Part One – The Frame:
I’m a fan of Nine Inch Nails – one may even say, a bit obsessive. I own every halo (in multiple formats no less), buy merchandise regularly and can tell you pretty much anything about the history of the band and the man himself, Trent Reznor. Like many others I became this big of a fan in… oh, 1994 to be exact- when The Downward Spiral was released. TDS was so unlike anything else that had come out before it, both from NIN and from anyone really, that it immediately stood out, high above the maddening, homogenized crowds of sound pumped through speakers the world over. Now, I was a ‘fan’ before TDS, I had a copy of Broken on cassette tape and I liked Head Like a Hole – but I couldn’t get into Pretty Hate Machine as a whole album. After listening to the album once in the early 90’s I kind of disregarded it and didn’t give it another chance until late into the 90’s, after my TDS obsession started to build.
I ended up loving PHM of course, for all its crude and mildly embarrassing stutter-steps, once I actually devoted some time to really hearing it, I found it to be very honest… it was a strikingly personal and unashamed work – and the fact that Reznor wrote and performed the whole thing was quite commendable. Even more commendable (and endearing) was the fact that he paid for it himself and recorded it at night in the studio he worked in as a janitor. That level of tenacity, of belief in yourself was wholly inspiring (and still certainly is). Long story short, I slowly became a fan of Trent Reznor, more so than Nine Inch Nails. I followed his career, through all the dark days after TDS, through the debauchery, the silence, the remixes, the drought of substantial releases, etc. There was a time when everyone would flip their shit because we got a new song – just a single track! For quite a long while there it was hard going; remaining a fan and telling people NIN was your favorite contemporary “rock” band when, for all intents and purposes, they’d only really released three full-length albums, a few EPs — and then disappeared.
What kept me going was that when Reznor put his mind to completing something and did release a track, I listened and every single time, without fail, I was affected. What he drip-fed out was enough to satiate me during the drought periods; his works, scant as they were, were so dense, so expert, that they remained infinitely listenable to me.
Finally, after the last great drought: With Teeth, which, up until today has been the most polarizing NIN album released – and also the album I see Hesitation Marks sharing the most with thematically. Full disclosure – I love With Teeth – loved it immediately no less. Everyone around me was unimpressed at best, but I couldn’t stop listening. It was so unique to the canon, so live and raw and energetic, so… human. My moment of transcendence with With Teeth came to me while I was listening to the disco-lite single, Only, I realized that the entire album – all of it, was only about one person. For all the “You” and “Yours” on the album, it was the most self-effacing work I’d ever heard from Reznor.
“Less concerned about fitting into the world Your world, that is Because it doesn't really matter Anymore None of this really matters anymore Yes I am alone But then again I always was As far back as I can tell I think maybe it's because Because you were never real to begin with I just made you up To hurt myself And it worked Yes it did There is no you There is only me There is no fucking you There is only me Only”
It sounds so trite on the surface, so petulant and self-indulgent, teenage angst writ small against a drum machine loop. But then it hit me, this was, after all, the biography of finally overpowering his addiction – the ‘you’ he speaks of is himself, the self-indulgent and scared personality he ‘just made up to hurt himself’. This was a fractured man wrestling with himself to reclaim his mind and his life. The album opened up on a whole new level after this. Every song spoke of this to me: “Why do you get all the love in the world?” – “don’t you fucking know what you are?” – right from the very beginning, the entirety of the album is about this duality of self, he was not raging against the dying of ineffectual outer light, he was angry with himself, he was rebuking his own heart. This wasn’t teenage angst – this was ego-death. As a statement of reclaiming your own soul it could not have been more successful – because from With Teeth onward marks the most unbelievably prolific portion of Reznor’s career thus far. The man has been releasing things non-stop without fear or without second-guessing himself. He has opened up to the idea of being loose, quick and ‘gasp’ having fun doing what he loves.
This is important because I think, up until now, that honesty scared him a bit and he diverted attention away from it for a while, choosing to talk politics (Year Zero), be silent altogether (Ghosts) or quickly slam together some stadium rockers (The Slip). It’s only now – on Hesitation Marks that we’re seeing the real, bare, and unashamed personal Reznor again stepping out from behind the auspice of the conceptual characterizations littering his releases since With Teeth. Hesitation Marks is right down to the bone; those teeth took a bite and have just now pulled off the meat.
Part Two – The Picture:
Hesitation Marks, the ninth studio album from NIN officially releases today. I’ve been listening to it for quite a while now thanks to a handy leak (don’t worry I’ve already bought more than five copies of the damn album – I have no ethical qualms about pirating the leak), but late last night I was able to download the hi-resolution versions of the album off of the official NIN site, both the audiophile mastered version and the standard mastered version. I was waiting for these to release before I wrote this review so I could include all formats and all mastered mixes in my assessment.
It just so happens that my day job is in the audio industry and not ten feet from my desk I have this nice little set-up:
This is the primary system I am reviewing the album on. I’ll be focusing on the “standard” and “audiophile” hi-resolution mixes (48/24) and the vinyl version for this review.
A main component of my job is listening to music and figuring out why it sounds good – or bad. So please, allow this review to take a different path than most. As you’ve seen from the above – I’m a fan of Trent Reznor. There are certain artists who can do no wrong in my eyes; I’m confident they’re real artists and as such I have no interest in trying to label their output as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. If it is work from an artist I respect, then it is all good, I may not personally enjoy it as much as some of their other work, but I respect them enough to understand it is not my place to judge what they’ve done based on my concepts of artistic merit. You don’t listen to the new Bowie album and wag your finger, questioning him every step of the way and admonishing his songs for sounding too ”something” – you just don’t do it; he’s David Fucking Bowie – he can do what he wants, the man changed the landscape and inspired a generation (see also, Trent Fucking Reznor). Once an artist earns my respect and trust by showing their ethical commitment to the medium – they can and should go any damn place they please. After all, Reznor’s worst song is still one million times better than any song I’ll ever write, so I have no reason to sully his hard work by trying to pretend I can stand in judgment of his skill as a songwriter.
I enjoyed the album immensely and think it is an absolutely brilliant work in all regards. It is a total success and I congratulate Trent and company on the superb work done.
That all being said, I only plan to review this album based on acoustics alone; solely the production and the different masters. Just to be clear we will be looking at the following three distinct masters:
1. Hesitation Marks (48/24) “Standard Master”
2. Hesitation Marks (48/24) “Audiophile Master”
3. Hesitation Marks “Vinyl Master”
Let me begin by saying the overall audacity of the production – across all releases – is unbelievable. I’ve always enjoyed the way Reznor mixes a record and for my money he is one of the best contemporary producers working today. This record proves that his skill has only grown in the production realm. When the album first leaked it was the day after the MTV awards show where Miley Cyrus danced salaciously while her pre-recorded commercial jingle pumped through the auditorium (I didn’t actually see this performance – I just read about it on Reddit, so forgive me if I’m being a bit too cynical). The leak coincided perfectly with a day of terrible distaste in modern music – I was face to face with the worst aspects of celebrity pop and a new Nine Inch Nails record was exactly what I needed to get my head out of the gutter. With that context in mind – I listened to the album multiple times throughout the day and immediately found it to be a perfect erect middle-finger to these beat-obsessed solipsists that stick out their tongues on the television – there were songs that were anchored by beats so heavy and thick that I think Michael Jackson’s zombified corpse tried to claw his way out of the grave to dance. To be clear, I loved Michael Jackson and think he was a very talented musician, so when I compare a track on this NIN record to him it is a compliment – tell me you don’t hear Satellite and think of MJ. It’s ridiculous, and I guarantee it’s a very deliberate attempt to make a modern pop song, Justin Timberlake eat your heart out, this is a beat to kill for.
The Standard Master goes a long way to show that all the above is indeed germane to the discussion; the standard master is just that; standardized. It’s compressed and LOUD – there is no space in the mix and it suffocates you with bass and clipping. HOWEVER – that being said, for what it is, it still sounds incredible. Compare this side by side with any contemporary pop album and I guarantee you’ll not feel so cheated by this “standard” master. It is lock step with the industry in many ways, but thanks to the mix it surpasses any other recent album I’ve heard produced in the mainstream. The brick-walling is unfortunate and all that, sure – but this is just the way things are done now. Don’t like it? Well I don’t blame you. But let us properly put it in context before casting our virtual stones, because once it is considered in context it becomes very acceptable to me. I think it sounds fantastic for a loud, compressed modern mess. It isn’t to my taste and it certainly feels overwhelmingly tight and compressed; there is no clear definition to anything that isn’t panned hard and full, all the air is sucked out of the aural space and it’s incredibly fatiguing to my ears – but so are all other modern records, so again I don’t hold it against the people involved in the master – it is what it is for a reason; the radio, cars and ipods – and for that it is perfectly fine. People equate loud music with a good quality recording, which is misguided, certainly, but unfortunately it is true today… so then let’s take it for what it is and appreciate it working within the confines of the medium in which it is forced to compete commercially.
The Audiophile Master comes alive, but really, isn’t too much of a marked difference. It is a definite improvement though – It’s obviously less compressed and there is no discernible clipping in the audible signal. Everything is crisp and wide and we start to hear the soundstage developing some real dimensional depth. There is definition to be heard here and transients suddenly become much more apparent. Vocals sit better in this mix as well, taking advantage of the added headroom, things begin to open up and separation is much more apparent between instruments. Some locational placement is achieved in this master as well, with things moving beyond hard left center and hard right center.
The real treats to most of the tracks on this album don’t reveal themselves until the last few minutes of each song – things tend to build and build on these tracks as we reach some truly inspired crescendos of textural beauty. On the standard release these devolve into near static and become a cacophony – on the Audiophile master we’re much more able to hear differentiations and subtleties even when the frequency bandwidth is stuffed with information. It holds together here much more coherently than the standard release, separation is maintained and definition is much greater.
The Vinyl Master is revelation. THIS is probably the closest to what the record sounded like in the studio. This is a HUGE leap beyond the two ‘slightly’ different digital masters – there is so much spatial coherence to this mix that it sounds like an entirely different album. I’d been listening to the album for many days straight, multiple times a day – yet when I first listened to the vinyl I was completely and utterly blown away by the difference in the sound.
The vocals are on an entirely new plane on the vinyl master, they are very distinct beyond the overall music mix and clear as day, as many times as I’d heard the album I was still having trouble discerning some lyrical content – on the vinyl master every word is perfectly intelligible without any strain whatsoever. The vocals are separated from the instrumentation completely but are still perfectly integrated into the overall stage. The vocal layering techniques that Reznor has always gleefully employed (and been so expert at) really shine through on this vinyl release.
Truly, every single good thing I said about the Audiophile release above is just blown out of the water by the vinyl master. The soundstage is even deeper, the image incredibly wide and there is amazing clarity and definition to the entire mix – every single frequency is distinct and has an immense amount of space to sound. All the organic instruments sound much more natural here and there are entire parts of the compositions that I had not noticed at all on the digital masters, but which are obvious here. All those mad crescendos exist in an entirely new universe on this release, reaching incredible heights while still staying completely tight and not breaking up in the least – everything is transcendent in the last minutes of every track on this master. The transients and the bass are tightened up and the soundstage is just all-encompassing, a truly enveloping, three-dimensional effect is achieved.
All the false vocal starts on While I’m still Here are right up in front, “tick… ticking time…” The white noise ambience creeps in from the far right rear and sweeps around in a chilling effect. Reznor knows how to utilize the aural space so well; it’s playful and smart without being showy, it’s almost subliminal the way it fills up the room and adds a truly discernible depth without even being obviously musical, yet always remaining tonal.
It is an absolute shame that this isn’t the mix that everyone is hearing because it is far and above the best version of the album available.
So there it is,
my two cents. Go give this band your money – they deserve it and at the end of the day no matter which version you listen to you’ll get to hear an incredible album from one of the greatest acts still gracing us with something honest.
By the way – fuck all of you – I LOVE Everything.