‘Not The Actual Events’: Documenting Nine Inch Nails’ Brooding Synth-Rock
Conceived as ‘an unfriendly, fairly impenetrable record,’ the album recalled the sound of Nine Inch Nails’ ‘The Downward Spiral.’
A dominant force in the music industry, Trent Reznor has earned the luxury of time. As such, fans never know what they’re going to get with a Nine Inch Nails release. Or, indeed, when they will get it. The Not The Actual Events EP is testament to that position in every way.
An end-of-year gift
Considering the five-year hiatus Reznor took from Nine Inch Nails after the release of 2008’s The Slip, December 2015 seemed incredibly early to tease that “Nine Inch Nails will return in 2016.” But when Reznor gets the itch, he tends to scratch it.
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In fact, fans had been spoiled with a run of frequent EPs since NIN’s 2013 album, Hesitation Marks. But as December 2016 rolled around, they noticed there still hadn’t been any NIN activity that year. Reznor addressed the issue, saying, “Those words did come out of my mouth, didn’t they?… Just wait and see what happens.” Then, three days later, on December 22, he confirmed the release of Not The Actual Events. The first of what was due to be a trilogy of EPs, and the group’s first EP of original material since 1992’s Broken, Reznor immediately made it available to download with vinyl pre-orders on nin.com, before giving it a wider digital release the following day.
A back-to-basics set of songs
Reznor’s relationship with Atticus Ross was solidified when the long-standing producer and musical collaborator was made a permanent member of Nine Inch Nails upon Not The Actual Events’ release. They created what the main man described as “an unfriendly, fairly impenetrable record that we needed to make,” and, for many fans, its sound harked back to NIN at their abrasive best: the aforementioned Broken, the dark self-reflection of The Downward Spiral and the expansive constructs of The Fragile. And while that’s true in part, the band’s classic elements are refracted through the lens of everything Reznor had learned as an artist, songwriter, producer, and film score composer in the interim.
Nine Inch Nails compositions exist as much as an exploration of the most disturbing facets of the human psyche as they do as songs. The bass- and snare-heavy opener, “Branches/Bones,” fizzes and pops with effects while its scything guitars underpin a chorus of Reznor taunting, “Feels like I’ve been here before,” as the track abruptly cuts off just shy of the two-minute mark. It showcases his talents as dark synth-pop maestro more than an industrial rock overlord, before segueing into the synth-heavy “Dear World,” which bubbles away without offering a change of pace.
An epic affair
In fact, it’s not until the bleak, mechanical “She’s Gone Away” that Reznor gets close to the hostile soundscapes he hinted at prior to the EP’s release; not that NIN fans find them particularly disturbing – they’re the band’s stock in trade. But the brash industrialism of “The Idea Of You” satisfyingly recalls the thrusting belligerence of The Downward Spiral. With its off-key drone, “Burning Bright (Field On Fire)” ventures into the gothic post-punk territory of My Bloody Valentine, before bursting into a flurry of wailing guitar strings.
After nearly 30 years and eight albums, each pushing the limits of post-industrial rock, Not The Actual Events proved that Reznor still had plenty more to offer. While he wasn’t quite the master of innovation he had been, he nevertheless remained capable of delivering crowd-pleasing, industrialized, brooding synth-rock. And though Not The Actual Events stands at five tracks and little more than 21 minutes, it plays like an entirely more epic affair, leaving no fan feeling short-changed.