Reznor and Williams, Reviewed

March 1st, 2008

 For duo, remixes and industry retribution run high

By John Napolillo

Year Zero, Nine Inch Nails’ fifth studio album, was set to drop April 2007; its remixed counterpart, Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D, was to be released that following November. Accordingly, these albums were the final requirements before fulfilling front man Trent Reznor’s contractual obligations with Interscope records.
Becoming increasingly angry with his label though, Reznor advocated for fans to “steal” his music prior to its release. Of course, in that avenue, there’s the run-of-the-mill illegal download. But Reznor decided to go the extra mile to screw over his record label by purposefully leaking his music ahead of time—planting USB drives in the bathroom stalls of his shows, among other places.

Right before Year Zero dropped, Reznor released the multitrack file of the album’s first single “Survivalism” through the band’s Web site. This allowed fans to load the files into various music recording programs (Garageband, Pro Tools, Ableton) and create their own remixes; six other Year Zero tracks were similarly released in the following months.
The released tracks were part of a larger project by Reznor to create a Web site where fans would be able to upload their remixes and listen to those created by their peers. Soon after its inception though, Interscope Records stepped in. Citing possible copyright violations, the label tried to shut down the site. According to Reznor, this had more to do with the money at stake for Universal (Interscope’s parent company) in other litigation hearings. At the time, Universal was taking YouTube and Myspace to court, arguing over the use of its artists’ material. To allow such a free exchange of one’s product (through the remix site) would give the YouTube and Myspace’s legal team a stronger defense.

The label’s lack of logic was brought into question when Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D released on November 20. The audio CD was coupled with a data disc containing the multitrack files for every song on Year Zero. This seems to put to rest the idea that there is some sort of ethical judgment tied to issues of copyright infringement—the rules change depending on who’s trying to prove what, when. As of today, the remix Web site is still up and running.
Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D feels more like listening to a great mix-CD, than it does a Nine Inch Nails remix record. Each artist brings their most recognizable strengths to their track of choice, while still maintaining the strong original foundation laid out by Reznor. Ladytron add their synth-soaked production style to “The Beginning of the End” while Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert give Reznor a lesson in the eerie Joy Division/New Order style ambiance on album closer “Zero Sum.”

But what remix album would be complete without a healthy dose of dance-ibility? Stefan Goodchild brings traditional African rhythms to his remix of “The Warning” thanks to drummer Doudou N’Diaye Rose. The Faint keep those booties shaking by speeding up Reznor’s vocals on “Meet Your Master,” complete with all the glitchy hiccups you would expect from the Omaha dance fiends. This trend quickly takes a dark detour, when Olof Dreijer of mysterious Swedish duo, The Knife, tries his hand at “Me, I’m Not.” At 14 minutes long, the entirely instrumental techno interpretation will make you eager to leave the rave… and just when it was becoming the best post-apocalyptic party yet!
Thankfully, the Kronos Quartet quickly reel the listener back in with their beautiful contemporary-classical twist on “Another Version of Truth.” Well known for their film scores (Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain), they create one of the most delicate and heartbreaking moments on the record. Along with ModWheelMood’s semi-acoustic take on “The Great Destroyer,” and Fennesz’s ambient remix of “In This Twilight,” the simple route is the often the one that makes for the best end result.

While sending his songs out to famous friends to be remixed, Reznor was hard at work producing slam-poet/performance-artist/MC/actor/musician Saul Williams’ next record. After seeing Williams perform, Reznor offered him an opening slot on Nine Inch Nails’ With Teeth tour; according to Williams, it was only days later that the two decided they would record an album together.

When it came time to release the record though, the two could not find a label that seemed a good fit. Williams felt that a large part of this was due to shortsighted record execs, who were scared off by the fact that he was not making music that fit into the traditional mode of hip-hop or rock. Fueled by a growing frustration with the industry as a whole, Reznor and Williams decided to pick up where Radiohead left off.

On November 1, 2007, the duo self-released the album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!, through their Web site. Downloaders were given three options: give $5, give nothing at all or give nothing now with the option to submit payment later.

While the idea was certainly an innovative one, it’s still up for debate whether the experiment was a success. After two months, over 154,000 people had downloaded the record, but only about 18 percent had paid. Reznor originally posted an entry on the Nine Inch Nails blog calling the results “disheartening.” Williams, on the other hand, remains optimistic, noting that his strength has never been album sales, especially since he is still a relatively unknown artist. After a spring tour and full blown promotional push, Williams will have a better idea as to whether the self-sufficient Internet model could pave the way of the future for not only bigger acts like Radiohead, but also artists slowly rising in popularity.

On first listen, NiggyTardust sounds like a Nine Inch Nails record, after replacing the lead singer. While initially off-putting, it often succeeds. The unrestrained emotion of Williams’ howl plays nicely against Nine Inch Nails trademark sliding grindhouse bass on “WTF!”, distorted flanging keys on “Convict Colony,” and bell pings on “Break.”

The NiggyTardust persona seems to come into play as a defense mechanism for Williams.
Not sure in which musical direction to turn, he’s created an alter ego that frees himself from restrictive genre classifications. And while Williams isn’t completely clear either as to where his music fits in today’s spectrum (the liner notes speculate, “Am I this Rock Star?”), at least the ride he takes us along for is a riveting one.

His sound has shifted radically from his past two records (2004’s Saul Williams and the 2001 Rick Rubin-produced Amethyst Rock Star), not only in terms of Reznor’s instrumentation and production, but also Williams own growth as a vocalist. For the first time, in addition to rapping, yelling, and speaking, there are tracks where Williams becomes a balladeer, introducing the world to his strikingly fragile singing voice. But despite the tonal qualities and the pleasant melodies, Williams has a lot to learn about writing ballads.

“No One Ever Does” and “Banged and Blown Through,” while initially pleasant, become little more than remnants of quiet Nine Inch Nails tracks. After a year filled with not one, but two Nine Inch Nails releases, it’s hard to listen to NiggyTardust and not feel that many moments were born out of Reznor’s leftover scraps. Thankfully, this only accounts for a portion of the record

When it was announced last year that Reznor would be producing the next Saul Williams record hopes were high. YouTube footage of Nine Inch Nails performing with Williams on his songs “African Student Movement” and “List of Demands,” showed that Reznor could give Williams’ punk sensibilities a strong push into a full blown rock direction. Perhaps Reznor would even recreate himself as a hip-hop producer; Reznor has long maintained that his number one influence is the Public Enemy production team and The Bomb Squad, which comes across in the density of his soundscapes. After successful collaborations with El-P, Zach De La Rocha, Dr. Dre, and N*E*R*D, the day had come when Reznor’s hip-hop influence would come to fruition.

There are moments where Reznor succeeds in this, but those moments are few and far between. As such, with title track “NiggyTardust,” Reznor’s restraint is incredible. The song revolves around the simplicity of a ramshackle drum machine and a subdued bass line, letting the words of Williams’ quintessentially-cool/quintessentially-conflicted character ring clear. On “Scared Money,” Reznor kills any memory of Nine Inch Nails with a laid-back mariachi band sample. And on “Tr(n)igger,” Reznor stops himself from going over the edge, by directly sampling Public Enemy.

Thankfully, one thing that hasn’t changed is Williams’ penchant for crafting songs around important and complex issues. Oppression, stereotypes, and black history are addressed in post-modern fashion by the NiggyTardust character, allowing Williams to critique a world he knows intimately, from the point of view of a character that embodies all the cold truths, as well as many of the painful misconceptions. It helps that many of the lines are lifted from Williams’ powerful book “The Dead Emcee Scrolls,” which is why the need for a cover of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is particularly confounding—never mind making it the first single.

The best moments on both records come when, instead of falling into the industrial safety net of Reznor’s classic sound, the artists are able to see what sets them apart from the pack. While Saul Williams may sometimes “find it very hard to be me,” he greatly succeeds when he takes his own advice: “free yourself to be yourself tonight.”

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John Napolillo is a senior TV-R major. Email him at jnapoli2[at]ithaca.

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