A ‘Pretty Hate Machine’ Retrospective

Listener’s discretion is advised.

Recently I was having coffee with an old friend. I was drinking my third cup for the day. He was surprised at my caffeine intake. I hadn’t even realized anything was off about my habit. I wondered where all that energy was going. I think I’ve figured it out.

In celebration of the recent Nine Inch Nails come back, I’ve been returning to their seminal debut, Pretty Hate Machine. It seems that its dark grooves have been syphoning out my negative energy like it’s popping some sort of cathartic pimple. This record is very near and dear to my heart. It is a classic in the genre of industrial music, but also a classic in my personal music canon. Its an album loaded to the brim with emotional energies, despite being composed, recorded and produced solely by Trent Reznor. It has moments of ecstasy, and moments of absolute despair. I am celebrating its 29th year of existence (It turns 30 in October of 2019) by going over some of my favorite bits from the album.

The album opener (and lead single) is “Head Like A Hole.” This track was the world’s first encounter with NIN. “Head Like A Hole” begins with an orchestra of insect-like drum hits. Trent deliberately sequenced every little click that appears in the track, and result is a track that’s as groovy and funky as it is creepy and crawly. This is a recurring theme on the record. Its music is wrong but so right, evil but so danceable, owed in part to all the wonderfully 80s drum hits, but also the arpeggiated synths that appear on later tracks like “Terrible Lie” and “That’s What I Get.”

Third track, “Down in It,” is a dark take on 80s hip-hop, like a goth reinterpretation of LL Cool J. It features samples that accent beats not unlike what a DJ would place into a beat for an MC, but these accents sound like the roar of a crowd in the gladiator arenas of hell. The lyrics and the title reference to at one point feeling as though you were better than something – some behavior, person, or idea – only to find yourself caught up in that very something. Like saying “I listen to everything but rap and country,” only to find your future self at a Florida Georgia Line concert, shilling out 40 dollars for a tour t-shirt. You were up above it, but now you’re down in it.

“Something I Can Never Have” just about marks the halfway point on the record. The track is a Trent Reznor love-ballad, with all that that descriptor entails. Trent has a few of these types of tracks in his discography, all of which stand out in different ways. His most famous is “Hurt,” a track off his third album, The Downward Spiral. The track really blew up after Johnny Cash covered it during his come-back sessions with producer Rick Rubin. Trent really isolates a specific human emotion with “Something I Can Never Have,” as the title suggests. At the center of the track are Trent’s vocals and a dissonant piano part that repeats unending throughout the track as synthesizers swell around it. The track captures the longing for that which you depend on – love, drugs – that empty feeling; an unfillable void. The track is one of Reznors magnum opera, capturing a feeling that he continues to portray years later in NIN as well as his soundtracks for several recent David Fincher films (Gone Girl, The Social Network).

The second half of the album returns to the pace set by the first four tracks. “Kinda I Want To” brings the drums once again. It chops up classic breakbeats sampled from jazz records and intersplices them with synthesizers that evoke a capsizing Starship Enterprise. Combined with Reznor’s aggressive vocal delivery, a bouncy and distorted anthem of desire is birthed from the fire and brimstone. “That’s What I Get” is another highlight of the album. It beautifully contrasts hectic drum sequences and synthesizers of the other tracks with sparse instrumentation and Trent’s vocals on the verses. The standout moment on the track for me is the bridge where Reznor laments: “Why’s it come as a surprise – to think that I was so naïve // maybe didn’t mean that much, but it meant everything to me.” This bridge, where the isolated vocals and synthesizer really shine through, keeps me coming back to this track.

Just as the track swells to a climax, the album takes you in a different direction with the penultimate track, “The Only Time.” This track is a lyrical highlight if you enjoy pure and unrefined edginess. I won’t quote any of the lyrics as they are a bit raunchy, but the track has a sinister sort of lust to it that does not fail to entertain. The breakdown around the 3-minute mark of this track is another highlight of the album, with an ascending baseline and punchier than punchy drums as Reznor barks “This is the only time I really feel alive” repeatedly.

The album is bookended by “Ringfinger” on the original release of the record (I mention this because on the remastered version there is a B-Side repurposed as a closing track that follows “Ringfinger”). “Ringfinger” is an industrial-house classic. Its driving 4/4 bass drum and syncopated synthesizers form a foundation for Trent to work his black magic over. It features distorted guitar stabs, sustained square wave synthesizers, and panning record scratches, and of course Trent’s vocals. The track, and the album, fizzles out into glitchy feedback, evoking the digital Dante’s Inferno that seems to characterize every track of this album as it cycles through the different circles of hell on each track, from limbo to treachery.

So, as finals season approaches once again, next time you feel like you have too much negative energy, purge it with a listening of Pretty Hate Machine, available to stream or purchase on all your favorite platforms.

Written by Nick Amerkhanian

 

The Green Hill Zone — I mean The Garden

If you like Shadow the Hedgehog and getting wild to sleazy electro-punk music, do I have the album for you. The Garden is the name under which twin brothers Wyatt and Fletcher Shears dress up as jesters and sleaze around in sleepy southern Californian towns (see their music videos linked below). Their new album Mirror Might Steal Your Charm makes the spooky synthesizer sounds from the Time Splitters cabinet at the arcade in your local laser tag arena into a series of unique electro-punk tunes overflowing with personality. Mirror Might Steal Your Charm is a card reading from a cheat deck of playing cards. Its tricky and ambiguous, but still may provide you with some sort of meaning whether intended or not, long as you are open to that as a possibility.

I know what you’re thinking – “But why Shadow the Hedgehog?” Bear with me. Shadow the Hedgehog is a video game character from the Sonic the Hedgehog universe who is presented as a foil to Sonic – Shadow is morally questionable and obsessed with revenge. He acts as a medium between good and evil as he embodies a bit of both. The Garden is they same. The band acts as a medium between two forces as well – punk music and electronic music. If punk music is the side of morally righteous Sonic and the animals, and electronic music is the side of evil Dr. Eggman and his robots, then The Garden is Shadow the Hedgehog, the anti-hero.

I know I sound like I’m going off the deep end. So, I’ll try to reel you back into my Shadow the Hedgehog comparison one last time and then move on. A panel of SEGA executives designed Shadow to embody 2000s era edginess in its purest form. If he were a human he would wear JNCO jeans, Oakley sunglasses, and a backwards baseball cap, and listen to Limp Bizkit and Korn. The Garden channels this aesthetic with the same mix of irony and nostalgia that brought denim jackets from the 1980s into the 2010s. They bring the seemingly expired and uncool back into palatability with the help of a little self-awareness.

Self-awareness is The Garden’s strong suit (pardon the playing card pun). Their music is without a doubt confrontational and aggressive, but The Garden still manages to sprinkle in bits of wisdom like on the track “A Message for Myself” where they close the with the following line: “Because in the end, everyone has problems // And life tries to teach you something // No matter how many times you’ve lived // So keep in mind that everyone is equal // Nothing you do makes you more human than anyone else.” As sleazy as they may seem, the Fletcher twins are keeping an eye out for you and making sure you know that you’re great just the way you are.

Love,

Nick Amerkhanian (The Corpse King)

Dancing to Anxiety — A review of “The House” by Porches

“Wonder if you want to stay // or if it’s easier that way,” Aaron Maine cries out over some of the punchiest drums such a line has ever been sang over. His band, Porches, released their third studio album, The House, in January. The record features a series of minimalist pop tunes, with catchy hooks, danceable beats, and themes of self-isolation and anxiety. The opener, perhaps my favorite track of 2018 thus far, “Leave the House,” quoted earlier, tackles feelings of anxiety around a relationship; feelings that Aaron is putting in less than he is giving back, feelings that his relationship is unbalanced.

Before breaking into Aaron’s vocals over a duo of synthesizer and drum machine, the track begins with an eerie vocal harmony by (Sandy) Alex G, “Let it have me // how it wants // it’s never what you thought // it’s never what you thought.” “It” is a recurring character on this record. “It” manifests itself in many ways. On the second track, “Find Me,” Aaron fears the feelings of anxiety that seem to hunt him down, “I can’t let it find me // I can’t let it find me.” In “Leave the House,” “it” is his relationship – “it” is the imbalance that haunts him. “It” is something he wants to isolate himself from. “I don’t want to leave you out // I just want to leave the house // find something to think about // maybe take a walk around.” The beauty of “it” is that it is entirely abstract and up to the listeners interpretation. “It” can be manifested however the listener chooses, making “it” extremely personal.

By the closing lines of the track, the aforementioned “punchy” drums and synthesizer have gone. All that is left is Aaron with his final line “You give it to me for free // and I don’t think that you see // that you don’t get much from me // that you don’t get much from me” syncopated over the same line Alex G sings to open the track. Though the drums are gone, the beat carries on, and I’m still dancing – “it” keeps me dancing. What is left when the drums and synthesizer disappear – just Aaron and Alex harmonizing – is rather minimal, lyrically, and sonically, but it carries on the groove. This simultaneous lyrical simplicity and danceability makes Aaron’s new record exception. Anyone can manifest Aaron’s abstracted but concise words how they need to – anyone can relate to the fear and loneliness that serve as Aaron’s muse – and anyone can dance to his odd and unconventional grooves if they feel like it. The House makes our anxiety into something we can dance to.

The House is out now on Domino Records. It is available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, and for purchase on Bandcamp and iTunes.

KZSC Album Reviews: Ceremony – The L-Shaped Man

Ceremony, the very well celebrated punk band of Northern California (Rohnert Park to be specific) has put out their fifth studio album “The L-Shaped Man” on Matador Records. I must say, I was really impressed by this album especially in relation to how much of a departure “The L-Shaped Man” seems from their previous album “Zoo”.

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Album Review: Hotwire by Jeff Richman

 

Jeff Richman's latest release Hotwire.

Jeff Richman’s latest release Hotwire packs some funky punches but also contains restrained, ballad-like pieces of fusion.

As soon as the sprightly melody of “Hit Spot,” the first track of Jeff Richman’s latest album, emerges with electrifying excitement, you might expect a great jazz-rock fusion album that updates the genre from the early days of Miles and Zappa. The punching vamp reminds me specifically of Miles’s Tribute to Jack Johnson, reaching out with palpable spunk; but a gentle atmosphere still invites us, the listeners, in. But this is the most psychedelic or near psychedelic the album gets. Following the flight of “Hit Spot,” we land on the ground for a funky jam called “Seven Up.” It is a great start to an album that jams, grooves, flies, and ruminates.

Richman polished a funk-rock-jazz gem in “Oh, Yeah?” The hybrid nature of this song reflects the general album: plenty of wandering, hints of fury, and plenty of joy. This song sounds like a great jam edited down to the best parts. Elements of traditional jazz pop up in a few songs, but last only until Richman steps in with his guitar, a dominant feature of the entire slickly-produced album. That’s one gripe I have: a little more dissonance or wah-wah would have endeared this album more to youngsters. The first track on the album suggests a fairly brave, bold fusion but by the third track, it’s clear that this is not teenage angst-ridden jazz fusion. This is the kind you could drive with and zone out with pleasantly.

Jeff Richman’s fusion brews elements of music that are not threatening: rock guitar, funky bass lines, grooves with calm piano intros and new-age guitar-vocal harmony vamps. The stylish guitar soloing on the album is sublime and soaring at points, unimaginative and too restrained at others. One song, “Little Waves,” fits its title so well that you can imagine a bird’s eye view of a drive down Highway 1 with foam-crested blue massaging the cliffs. The enjoyable jams on the album make every revisit worthwhile.

Savage Reviews – “W.H.K.” Self Titled

At first glance this radio station would file the CD under K for Klink, but William H. Klink is not an individual. It is a five-man band from San Luis Obispo, California, and it is the name of their 2015 self-titled album; to be filed under W. Seventeen tracks of psych-punk with a whole lot of west coast surf vibe coming through, as well its share of lo-fi garage tracks. And, yes, there are a few tracks in the two minute range so often found in the punk genre, but this band is not afraid to riff off into a long instrumental. Check out track #4 of seven plus minutes, with an equally long name “Seabed and Dr. Chongs 4th Dimensional Transcendental Journey”. Now, it is true, I have never been sitting on a surf board stoned, watching the sets roll in, but I am sure it has happened a million times and the music of William H. Klink would be a sublime addition to such a moment; provided the right waterproof equipment was at hand. I will only give a thumbs down to track #11, “Drowning”, but so what, that leaves 16 tracks to enjoy. Besides, something always gets left behind in the wake.

Written by David Anton Savage, host of Unfiltered Camels on Mondays from 2-3 PM