Nine Inch Nails' 2007 release Year Zero will undoubtedly go down in rock history for the way the recording was marketed before its release. It may mark the first time that the advance strategy -- conceived of and executed, for the most part, by NIN auteur Trent Reznor himself with 42 Entertainment -- became part and parcel of the edifice that is the album's concept: an alternate reality game and a possible film project that lasts three years in total make up the rest. Months before the recording's actual issue date, T-shirts appeared with highlighted letters in code that spelled out "I Am Trying To Believe." Hip fans added a dotcom to the words and found a website discussing "The Presence," a shadowy four-fingered hand on the set's cover that appears throughout the booklet, in web discussions of the set, and references to the drug "Parepin," which was allegedly introduced into the water supplies of large cities to make them safe against bio-terror yet induced mass hallucinations as a side effect. There were other websites as well which described the "Church of Plano," the confessions of a government murderer for hire, and more, as well as a phone number that played the spooky beginning of the track "Survivalism." There were several thumb drives placed strategically in bathrooms of NIN concerts around the world that contained entire tracks from the album. What's more, this guerilla "marketing" campaign has not been commented on by Reznor except to say that it is not marketing, but part of the concept of Year Zero itself and not meant to induce consumers to buy the record. Right.
Given this ambitious schemata for Year Zero's release along with the concept -- a dystopian, paranoid, angry and schizophrenic look at life in the United States circa 2022 -- it is the music contained on the disc and only the music that is the bellwether of whether or not the ambition and effort were worth it. Year Zero comes virtually on the heels of 2005's With Teeth, and is a virtual sprint for Reznor who is known to take notoriously long breaks between recordings. A large portion of the album's rough tracks were recorded with a laptop setup while on tour, and it feels like it. There are hidden sounds, textures, shadings, passages, and more in virtually every cut where heavy metal, industrial , ambient, hip-hop, post-futurist balladry and strings rub up against each other and punch one another in a glorious rawk din. Melodies are asserted and turned inside out, added onto with other segments, and either returned to or not. And yet, the sound of Year Zero is cohesive, adventurous, full of dynamics, tension and character. The songs sound like songs. There are discernible hooks in "The Beginning of the End," "Survivalism," "The Greater Good," and the utterly moving and brilliant "Zero-Sum," which closes the disc. While many of the Nine Inch Nails recordings after Downward Spiral relied on sheer force to bludgeon listeners into submission, the atmospheres on Year Zero are far more seductive and and inviting. This doesn't mean there isn't a powerful blend of electronics and in-the-red vanguard rock, along with mutant science-fiction funk, from the opening "Hyperpower!" and "The Beginning of the End," where guitars squall against glitches, beeps, pops, and blotches of blurry sonic attacks. Percussion looms large, distorted, organic, looped, screwed, spindled and broken. It's as if Reznor spent some real time listening to the Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad, Public Enemy's sound architects for inspiration. His notion of the same doesn't borrow from them so much as extrapolate and shove to the margin the idea of sound as the driving force that carries a song's structure, and not vice-versa: check "Survivalism" and "Me, I'm Not."
It comes down to something both prophetic and age old: Year Zero is an album that more accurately reflects its time period than any other in the pop pantheon. Its paranoia and rage are well founded by the lack of choices. Near the end of "The Good Soldier," Reznor's protagonist emerges shattered and bewildered by the bloodshed in all this world and his personal one intones: "No one's even sure/What we're fighting for/Or who we even are anymore/I feel/so far away...." In the faux-hip-hop funky rock in "Capital G" amid the scree and feedback, this character with his ragged singsong rap offers: "Well I used to stand for something/But forgot what that could be/there's a lot of me inside you/maybe you're afraid to see/Well I used to stand for something/Now I'm on my hands and knees/Traded in my god for this one/signs his name with a capital 'G'," while a horn section bleats and burns, treated and mutilated by bleeps and glitches with a deep, scathing bassline. In the universe of Year Zero, apathy, though desired, is never enough. This is portrayed in "My Violent Heart" and "The Warning," sonically as well as lyrically. In the latter track, beats shift with huge electronic and guitar drones, pushed by the confounded emotion inherent in the lyric to the place of the apocalyptic entrance of the "presence" coming down from the sky -- is it an hallucination, an actual vision of retribution, or willful destruction by the protagonist? -- "....We've been watching you with all of our eyes/And what you seem to value most/so much potential/or so we used to say/your greed, self-importance, and your arrogance...your time is ticking away."
The burning electronic funk in "God Given" reveals the urgency of a situation with no choices but to look straight in front of you." Apocalypse and some frightening future of absolute control have been seeded and watered in the present day, from one American generation to the next as societal disintegration has resulted in the willful acquiescing of freedom, all done to monster beats, scratches, chants and completely sick rock & roll freak-out. You can find the tension whipped to frenzy pitch in "Meet Your Master," where the new boss is some grainy reality that acquits no one, offers no mercy, and where forgiveness is a concept rather than a definition of anything real. In the bass throb and guitar caterwaul in the middle, Reznor dispassionately intones, "come on down down, come on down, come on down..." It's echoed endlessly as layers of noise and feedback assert themselves over the shuffling bomb of the bass loop. What all this schizophrenic fright, political and cultural nausea and social paranoia add up to is a future of no choices because those choices were all pissed away in our gluttonous use of the environment, of other societies for our own purposes and sheer hedonism. The strange sound of marimbas and vibraphones slip ethereally from one song to the next, as if to belie the absence something that was; it has been placed under erasure; it's a collective past whose trace is barely recognizable in the future of no choice "freedom."
Year Zero is the finest Nine Inch Nails recording since Downward Spiral. Its songs are memorable, beautifully constructed and articulated. Reznor's manner of writing on a laptop and recording as he went on the road was beneficial in that it provided a larger context for his lyric ideas as they matched up to the splatter and crash of his musical ones. This is Reznor's least "personal" album," and hence it becomes his most personal; because as his vision widens to embrace an entire generation inside the conceptual reality of Year Zero and "The Presence," he embraces the things he dreads, fears and bristles at most with complete conviction -- even if that conviction is rooted at times in irony (and thank goodness for that). Certainly the album is bleak and doesn't make for bland entertainment, but then, his records never do. This one is as fully realized as a rock & roll album for the post-9/11 world can be, even if its totality is not held in the zeros and ones of binary code, but in extraneous web sites and alternate reality gamesmanship: in other words, the music stands on its own no matter what else accompanies it. Year Zero is bloodied but unbowed rock with a capital "R"; it's a serious and marginal pop treatise on the lack of political and social awareness inherent in the current and perhaps near future culture. It reveals in song and sound the helplessness bred in the individual's eminent collision and collusion with a perceived enemy. It becomes a kind of manifesto, a Jeremiad prophecy of what may arrive, however metaphorically, if these shadows do not change. It's brilliant, disturbing, necessary.