Nine Inch Nails - Bad Witch [EP] (Cover Artwork)

Nine Inch Nails

Bad Witch [EP] (2018)

The Null Corporation

Nine Inch Nails conjure the spirit of David Bowie and Broken to make their most concise, purposeful record to date.

Bad Witch is being touted as NIN’s 9th studio album despite the initial intention to make it the completion of a trilogy begun with the pair of EPs 2016’s Not the Actual Events and 2017’s Add Violence. Trent Reznor continues his productive relationship with mainstay collaborator Atticus Ross with assistance from Alan Moulder. Reznor has occasionally found tantalizing inspiration when working with such brevity (recall the masterful savagery of 1992’s Broken EP). Upon first listen, initial single “God Break Down the Door” was nearly as startling as the major key detour of “Everything” on 2013’s Hesitation Marks. The overt Blackstar homage begins with an exploratory saxophone and a disorienting, warbling synth line over a breakneck programmed beat, but the unanticipated vocal alteration from Reznor is the most jarring aspect of the track. Trent performs in a style best classified as a baritone croon and nearly sounds unrecognizable. The departure is not a failure but requires an adjustment in the presumption of what a NIN song should sound like. Reznor has made no secret of his admiration of Bowie, owing to their collaboration on 1997’s “I’m Afraid of Americans” and as his supporter on Bowie’s 1995 Outside tour.

Opener “Shit Mirror” crashes through the speakers in the best way, emulating the sound of pistons and overheating bandsaws in a smoke-spewing Blade Runner wasteland. The song also heralds the return of some truly nasty guitar work before abruptly halting around the two-minute mark for an escalating mantra of “New world, new times, Mutation, feels alright.” “Ahead of Ourselves” continues the propulsive momentum with some ugly Big Black guitars accentuating the refrain and enveloping Reznor’s warbled static vocals. The instrumental “Play the Goddamned Part”’s percussion sounds like the opening of multiple rusty garage doors and inevitably devolves into a cacophonous saxophone skronk over some scattering rim rolls.

NIN’s lyrical themes here are consistent with the rest of the band’s catalog. “Shit Mirror” is a post-event monologue from a sociopath whose further destructive actions are changing him into something that is “getting hard to recognize.” “Ahead of Ourselves” continues Reznor’s doubt in a higher power as he takes stock of the “knuckle dragging animal[s]” who are “not as clever as we think,” being responsible for some truly reprehensible behavior. “God Break Down the Door” fatalistically reveals that “there aren’t any answers here.”

Instrumental “I’m Not of this World” and closer “Over and Out” finally offer a tempo reprieve from the preceding headrush. “World” creates a dystopian hallucination with waves of distorted static and recreates some of the best moments of The Fragile while avoiding overindulgence. “Over and Out” witnesses Reznor returning to the vocal stylization from “God Break Down the Door” with the realization that “time is running out,” and he allows the song to drift peacefully into warm ambience, creating a satisfying end to an album that sees the band harness their strengths into a precise execution. The song also includes a humorous brag in his admission that he’s “always been 10 years ahead of you,” which when stacked against his contemporaries and their fading relevance, may be a fairly accurate statement.

Reznor’s restless creativity and constant desire for reinvention have bolstered NIN continued presence in the modern rock landscape as an evocative live act. When I caught them on the With Teeth tour, they were an incendiary live rock and roll band with Aaron North (of the Icarus Line) and Jeordie White (of Marilyn Manson) providing a youthful energy to Reznor’s elder statesman. In contrast, during their tour with Soundgarden after Hesitation Marks, Reznor abandoned the expanded band setup and returned to a minimal four-man crew (with Robin Finck back in the fold) with all members at times huddled over synthesizers while the erratic light show thundered behind them. All this evidence to say that despite reliably always being Nine Inch Nails, Reznor at least shows a willingness to mutate and alter his process and performance to keep his presentation interesting. Bad Witch is a reassertion of relevance and a harbinger of further sonic landscapes to be explored. The album is a bite-size morsel of everything NIN can do very well and leaves the listener craving more of this delectable offering.