Not too long ago, it seemed like the Nine Inch Nails journey was coming to some sort of conclusion, as Trent Reznor and company embarked on an epic live expedition appropriately named the ‘Wave Goodbye Tour’. This wasn’t so much a termination as a reawakening, however. Since 2009 there’s been a handful of acclaimed film scores, an astonishing Academy Award triumph, and of course more contemporary music. Coming after 2013’s divisive Hesitation Marks, the current era of NIN has been one of the most rewarding, with a trilogy of releases that go back to the industrial roots, whilst still retaining the delicate construction process that has been generated since the arrival of Atticus Ross. Three records in 18 months come as a pleasant surprise for fans who, over the years, have been made to agonisingly wait for new music in the past.
Bad Witch is the finale to this trilogy, and it’s undoubtedly the most cohesive release of the lot. It’s clear to see why Reznor made the choice to issue it as an LP, with inventive sequencing and engaging transitions that the two previous EP’s lacked. It’s an album that rewards further listens, but nonetheless tends to remain a mildly frustrating experience. Songs are mixed with the purpose to unsettle and agitate listeners, and they aim to offer a fine contrast by balancing this lo-fi aesthetic with exhilarating choruses and crescendos.
The opening two tracks are practically a tease for old-school NIN enthusiasts, especially the blaring chorus on “Ahead of Ourselves”, which is extremely reminiscent of the early, noisy days. From this point on, the record assembles a sound that draws from Reznor/Ross soundtrack works, Bowie’s Blackstar, and Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Ominous soundscapes are layered with jazzy saxophones, as Reznor croons in homage to one of his greatest inspirations.
Despite its clear influences, however, Bad Witch is nothing if not distinctive, which is most impressive given the amount of works released in a discography that is approaching its 30th year. It’s far from the best NIN album, but it’s probably the most crucial and downright exciting one in quite some time. This is a grubby, disheveled, and damaged album composed, produced, and arranged as such. In sound and form, there’s nothing else quite like it.
7 out of 10
It’s a credit to Trent Reznor that he can still make me feel this uncomfortable. Bad Witch is a dirty, often wretched listen, but I can’t help but be lured down to its level. The pairing of lo-fi production with avant-garde industrial jazz (for lack of a better expression) works far better than one might expect. In the space between the fuzz and crackle the record weaves in some real moments of artistry.
“God Break Down the Door” is the unquestionable centerpiece of the record, with a brassy grind reminiscent of David Bowie’s curtain call, Blackstar. Not a coincidental similarity I’m sure. The whole record has that lost-in-the-shadows feel, but that’s Reznor’s home turf. He plays around with it. Here the unsettlement is measured, which gives it a skin-crawling quality all of its own.
I can’t say I’ve fallen for the record (or been repulsed to such an extent that I’m in awe of the depths it reaches), but I have been pleased to go somewhere new. Nails conjure a ambience part-abrasive part-ethereal, but it presents itself as something to be stood back and admired rather than dived into headfirst. The first two tracks hit the spot as grotty little oddities, but I wouldn’t want a whole album of them.
Bad Witch does listen more like an EP in that sense, which at heart it probably is. It works as a burst of disparate creative energies, but as an album it’s found wanting. It feels like Trent set out to dissatisfy any and all expectations, succeeded, and in doing so wound up being satisfying. So, well done? It was a selectively unpleasant experience. I have slept soundly since.
7 out of 10
Bad Witch feels like ‘tour de NIN’ in some respects. Opening with a crunch, “Shit Mirror” and “Ahead of Ourselves” are both full of noisy guitar work and vocals with a kick behind. It’s enough to enjoy while remaining a massive tease from the band as the remainder of the album changes tact entirely, taking its lead from more recent Nine Inch Nails releases.
The group incorporate more electronics in their instrumentation, throwing arrangements akin to those of Ghosts and Reznor/Ross OSTs between grander tracks which reek of late-era Bowie and Lynchian ominousness all while keeping their sound firmly in Nine Inch Nails territory. Both of these tracks set Reznor’s echoing vocals at the forefront, and in both cases his Bowie-esque style will come as a wonderful surprise for listeners as they echo across the instrumentals. “God Break Down the Door” feels like a manic matching of mournful sax and Aphex Twin that only increases as the track whirls along. For me, Bad Witch makes for a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable half hour, and despite being left yearning for more, it seems silly to disparage an album based on its length.
Where this does fall down, however, is in its focus. Far from the lengthy releases previously produced by the band, each with a distinctive style attached to them, this latest release doesn’t settle on a particular style. The effect of Trent and Atticus both finding success in scoring film soundtracks is evident here, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time for the gritty guitars that many fans no doubt long for. For many, this album will likely be more a teaser than the album they’ve been waiting for. It’s hard to deny how much fun I’ve had as this has found its way back into my headphones though, and it’ll be interesting to see what the band diverges into next.
8 out of 10