with magical and haunting results. ?God Given? gets a profound reworking by New Order?s Stephen Morris & Gillian Gilbert, and Stefan Goodchild flips ?The Warning? intro a drum-based piece, but with the same aggression as the guitar-heavy original. The profundity of ?In This Twilight? is retained in Christian Fennesz?s version, but with a mellower, more pensive edge. The rest are mostly solid dance tracks that, while fun and imaginative, still remain in the shadow of the originals.
Sadly, when the tracks stumble, they fall hard. I?m speaking namely of an interminable and pointless mix of ?Me, I?m Not? by The Knife?s Olaf Dreijer, which rambles on for nearly 15 minutes with no musical or emotional dynamics, no peaks or valleys whatsoever. It?s a baffling and unfortunate inclusion that could have given up nine-tenths its length (or dropped off the list altogether) to make room for three or four worthy contenders. Seriously, my washing machine had completed an entire permanent press cycle before this track finally ended. I think I would have preferred just listening to the washer.
Despite its failings, I?d have to recommend this release overall, and not just to rabid NIN completists like myself (I tend to snarf up each Halo issue like Mardi Gras beads). It?s an intriguing musical experiment, and those are always worth a little investment of your time, even if they don?t always hit the mark. The addition of the audio files is proof positive that this release is for people who love to mess around with music, or just listen to the results of those who do. And if you don?t like what you hear, you can take the pieces and reassemble your own version. It?s win-win, really.
On a side note to project studio producers out there, itching to get a hold of these sound files via the DVD: some with lower-memory systems have complained about the files being difficult to download. As a possible workaround, the song elements can also be downloaded individually from remix.nin.com (be sure to read the FAQ for useful tips and some amusing digs at the Interscope honchos). As of this writing it looks like different file formats are now available, which might also alleviate some of those technical glitches.