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Monthly Archives: April 2007
Today’s the day that Year Zero drops, and there’s a crush of chaotic glee in NIN land right now, not to mention a flurry of press. (L.A. OSR folks, here’s hoping your second phone calls come soon!)
Only one person has managed to voice how I feel about this whole process, and I shouldn’t be surprised at all that it’s Ann Powers, who spoke about rock music as art countless times during her EMP days. She feels just how new and important this project is, how it’s getting people to think and be involved in changing the actual world, by engaging their interest using a virtual one.
Here’s her piece from today’s Los Angeles Times:
Nine Inch Nails creates a world from ‘Year Zero’
Real-world concerns filter into a gamers’ paradise as Trent Reznor mixes it up.
By Ann Powers, Times Staff Writer
There’s a misconception afoot about “Year Zero,” the latest project from musical puppet master Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails. Launched in February with a cryptic message on a tour T-shirt, fleshed out in dozens of websites, scary voicemail messages, Morse code blips, murals, fliers and other real-world propaganda, “Year Zero” reaches a peak (but not its conclusion) with today’s album release. There’s never been such an extensive or well-planned campaign involving a major pop release. But “Year Zero” represents something more than just killer marketing.
Reznor has been complaining that the alternate reality game, or ARG, set in motion before the album’s release has been portrayed as separate and subservient to the album. He’s right. “Year Zero” isn’t just a cyberpunk “Dark Side of the Moon” augmented by a few impressive Web-based extras. Nor is it merely a game, the latest take on Quake with an amazing soundtrack. (Reznor did, incidentally, write the music and effects for that bestselling shooter game.)
“Year Zero” is a total marriage of the pop and gamer aesthetics that unlocks the rusty cages of the music industry and solves some key problems facing rock music as its cultural dominance dissolves into dust.
It’s easy for even Reznor appreciators to overlook this accomplishment, because “Year Zero” also works as pure pop. Composed mostly on a laptop and inspired by the Situationist hip-hop of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad production team, its 16 tracks reinvigorate Reznor’s most effective sonic tricks: surface noise, extreme dynamic shifts, dinosaur riffing and the slashes of prettiness that drive light into the hard stuff.
Reznor’s been picking at these elements forever, rearranging them, exploring their inner structures, breaking them apart.
He’s been criticized for being insular, but think of Reznor as Tolkien, not Timbaland, and the repetitions make sense. He’s building a world, and that world needs its own language, and language establishes itself through trial and error.
In his own universe
After the grim, hit-hungry perfectionism of the group’s previous album, 2005’s “With Teeth,” it’s great to hear Reznor sprawl out in his own universe again.
But to stop at the music is to miss what “Year Zero” accomplishes as a larger, ongoing work. In fact, it may be a mistake to even start with the music. Hard-core NIN fans and online game enthusiasts have been adding up the ARG’s clues to uncover its “X-Files”-like narrative, a compelling vision of a near-future afflicted by multiple calamities.
Grainy and hard to navigate, full of text and images so commonplace they feel real, these interlocking pages (executed by veteran game designers 42 Entertainment) don’t tell a story; they lock the participant into an experience that feels both personal and epic. That’s exactly what Reznor’s music does. Equal parts whisper and arena-sized punch, it immerses listeners into an emotional state that their own responses come to mirror.
The songs on “Year Zero,” each from the perspective of a character or characters already existent in the ARG, draw a connection between the music fan’s passionate identification with songs and the gamer’s experience of becoming someone else online.
Though it’s supposedly a leap that Reznor’s not writing about his own pain anymore, he still puts his gift for the ultra-personal to good use. The frantic first single, “Survivalism,” reveals the inner thoughts of a resistance leader; “Vessel” does the same for a religious fanatic; “The Good Soldier,” with its swaggering drum line beat, captures the reluctance of a military man.
Lyrics describing group experiences still circle back to the individual. Even the beautiful, cataclysmic closing suite, with its images of nuclear winter, focuses on a dying lover’s tender plea. Melodramatic on their own, Reznor’s lyrics gain believability when heard under the encompassing sway of the game.
Reznor has always been tuned into alternate realities, mostly those that occupy and distort the minds of average, uptight social outcasts. He emerged during the 1990s heyday of psychological rock, when fellow angsty boys Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder were making generational anthems about sexual confusion, personal drift and the sorrows of the broken home.
A tech nerd with roots in meticulous synth pop instead of punk or metal, Reznor made screamingly intense music about repression and its consequences; his great themes were sadomasochism (literal and metaphorical) and mental disorder.
Personal to political
Whatever personal issues propelled Reznor toward this ugly subject matter, his genius in the studio made his obsessions blossom into art. The Nine Inch Nails sound quickly evolved from plain industrial rock to the satanic equivalent of the Beach Boys — infinitely complex explorations of the way musical structures can mirror the ups and downs of an interior life.
On “Year Zero,” he’s reaching beyond his usual fascination with personal (or interpersonal) torment to confront group dynamics — specifically, politics. But he’s still most skilled at evoking the way the mind works in isolation.
This is where the multitiered experience of “Year Zero” intersects with the worldview it presents to show how pop music can communicate in a new way. The isolated experience of politics is ideology — the personal, even isolated, absorption of a set of beliefs. Embracing an ideology is a lot like playing an alternate reality game. You commit; you move where the rules lead; you risk failure if you doubt the path.
The usual model for political pop is to state ideas or conviction in an anthem or a ballad — to foreground meaning over experience. But hard rock has always been more about body-shaking physical possession than words.
On “Year Zero,” Reznor attempts to explore the physical experience of political ideology — how it feels to believe, or to rebel. His soldiers and subversives and faithful idiots speak in bromides, but the music, embedded with dissonance and sudden squalls of beauty, gives each character his own imperfect, powerful voice.
Factor in the listener’s experience of “Year Zero” on the Web and in community with other fans, and you have an event that bowls over the boundaries of the usual pop release.
Reznor promises to continue the “Year Zero” project into a new recording, and possibly a feature film. I hope he opts against that second option and sticks with more innovative forms.
Writing on the ARGoriented site unfiction.com, a theorist whose pseudonym is “Spacebass” coined the term “chaotic fiction” to describe the particular art of alternative reality gaming; such a phrase also fits music that strives to create a universe while staying open-ended enough for fans to find themselves within it.
At the very least, Trent Reznor is still creating chaotic rock ‘n’ roll. And that’s more than marketing; it’s pioneering art.
I know, it’s late in the day, but honestly, my brain can’t wrap itself around Kurt Vonnegut not breathing, walking, talking on this planet any longer, and it’s taken me a bit to get past the initial sting. It hurts in a way that truly surprises me, like when it’s 20 below zero and you step outside and take a deep breath and your lungs crackle and ache? Except this time, it’s my heart that feels it.
I can’t possibly say anything profound, or far-reaching, or snarky enough to due justice to what his writing means to me, and likely always will. Instead, I’m just going to post one of my favorite writings of his. And yes, I love the classic pieces, but this one…well, it’s newer, but it feels like it cuts to the quick of everything he’s done. I can’t thank him enough for putting it to paper, as the minute I read it, it was as if he’d reached inside my mind, straightened things up, and shown me how I really feel about this life, this world, and this country. Despite my occasional grumpiness, cynicism, frustration, and outright anger with the way of the world, the one thing you should know about me, my own little manifesto, that I truly believe? We *are* here to help each other. That’s the whole game, right there.
Blues for America
by Kurt Vonnegut
No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious and charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.
If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
Now, during our catastrophically idiotic war in Vietnam, the music kept getting better and better and better. We lost that war, by the way. Order couldn’t be restored in Indochina until the people kicked us out.
That war only made billionaires out of millionaires. Today’s war is making trillionaires out of billionaires. Now I call that progress.
And how come the people in countries we invade can’t fight like ladies and gentlemen, in uniform and with tanks and helicopter gunships?
Back to music. It makes practically everybody fonder of life than he or she would be without it. Even military bands, although I am a pacifist, always cheer me up. And I really like Strauss and Mozart and all that, but the priceless gift that African Americans gave the whole world when they were still in slavery was a gift so great that it is now almost the only reason many foreigners still like us at least a little bit. That specific remedy for the worldwide epidemic of depression is a gift called the blues. All pop music today – jazz, swing, be-bop, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Stones, rock-and-roll, hip-hop, and on and on – is derived from the blues.
A gift to the world? One of the best rhythm-and-blues combos I ever heard was three guys and a girl from Finland playing in a club in Krakow, Poland.
The wonderful writer Albert Murray, who is a jazz historian and a friend of mine among other things, told me that during the era of slavery in this country – an atrocity from which we can never fully recover – the suicide rate per capita among slave owners was much higher than the suicide rate among slaves.
Murray says he thinks this was because slaves had a way of dealing with depression, which their white owners did not: They could shoo away Old Man Suicide by playing and singing the Blues. He says something else which also sounds right to me. He says the blues can’t drive depression clear out of a house, but can drive it into the corners of any room where it’s being played. So please remember that.
Foreigners love us for our jazz. And they don’t hate us for our purported liberty and justice for all. They hate us now for our arrogance.
When I went to grade school in Indian apolis, the James Whitcomb Riley School #43, we used to draw pictures of houses of tomorrow, boats of tomorrow, airplanes of tomorrow, and there were all these dreams for the future. Of course at that time everything had come to a stop. The factories had stopped, the Great Depression was on, and the magic word was Prosperity. Sometime Prosperity will come. We were preparing for it. We were dreaming of the sorts of houses human beings should inhabit – ideal dwellings, ideal forms of transportation.
What is radically new today is that my daughter, Lily, who has just turned 21, finds herself, as do your children, as does George W Bush, himself a kid, and Saddam Hussein and on and on, heir to a shockingly recent history of human slavery, to an Aids epidemic, and to nuclear submarines slumbering on the floors of fjords in Iceland and elsewhere, crews prepared at a moment’s notice to turn industrial quantities of men, women, and children into radioactive soot and bone meal by means of rockets and H-bomb warheads. Our children have inherited technologies whose by-products, whether in war or peace, are rapidly destroying the whole planet as a breathable, drinkable system for supporting life of any kind.
Anyone who has studied science and talks to scientists notices that we are in terrible danger now. Human beings, past and present, have trashed the joint.
The biggest truth to face now – what is probably making me unfunny now for the remainder of my life – is that I don’t think people give a damn whether the planet goes on or not. It seems to me as if everyone is living as members of Alcoholics Anonymous do, day by day. And a few more days will be enough. I know of very few people who are dreaming of a world for their grandchildren.
Many years ago I was so innocent I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of. We dreamed of such an America during the Great Depression, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream during the second world war, when there was no peace.
But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts us absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many lifeless bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.
Human beings have had to guess about almost everything for the past million years or so. The leading characters in our history books have been our most enthralling, and sometimes our most terrifying, guessers.
May I name two of them? Aristotle and Hitler.
One good guesser and one bad one.
And the masses of humanity through the ages, feeling inadequately educated just like we do now, and rightly so, have had little choice but to believe this guesser or that one.
Russians who didn’t think much of the guesses of Ivan the Terrible, for example, were likely to have their hats nailed to their heads.
We must acknowledge that persuasive guessers, even Ivan the Terrible, now a hero in the Soviet Union, have sometimes given us the courage to endure extraordinary ordeals which we had no way of understanding. Crop failures, plagues, eruptions of volcanoes, babies being born dead – the guessers often gave us the illusion that bad luck and good luck were understandable and could somehow be dealt with intelligently and effectively. Without that illusion, we all might have surrendered long ago.
But the guessers, in fact, knew no more than the common people and sometimes less, even when, or especially when, they gave us the illusion that we were in control of our destinies.
Persuasive guessing has been at the core of leadership far so long, for all of human experience so far, that it is wholly unsurprising that most of the leaders of this planet, in spite of all the information that is suddenly ours, want the guessing to go on. It is now their turn to guess and guess and be listened to. Some of the loudest, most proudly ignorant guessing in the world is going on in Washington today. Our leaders are sick of all the solid information that has been dumped on humanity by research and scholarship and investigative reporting. They think that the whole country is sick of it, and they could be right. It isn’t the gold standard that they want to put us back on. They want something even more basic. They want to put us back on the snake-oil standard.
Loaded pistols are good for everyone except inmates in prisons or lunatic asylums.
Millions spent on public health are inflationary.
Billions spent on weapons will bring inflation down.
Dictatorships to the right are much closer to American ideals than dictatorships to the left.
The more hydrogen bomb warheads we have, all set to go off at a moment’s notice, the safer humanity is and the better off the world will be that our grandchildren will inherit.
Industrial wastes, and especially those that are radioactive, hardly ever hurt anybody, so everybody should shut up about them.
Industries should be allowed to do whatever they want to do: bribe, wreck the environment just a little, fix prices, screw dumb customers, put a stop to competition, and raid the Treasury when they go broke.
That’s free enterprise.
And that’s correct.
The poor have done something very wrong or they wouldn’t be poor, so their children should pay the consequences.
The United States of America cannot be expected to look after its own people.
The free market will do that.
The free market is an automatic system of justice.
And if you actually are an educated, thinking person, you will not be welcome in Washington, DC. I know a couple of bright seventh graders who would not be welcome in Washington, DC. Do you remember those doctors a few months back who got together and announced that it was a simple, clear medical fact that we could not survive even a moderate attack by hydrogen bombs? They were not welcome in Washington, DC.
Even if we fired the first salvo of hydrogen weapons and the enemy never fired back, the poisons released would probably kill the whole planet by and by.
What is the response in Washington? They guess otherwise. What good is an education? The boisterous guessers are still in charge – the haters of information. And the guessers are almost all highly educated people. Think of that. They have had to throw away their educations, even Harvard or Yale educations.
If they didn’t do that, there is no way their uninhibited guessing could go on and on and on. Please, don’t you do that. But if you make use of the vast fund of knowledge now available to educated persons, you are going to be lonesome as hell. The guessers outnumber you – and now I have to guess – about 10 to one.
I’m going to tell you some news.
No, I am not running for President, although I do know that a sentence, if it is to be complete, must have both a subject and a verb.
Nor will I confess that I sleep with children. I will say this, though: My wife is by far the oldest person I ever slept with.
Here’s the news: I am going to sue the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, manufacturers of Pall Mall cigarettes, for a billion bucks! Starting when I was only 12 years old, I have never chain-smoked anything but unfiltered Pall Malls. And for many years now, right on the package, Brown and Williamson have promised to kill me.
But I am now 82. Thanks a lot, you dirty rats. The last thing I ever wanted was to be alive when the three most powerful people on the whole planet would be named Bush, Dick and Colon.
Our government’s got a war on drugs. That’s certainly a lot better than no drugs at all. That’s what was said about prohibition. Do you realise that from 1919 to 1933 it was absolutely against the law to manufacture, transport, or sell alcoholic beverages, and the Indiana newspaper humourist Ken Hubbard said: “Prohibition is better than no liquor at all.”
But get this: The two most widely abused and addictive and destructive of all substances are both perfectly legal.
One, of course, is ethyl alcohol. And President George W Bush, no less, and by his own admission, was smashed, or tiddley-poo, or four sheets to the wind a good deal of the time from when he was 16 until he was 40. When he was 41, he says, Jesus appeared to him and made him knock off the sauce, stop gargling nose paint.
Other drunks have seen pink elephants.
About my own history of foreign substance abuse, I’ve been a coward about heroin and cocaine, LSD and so on, afraid they might put me over the edge. I did smoke a joint of marijuana one time with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, just to be sociable. It didn’t seem to do anything to me one way or the other, so I never did it again. And by the grace of God, or whatever, I am not an alcoholic, largely a matter of genes. I take a couple of drinks now and then and will do it again tonight. But two is my limit. No problem.
I am, of course, notoriously hooked on cigarettes. I keep hoping the things will kill me. A fire at one end and a fool at the other.
But I’ll tell you one thing: I once had a high that not even crack cocaine could match. That was when I got my first driver’s licence – look out, world, here comes Kurt Vonnegut!
And my car back then, a Studebaker as I recall, was powered, as are almost all means of transportation and other machinery today, and electric power plants and furnaces, by the most abused, addictive, and destructive drugs of all: fossil fuels.
When you got here, even when I got here, the industrialised world was already hopelessly hooked on fossil fuels, and very soon now there won’t be any left. Cold turkey.
Can I tell you the truth? I mean this isn’t the TV news is it? Here’s what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial. And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we’re hooked on.
I turned 82 on November 11, 2004. What’s it like to be this old? I can’t parallel park worth a damn any more, so please don’t watch while I try to do it. And gravity has become a lot less friendly and manageable than it used to be.
When you get to my age, if you get to my age, and if you have reproduced, you will find yourself asking your own children, who are themselves middle-aged: “What is life all about?’” I have seven kids, three of them orphaned nephews.
I put my big question about life to my son the pediatrician. Dr Vonnegut said this to his doddering old dad: “Father, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”
It’s one of those Mondays that bother me the most. I spent the weekend at several rock shows (8 different bands, I believe?), and I think it’s only fair to declare that rock ‘n’ roll spring training is over, and the season of rock has officially begun. It was fantasic to hang out with people I haven’t seen in ages, catch up with bands who’ve been in the studio and play all new songs in their first shows in awhile, and grab late night eats with friends once they’ve loaded out their gear and still need to wind down from playing. It’s the life I love, the only one I really understand.
The problem with such a fantastic music-filled weekend? The Monday after. No, it’s not because I’m tired or hung over, but because now, on Monday? No shows. Nada. Just back at work, sitting at my desk. My body and my mind adjust to show life so quickly, and it seems tremendously unfair come Monday, when it’s all just *gone*. No bass shaking my internal organs. No guitars to covet. No new songs that you’ve never heard before intriguing me. Nope, none of it. Today, I have to rely on my iPod and what lands in my inbox to keep me sane.
On that note, some live Twilight Singers footage from last Pukkelpop. Goddamnit, I miss these guys…
(Thanks to Scott Ford for pointing this out, as it’s just saving my ass today.)
It’s time for the next meeting regarding the current state of the Mayor’s idea of nightlife legislation. Yeah, I know, Thursday at 9:30am at City Hall is most people’s idea of hell, but this is *crucial*, if you’d like to continue to enjoy actual, honest-to-god rock shows in Seattle. Caffeinate. Be there. Speak up!
The City Council’s Economic Development and Neighborhoods Committee is holding another briefing on the Mayor’s proposed Nightlife legislation on April 5th, 9:30 am at the City Hall Council Chambers (600 – 4th Avenue). We need ever person who can to attend this briefing and offer testimony expressing your personal concerns with the legislation. If you go out to bars, nightclubs, or to see live music, you need to come support. It important to just show up, just write an email, etc. Every person counts.
Our message to city hall is simple – let’s better enforce the laws we currently have on the books now to address issues of noise, litter and other community concerns. There is no need for new cumbersome, oppressive regulations that threaten existing businesses and potential new businesses when the city isn’t enforcing the laws they already have. We support the creation of an advisory board to help resolve disputes between neighbors and business owners and develop ways to help professionalize the nightlife industry. If you can’t attend the meeting, please email the members of the city council.
Jan Drago (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Richard Conlin (Richard.Conlin@seattle.gov)
Richard McIver (email@example.com)
Peter Steinbrueck (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Nick Licata (Nick.Licata@Seattle.gov)
David Della (David.Della@Seattle.gov)
Tom Rasmussen (email@example.com)
Jean Godden (Jean.Godden@Seattle.gov)
Sally Clark (firstname.lastname@example.org)