Two days before Christmas 2016, Trent Reznor released a five-song Nine Inch Nails EP, Not the Actual Events. It was a strictly digital release at first, paired with a “physical component” that turned out to be a black envelope containing liner notes and a whole bunch of really fine black powder that got all over everything when the envelope was opened. (Mine is still sealed.) In summer 2017, vinyl and CD versions became available.
In July 2017, a second EP, Add Violence, was released. Like Not the Actual Events, it contained five songs, but was six minutes longer than its predecessor (27:13 vs. 21:11), mostly because the last track, “The Background World,” ran 11:44. It, too, was eventually made available on vinyl and CD, but the first version was digital-only with a “physical component” consisting of a foldout mock user’s manual.
In June 2018, the third volume in this trilogy arrived. Bad Witch is six tracks and 30:14 long, and Reznor claims it is not an EP but an album. It was a more traditional release—vinyl, CD and digital formats all appeared simultaneously, and there was no “physical component” with the digital version.
Reznor’s music operates within discernible parameters: the melodies recall Depeche Mode or Twitch-era Ministry, but they’re improved with the addition of dense layers of noise, sound effects, and compositional drama drawn from postpunk, industrial, and Goth. His lyrics are frequently terrible—when you hear the first line of a couplet, you can complete the rhyme in your mind with 90% accuracy—but the songs always sound great. And Nine Inch Nails releases have always had a degree of stylistic consistency; each album adds or subtracts a few things to the style.
Not the Actual Events abandons that consistency. The first track, “Branches/Bones” is a 1:47 scream, pulling both its primitive, ticking rhythm and Reznor’s yelping, agonized vocal style from Suicide. “She’s Gone Away” is a sludgy dirge that surrounds the listener’s head with low pressure waves until you feel like you’re underwater. He recites the lyrics in a fatalistic groan, in imitation of Leonard Cohen. His wife, Mariqueen Maandig, is credited with backing vocals, but she’s barely audible. “The Idea of You” features Dave Grohl on drums, but his performance has been sampled and digitally chopped up until it’s just another programmed beat, albeit one with a tiny bit more room sound to it. None of these songs sound especially connected to each other; all they share is a general noisiness. And “She’s Gone Away” is the only one with a memorable chorus—yeah, it’s a monotonous chant (“she’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone away”), but one that’ll earworm you.
Add Violence has little in common with Not the Actual Events. Though these releases are nominally a trilogy, the second volume seems to insist on being considered independently of its predecessor. It opens with “Less Than,” an anthemic, singalong track that lays down a retro synth line and big, thwacking beat, then covers it in layer upon layer of noise like one person after another firing up vacuum cleaners in the studio. Still, Reznor’s voice is front and center at all times; this is a pop song. Unfortunately, the next three tracks are like its B-sides, as though Add Violence was a late ’90s CD maxi-single. On “The Lovers,” he alternates soft, nasal crooning with muttered monologues like lovelorn variations on Tom Waits‘s “What’s He Building?”, while “This Isn’t the Place” lays underwater piano over a ticking-engine rhythm, but goes basically nowhere for almost five minutes. The final track, “The Background World,” feels like exactly the kind of aimless exercise in listener annoyance that dominated 1990s CDs: the song proper ends at the four-minute mark, but seven minutes of a single looped rhythmic passage are still to come, gradually getting more and more distorted and blown-out. By the time it’s over, you aren’t just wondering why you waited through all that—were you expecting something interesting to happen?—you’ve all but forgotten the parts of the EP that you liked. It’s practically a mind-erasing device.
Bad Witch, the third and final volume in the trilogy, is as different from its predecessor as Add Violence was from Not the Actual Events. The first song, “Shit Mirror,” is a pumping garage-rock anthem swaddled in distortion and fuzz, but beneath the noise you can just barely hear handclaps and background vocals from Maandig and the Cult‘s Ian Astbury. “Ahead of Ourselves” finds Reznor trying out two or three different ways of warping his own voice, but what’s really interesting is the skittering rhythm track, which bounces all over the place while sounding like something from The Slip, secretly his best album of the 2000s. When he begins chanting “We got ahead of ourselves” in the track’s final minute, he sounds weirdly like Jello Biafra.
The next two tracks are the biggest surprises in this entire series of releases. Both the instrumental “Play the Goddamned Part” and the single “God Break Down the Door” feature Reznor playing alto and baritone saxophones, and surprisingly well at that. He doesn’t take any wild solos or anything, but midway through “Play,” they break through the staticky cloud of electronic noise that’s dominated the track and begin harmonizing and bouncing off each other in a way that may remind some listeners of the work of Julius Hemphill or the World Saxophone Quartet. Seriously. “God Break Down the Door” feels like a tribute to David Bowie‘s Blackstar. Reznor sings in a clean, soft voice over an electro-funk groove and a choppy drum ‘n’ bass rhythm, and the saxophones drift in and out of the song like fog.
Taken all together, these three EPs run 78:31—enough music for a single long CD. It would make an extremely scattershot album, but one with enough peaks to sit comfortably alongside the rest of Reznor’s catalog, and it’s certainly better than lesser releases like Year Zero and With Teeth.