The surprise release of Not the Actual Events accompanies an anticlimactic expansion of Trent Reznor’s one-man empire to include composer Atticus Ross, with whom he’s collaborated on numerous film scores and standard musical releases over the past decade. 2011’s Oscar-winning The Social Network score remains their collaborative calling card, but the Brit also deserves credit for shaping the sparse, streamlined sound of latter-day Nine Inch Nails. The hollow melodies, the minimal construction, the newfound, eerie calm emanating from the ghost in Reznor’s machine: these are but a few of the signature touches Ross has bestowed upon the project ever since he first sat behind the boards as a programmer and producer on 2005’s With Teeth.
The opening salvo of “Branches/Bones” and “Dear World”, in particular, strongly underscores Ross’ influence; track number one’s disciplined construction and incessant, gnawing riffs hearken back to The Slip’s pugnacious pragmatism, while the ensuing cut’s burbling synths recall the gloomy, electronic pall hanging over Year Zero. Arriving at the chorus on “Branches/Bones”, Reznor muses, in his usual half-snarled, half-sighing way: “It’s like I’ve been here before!”
Reznor’s riotous romp down memory lane isn’t limited to the aughts, though. Following “She’s Gone Away” (six minutes of diet drone that prove plodding in spite of haunting guest vocals from Reznor’s wife, How To Destroy Angels vocalist Mariqueen Maandig), Not the Actual Events undergoes a guitar-heavy paradigm shift that sends the EP careening into Downward Spiral-territory, helping to make up for its lackluster opening half. A thrilling merger of industrial and alt-rock, “The Idea of You” storms out of the gate with a roar and a rumble, its cacophonous riffs made all the more calamitous by Dave Grohl’s frenzied drumming.
The penultimate track’s guest-assisted assault intensifies further on the blaring closer “Burning Bright (Field on Fire)”, a no-holds-barred, Godflesh-reminiscent ragefest presided over by almighty axeman Dave Navarro. “Oh my god, I missed you/ It’s been so long,” Reznor seethes, a glint of knowing satisfaction buried deep in his growl: “I am stronger than I have ever been in my decline.” A few tense seconds pass, followed by an incendiary directive: “BURN, MOTHERFUCKER!” Here, in this hellish moment, Reznor’s sinister characterization of the album to Zane Lowe last week (“[it’s] an unfriendly, fairly impenetrable record that we needed to make”) holds true; aside from being the EP’s highlight, “Burning Bright (Field on Fire)” is one of the heaviest offerings from Nine Inch Nails since the Broken days, shameless cribbing from Sister of Mercy’s “Fix” aside.
No matter how urgent its creators’ intent, no matter how explosive its highlights, Not the Actual Events stands, alas, as a pyre dependent on the kindling of nostalgia, as opposed to innovation. Granted, there’s something for everyone; after 2013’s decidedly defanged Hesitation Marks, wistful fans are sure to love Reznor’s partial return to glitched-out, batshit form, and the opening cuts should prove satisfying for those partial to the Ross-assisted, ambient aughts. However, between the abundant déja vu and the periodical redundancy (doldrums which would be easy enough to overlook on a full-length, but prove problematic on a brisk 21-minute listen like this), Not the Actual Events’ purported “impenetrability” manifests as a riotous retread instead. Of course, with a pair of “new major works” planned for release in the New Year, Reznor and Ross are just getting started — and for a warm-up, we could do a lot worse.
Essential Tracks: “Burning Bright (Field on Fire)”, “The Idea of You”