Nine Inch Nails and the Year Zero, Concept Album/Art Paints a Scary Picture

When I was first initiated into the Nine Inch Nails experience, roughly around the time of The Fragile with the song "The Perfect Drug" (although that song isn't even on that album). I became immediately fascinated by Trent Reznor, the music and what it all meant. This is not easy as Nine Inch Nails has rarely been a pop band with only a few hits in the mainstream, but their following is fiercely loyal, open to all the art and emotion that these songs, while wrapped in industrial beats and screeching guitars, still exhibit. I immediately wanted to hear more and discovered what is probably their most well known song, "Head Like a Hole," and some of the other industrial and conceptual bands of the time.

Now, many of those bands have vanished as goth and industrial have become more widespread, and to be honest, I don't listen to NIN nearly as much as I did in 1999.

As I reflect back on my fascination with the band back when I was younger, I think what drew me to their music was the possibility of something deeper, a concept, something beyond what was there on the surface. This is probably what opened me up to concept albums, why I love Pink Floyd's The Wall and the Who's Tommy and why I can see both the musical side and the conceptual side in even the simplest songs. Concept albums speak to me because when done well, they leave so much open for interpretation. A song can just be a song, or it can be an elaborate artistic statement. Every album doesn't have to conceptual, but the good ones are just amazing, serving as both art and musical enjoyment.

The new NIN release seems to be a conceptual album, includes an almost frighteningly real depiction of the future and an elaborate conceptual project for art let alone a rock band. Previous NIN albums aren't necessarily conceptual albums depending on your viewpoint, but they definitely can be interpreted that way if you choose. The new one is definitely seems like a conceptual project no matter what way you look at it though, which may alienate some, but fascinate others.

Here's why I'm one of the ones who is fascinated.

I stumbled upon an article at Rolling Stone related to this new album, which will be called Year Zero. It discusses what at first I thought was just an elaborate marketing ploy but after a little more research, has a much more of a conceptual art feel. This project includes cryptic messages, hidden websites, planted mp3s, spectrography, religion, hallucinations, drugs, and a downright frightening picture of the future with the new NIN album at the center. What apparently began as a series of highlighted letters on the back of a NIN tour shirt has now lead to a series of perfectly crafted websites, spectrograph images, hidden messages in bursts of noise and flash drives of secret messages and leaked mp3s planted in tour venue bathrooms.

Like I said, at first glance I thought it was just a very clever marketing ploy as it has definitely placed a lot of focus on the new album and the leaked songs, but as I read some of these websites, message boards I see much more. I don't know the full story, but from what I've picked up so far, the title "Year Zero" refers to the year 2022 which was renamed year 0000 in the NIN world. Around this concept Reznor has developed a full fledged depiction of the future that includes biological and nuclear attacks, another world war, conspiracies, resistance movements and a world in chaos. After discovering how highlighted letters on tour shirts lead to a secret website that discusses this future you can follow a trail of clues through a variety of websites, noise based artwork, email auto responders, images and message boards to discover a little bit more.

In this future Parapin, a new drug was added to the water supply to help combat disease, but really is being used by the United States to control its population. Another new drug, Opal has spread like wild fire, and people everywhere are having strange visions of "The Presence," a strange being or something that appears almost like the hand of God reaching down out of the sky (the created images of this "Presence" can be genuinely creepy). The websites appear to be crafted perfectly with almost no break in the illusion as they are often written from the perspective someone in this future with several reoccurring characters making appearances including an "Angry Sniper" and a few other conspiracy theorist who mysteriously seem to have disappeared Conspiracies abound though hidden images and perhaps the coolest part: spectrograph images. These images come from apparent burst of noise at the end of the newly leaked mp3s, or other files, and when passed through a spectrograph, show often disturbing imagery, secret messages, or other pieces to the puzzle. Just the kind of secret message other people claim are embedded in the songs of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin.

All of this combines to make the new album appear to be a massive conceptual art project including all forms of media to craft this frightening image of the future. I started reading about this trail of clues one night on Rolling Stone at around 1 in the morning. It was dark and seeing that the article was on the new NIN album I decided to put on my headphones and listen to some earlier Nine Inch Nails songs. After seeing some of the imagery and reading some of these other websites and following some of the clues I was definitely creeped out, to put it bluntly. Yes, creeped out, but fascinated and very excited about the album.

So what does it all mean? Well, it definitely means that Trent Reznor has been up to more than just writing music since the last album release. He must also be very in touch with his fan base as not just anyone would pick up on some of these hidden clues or follow them so intently. NIN seems like the perfect band to undertake a project like this (or maybe Tool but the industrial feel of NIN seems better suited).

It is a brilliant marketing maneuver, but NIN has always been a pretty artistic and conceptual band so I cannot believe that that's all it is. I see something far more grand. An epic conceptual album and project along the lines of Pink Floyd's ”The Wall” (which was intended to be a complete multimedia experience with an album, a movie and a stage performance). Here, Reznor has crafted a similar multimedia experience using more modern tools like the Internet, websites and spectrography all based in conspiracy and hidden messages.

This is perhaps the most interesting conceptual project I've heard of in a long time from both a musical and an artistic perspective. It's definitely not for everyone though as the future depicted can be quite disturbing and is laced with conspiracies, government control, drug use and destruction. NIN has always been an acquired taste in music per say and so it definitely won't have the same sort of wide spread appeal as other progressive bands, plus the shear amount of time it could take to follow all of these clues is probably only rivaled by the amount of time it must have taken to craft each piece so precisely. Maybe its more of a last ditch effort to revive Nine Inch Nails as they have definitely fallen out of the mainstream (not that that matters) but I feel that it's more just the mind of Trent Reznor at work.

Whether it is a massive statement about society, just an epic conceptual art project or both, I've never been so fascinated by an album. Even if this album and project flops, I give Reznor a lot of credit for undertaking and creating this type of work as it definitely takes time and guts.

If you like NIN, conceptual albums, conceptual art, or conspiracies it's worth a look if you're willing to keep an open mind. I haven't had the time to listen to all of the leaked songs yet, but from what I've read they're awesome so at least if all of the rest of this project flops it should be a good album.

I have heard and downloaded "My Violent Heart". It sounds pretty cool and at the same like a lot like previous NIN songs. Notice the burst of static and white noise at the end? That's one of those hidden messages.

Here's the original Rolling Stone Article that introduced me to this new Nine Inch Nails project: "Year Zero" Project = Way Cooler Than "Lost"

And here one of the sites in the network of sites used for this project where you can get caught up on the conspiracy.

I don't know how well received this album and this project will be by more mainstream fans, or even hardcore fans, but as someone who loves conceptual albums and art in music (its not a necessity, but an added bonus) I'll say, I can't wait till the album is released. Whether it flops or not, in my mind, this is already the most ambitious, exciting, creepy and disturbing multimedia concept album/project since The Wall.

I'll certainly be following the clues. Check it out.


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