Many have been eagerly awaiting "Add Violence" since Trent Reznor said we should expect a trilogy of Eps; the first, "Not the Actual Events", surfaced in December of 2016. Though Reznor is the infamous heart and soul of NINE INCH NAILS, he is rejoined by his longtime collaborator/cowriter Atticus Ross, the duo has worked on NINE INCH NAILS material as well as various movie soundtracks. Having performed on a recent episode of the highly popular "Twin Peaks" revival, NINE INCH NAILS might be reaching deep into the collective cultural consciousness yet again. Considering his bold and fearless willingness to wander without regard to convention or expectations, it's of little surprise that he doesn't always hit a home run. But when he does, he sends the ball to the moon, and he has done so once again with "Add Violence".
The sense of distress and anger inherent across NINE INCH NAILS's back catalogue is so palpable you can almost hold it. Onlookers might see NINE INCH NAILS, at least partially, as a tool for a downtrodden man to periodically purge undesirable feelings. However, NINE INCH NAILS's music is so dark, especially on "Add Violence", that one might assume the pit of bleakness is bottomless. Perhaps Reznor is the proverbial tortured artist repeatedly spilling his blood, sweat and tears endlessly upon the canvas with no lasting cure for his ailments.
The substance abuse of a younger Reznor certainly informed the turbulence of his dark soundscapes of yore, but now, as an aging family man and father, a sense of maturity and clear mindedness seems to guide his music with a more succinct delivery. Overt angst does manifest itself, however Reznor seems to be practicing restraint, holding back, knowing when to strategically let the steam out of the kettle. In those distilled moments, the rage might be more intense than ever before.
He also continues to marry rage and misery masterfully and paradoxically during upbeat, melodic choruses à la "Head Like a Hole". On "Add Violence", this quality emerges right out of the gate with opener "Less Than". The song is an energetic and anthemic charger that kicks off with a popping eighties-like electronic synth pop keyboard surge before making room for Reznor's charming, impassioned melodic voice. Much like the way that Billy Corgan's voice is one of a kind and likable, so too are Reznor's pipes, which are endearing and powerful yet unrefined and unstable. He's no Chris Cornell nor Mike Patton, but it's perhaps partially because of his vocal frailty and imperfections that the moments of vulnerability and despair shine through so brightly.
The most fragile state of his voice slides into the subdued follow-up track "The Lovers", a number that slithers forth with video game-like bleeps. The song has a dream like quality but drags on with a sense of monotony. It's almost as though Reznor and cohort Ross didn't push themselves enough with this track; arguably this unfocused element of confusion is the thematic point of the song. The surreal qualities roll forward in "This Isn't the Place", a track that drives with a greater sense of purpose as tension builds ever so slightly throughout the song. But if these tracks are too calm for some longtime NINE INCH NAILS fans, "Not Anymore" cuts in with a frenzy of blazing synth hard rock and manic primal screaming in Reznor's signature way.
The biting EP culminates with the standout closer "The Background World". Reznor's lyrics and delivery convey sorrow and contempt, uniquely captured in his distinct kind of catchy crooning. This is matched with a tranquil, electronic pulse that leverages negative space. He's created a massive cinematic sound, suggesting that it was informed by the Reznor and Ross duo's soundtrack experience. But the bulk of what follows in the nearly 12-minute song is arguably the most extreme music Reznor has ever created, not, however, in a belligerent manner utilizing rock music tactics. Instead, a synth loop becomes increasingly and oppressively distorted until the initial head-bobbing riff and beat become completely unrecognizable, awash with static noise. It's an exhilarating exercise in electronic noise on an immediately visceral level, as well as a conceptual representation of a descent into emotional disintegration. It goes from bad to worse to chaos, and from the sounds of it, it is not cathartic. It sounds like what self-immolation must feel like. At least those of us outside of the fishbowl can sadistically reap the rewards of Reznor's labor, that is, unless we're sucked right into the vacuum of its madness. NINE INCH NAILS amazes yet again.