Music is physical.
I don’t just mean this as another argument for physical packaging, though that certainly adds to the experience. This week, Fish’s excellent new album A Feast of Consequences ended up in my inbox, and though I’ve listened through twice, I don’t feel like I own it yet. I won’t feel that way until the deluxe hardbound CD/DVD edition winds its way to my house. To me, the physical object is the album, and the files currently resting in my iTunes library are nothing but ghosts. The music’s there, but it isn’t tangible. It isn’t real yet.
But that isn’t what I meant when I said music is physical. I’m talking about sheer sound, about the tactile impact of putting on a record and letting it fill your room. If that record is really well made, the effect can be felt. The music has form and texture. My favorite records are like that. Nothing against the raw and bare-bones recordings many artists choose to make, but give me an album that plays with the shape of the sound. Give me a Spilt Milk or a SMiLE or a The Age of Adz. Last year’s extraordinary album by Lost in the Trees, A Church that Fits Our Needs, did exactly that. Frank Zappa called it moving the air molecules around in the room. I call it sculpting with sound.
There are a few artists who are consistently fantastic at this sort of thing. Not for them the simple pleasures of the acoustic album – these folks take their damn time, crafting every millisecond of their records until the right shape appears. They know that the exact right tone of a bass note, or an ambient flourish, can add new dimensions, even if they’re inaudible on first pass. They’re architects, building real structures out of imaginary materials, and the resulting albums are always worth diving deep into.
Trent Reznor is one of the best. Ever since The Downward Spiral in 1994, Reznor has been obsessed with physical sound, and obsessive about making sure every detail of his finely crafted records is perfectly placed. His journey from leather-wearing, rage-filled frontman of Nine Inch Nails to Academy Award-winning composer seems like it would feel disjointed, but it’s been a smooth straight line. The Downward Spiral and The Fragile were both symphonies, after all, arranged for electronics and guitars with all the precision of an orchestral score.
In recent years, Reznor has left Nine Inch Nails behind, focusing on his film work (he co-created the remarkable scores to The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and his new band, How to Destroy Angels. The latter project released its debut full-length earlier this year, and it was a surprisingly slow and ambient beast, gliding forward on the gilded tones of Reznor’s wife, Mariqueen Maandig. It was as grown-up and reserved as one might expect from the now-48-year-old, and the fury of NIN seemed a thing of the past. Once you see Trent Reznor in a suit and bow tie at the Oscars, you can’t un-see it.
But surprise surprise, here is Hesitation Marks, the eighth Nine Inch Nails album, and the first in five years. If you’re wondering how Nine Inch Nails can exist in 2013, you’re not the only one. What, exactly, would Reznor have to be upset about these days? Isn’t this a skin he’s already shed, a cocoon he’s outgrown? Hesitation Marks provides a canny answer – its concerns are more complex than NIN has been, although no less full of existential dread, and its music follows suit. It is still Nine Inch Nails, but it’s airier, moodier, less visceral and more fascinating. This is an evolution, an album that finds a way to bring the NIN sound into middle age without losing its core.
What does that mean? Hesitation Marks is considerably more open and electronic than previous NIN albums. Reznor would often build towers of sound, monoliths stretching to the sky, blotting out the sun with layers of guitars and white noise. This album is comparatively minimal, letting shafts of light through – there are many songs here without recognizable guitars at all. Second single “Copy Of A” burbles to life on a Kraftwerk-esque squiggle bass, and leaves spaces where walls would have been. “Came Back Haunted,” the first single, is probably the most classic-sounding NIN song here, and even this one bears the marks of this new sonic attitude.
You can hear it most clearly in an ethereal number like “Find My Way,” or a bizarre epic like “In Two.” Both of these songs sound sort of like Nine Inch Nails – the former like one of the slower pieces on The Fragile, the latter reminiscent of “Ruiner” in places – but they also sound completely different, like new territory for Reznor. “All Time Low” is the funkiest NIN song since “Into the Void,” “Satellite” is a full-on electro-dance track, and much of the album’s second half is surprisingly slow-building and patient. What connects all these songs together, and to NIN’s rich history, is the sonic detail in each and every track. This is Reznor the master craftsman, providing new little moments every few seconds. Final song “While I’m Still Here” mixes Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar and Reznor’s own saxophone playing into a crawling slice of dread. The entire album is full of surprises like that.
Yeah, the lyrics are still kind of stupid, but they’re more intricate here than they’ve been. While previous NIN albums have been about losing oneself, Hesitation Marks is about struggling to find oneself, about working to right the ship and make things better. Nowhere is that more evident than on the song that launched a thousand angry fanboy tweets, “Everything.” A relatively sprightly pop song with chugging guitars and harmonies, “Everything” is about overcoming: “I survived everything,” Reznor sings at its beginning, and repeats a mantra at the end: “I am home, I believe, I am home, I am free…”
The fact that Trent Reznor feels liberated enough to write such a song as Nine Inch Nails speaks volumes about this record. Hesitation Marks is the man’s finest electronic symphony in many years – maybe even as far back as The Fragile – because he harnesses his deep talent for sonic sculpture and molds NIN into unseen shapes before our ears. He allows his most famous project to grow older with him, retaining everything that makes it NIN, but evolving it. This is classic Nine Inch Nails. This is something new. It’s pretty terrific.
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Brian Transeau is another guy with an ear for sonic architecture.
Over nearly 20 years recording as BT, Transeau has made “obsessively detailed” his middle name. His meticulous music clearly takes years to put together, tiny note by tiny glitched-out note. He’s impossible to pigeonhole – he started as a trance artist with the extraordinary Ima in 1995, but by the time he created Emotional Technology in 2003, he was embracing pop, rock, rap, dance, prog, ambient, and nearly anything else he could get his laptop to do.
Since then, he’s made a string of masterpieces – the instrumental wonderama This Binary Universe, the explosive double album These Hopeful Machines (which included a cover of the Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost in You”), and the incredible ambient works If the Stars Are Eternal So Are You and I and Morceau Subrosa. Every one of them was crafted with infinite patience and love of sound. I have always considered BT a cut above most electronic artists, and in the past 10 years, he’s been on a roll like no other.
That hit streak continues with his ninth album, A Song Across Wires. It’s BT’s first real attempt at a dance record, but of course it’s not that simple. A triumph of progressive dance production, Wires is a 79-minute journey that will make your head spin. BT’s trademark is his restlessness, and this record vaults through trance, dubstep, pop, ambient and full-on four-on-the-floor club tunes, each song a multi-part suite of seemingly infinite twists and turns. It begins with perhaps its most traditional piece, the transcendent “Skylarking” – nine minutes of sun-dappled trance music that sounds like supernovae exploding across a brilliant starscape. It’s utterly amazing, but surprisingly straightforward for Transeau.
Not to worry, though, as the album then cycles through a series of astonishingly detailed dance numbers, teaming BT up with the likes of producers Fractal and Adam K, and singers Jes (with whom he has worked before) and Tania Zygar. The latter sings on “Stem the Tides,” a phenomenal dramatic pop song with an insistent beat. For the past decade, Transeau has been perfecting the art of producing pop songs like electronic dance music, while retaining their tunes and structures. “Stem the Tides” is a perfect example of such a hybrid – it swoops from section to section, synth lines darting in and out, but it never loses sight of its sweeping melody. (Sometimes Transeau fails in that mission – “Tonight” runs on too long for its threadbare and repetitive chorus.)
The celebrity singer this time is Matt Hales, better known as Aqualung. He adds a yearning earthiness to the blissful “Surrounded,” a song that sounds like a vortex of beats and tones. Transeau himself sings the dramatic “Love Divine,” another perfect fusion of pop-rock and dance. The major departure here is “Must Be the Love,” a slow-burner nestled in a bed of ringing chimes, lifted by the voice of Nadia Ali. Every song on this album segues, offering what seems to be Transeau’s unified field theory of dance music – it all comes together as a seamless whole.
Despite all that, A Song Across Wires is the first BT album that feels like Transeau limited himself. It focuses entirely on dance, and even though it provides an extraordinary journey through the multiple genres that call that descriptor home, dance music is but one small part of what Transeau does well. It’s phenomenal, rich and detailed and thoroughly enjoyable, but by its end, you may feel like BT hasn’t taken you to as many places as he could have. The places he does visit are wonderful, but next time I’d like to hear more of what he can do when he’s not worried about genre.
Aside from that complaint, this album is splendid. It’s another in a long line of beautiful art from Brian Transeau, a richly detailed collection that could only come from the mind of a sonic architect. Music is physical, and BT’s music will rearrange those air molecules like little else. Everything he has done is worth hearing, worth exploring, worth getting lost in, and A Song Across Wires is no exception.
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I feel the need to clarify BT’s bizarre release strategy for this album, so bear with me. If you buy A Song Across Wires on CD, you get a 79-minute perfectly segued mix of an album, with tracks ranging from five to eight minutes. But if you download it on iTunes or Amazon, you get considerably shorter edits of these tunes – between three and four minutes each, with the continuous mix as a bonus track. And if you buy it from Beatport, you can get extended tracks (six to 11 minutes) – the album on Beatport runs 98 minutes, and contains the continuous mix as a bonus. It’s very confusing, but luckily all these versions are worth hearing. I think the continuous mix is the album, with shorter and longer edits available, but the release strategy doesn’t make that clear.
Anyway, next week, it’s Janelle Monae, and after that, Fish, Elvis Costello with the Roots, Neko Case, Tom Odell and a bunch of others. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.