Undefined Collective

Album Review

Nine Inch Nails

Bad Witch


William Espinoza

December 26, 2018

Bad Witch - Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails has never been a band for the faint of heart. The industrial rock genre they helped bring to the forefront in the early 90s captured the minds of millions, not with otherworldly beauty or comforting soundscapes, but with harsh realities and equally obtrusive music. Their raucous work shattered society’s illusory mirror and took the scattered fragments to create a reflection as jarring as it is honest. Its inciting nature nurtured a dialogue for change and growth, but in recent years the band has seemed to hit a bit of a slump. They weren’t exactly flatlining, yet there was a sense that in their 20-year existence they settled into too comfortable of a groove. Enter Bad Witch. It’s fun, free-flowing, and hints at a band that for the first time in a while seems to be looking forward. In a time of tailor-made echo chambers where opinions can become ingrained without challenge, stepping out of your comfort zone has become near impossible. But on their latest offering, the band leads by example, breaking free from the shackles of their past while challenging comfort in every sense of the word.
The first thing you’ll notice about Bad Witch is its surprising run time of 30 minutes. Nine Inch Nails has succeeded in the past with their vast and expansive efforts, but the move to a more concise affair pays dividends in its accessibility. With so much buzzing for our attention, the Cleveland natives zero in on these 6 tracks and for the most part succeed in ensuring not a second is wasted. Because of the brevity, the album can easily be run through multiple times in succession, and the less approachable songs like the 8 minute closer “Over and Out” can permeate much sooner. The half-hour length helps keep the project trim and free of fat, ultimately making it much more enjoyable to digest from start to finish.

“But on their latest offering, the band leads by example, breaking free from the shackles of their past while challenging comfort in every sense of the word.”

The digestibility is a notable move in the right direction, however, the tape’s biggest appeal is the effective melding of different influences. Trent Reznor has always had strong ties to the late David Bowie, and this project sees him pursue the same kind of long, drawn-out vocals from Blackstar. Reznor apparently had no idea he could sing like that so well, and although he may veer a bit too close to pure emulation, it still works well in the grand scheme of the album. Along with his expanded vocal range, the move towards a jazzier underbelly in the production also borrows from the iconic figure’s swan song but actually moves beyond with its grittier, less refined edge.
Blackstar’s impact is fairly omnipresent, but stopping there would have led to something much weaker. Early standout “Ahead of Ourselves” opens with a pulsating breakbeat broken up by a rough, expansive synth and then erupts into its heavily filtered chorus. Even amidst all the cacophony, the dynamic production and vibrant dance music elements make it one of the album’s friendliest tracks. This then leads into “Play The Goddamned Part” which plays out like a noisier take on Radiohead’s “The National Anthem.” The grumbling bassline has the same driving tenacity, and like the Kid A number, the saxophone constantly jumps in and out and leans into the kind of vertiginous off-beat squeaks and squalor that somehow work so well.
Despite the album’s broad palette, there’s an undeniable churning on every track. Although some moments may rely too much on repeated movements, the resulting mechanical presence mirrors the difficulties of breaking out of self-destructive patterns. Opener “Shit Mirror,” unfortunately, dips into the former with an annoying hook that is regretfully repeated 8 times at the end. But on the other end, the second instrumental cut “I’m Not From This World” is a little more spacious than its predecessor, and the light ringing bass note coupled with the grating synths give the impression of a large predator slowly gaining on you until it’s eventually breathing down your neck. The track’s dark ambiance suggests a foregone negative conclusion, and in the end, it is us who are futilely trying to escape ourselves and our own detrimental habits.
As both the predator and the prey, we are our own greatest enemy.  We can try to run away, but until we consciously make a positive change, that’s exactly what we’ll always be. It’s a struggle Reznor is more familiar with than most. Previously his music has been more overtly angry, however much like the backing production on Bad Witch, his volatile spirit remains but is now paired with undercurrents of resignation. He still has no problem calling out everyone around him (“Not quite as clever as we think we are/Knuckle dragging animal/When we could have done anything/We wound up building this”), but despite many years of trying, he can’t get past the question “Why try to change when you know you can’t?” At odds with himself, he’s stuck between the duality of desperately searching for change while at the same time having no faith he or others are even capable of it. The paradigm leaves him as both shooter and target, trying to escape the relentless fire of his inner critic where surviving one shot only means having to endure another.
Nine Inch Nails doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. At the end of the day, they know they’re just another lost group of people trying to find their way. As much as they want to push for change, even they aren’t completely sure what that would look like or if they could even recognize it when they see it. As direct as it comes, the closer’s dispirited refrain “Time is running out/I don’t know what I’m looking for” hits the nail on the head, and instead of coming from a point of criticism it sees Reznor empathize with the same comfortable, stagnant people he wants to confront. The years have taught him that when it comes to people outside of yourself trying to force them to do anything is in vain. All you can do is put up the broken mirror so that one day they may face their own cracked reflection. Bad Witch is not a perfect foray into new territory, but the important takeaway is that Nine Inch Nails isn’t afraid to get uncomfortable. As much as “there aren’t any answers here” and change in the now looks bleak, the band’s willingness to move forward is what hints at a potentially brighter future.

Leave a Reply

Notify of

Your cart is empty

Go Shopping
Subtotal: $0.00