Nine Inch Nails ‘Bad Witch’ Is New Madness From A Steady Hand [Review]

Christopher PolkGetty Images for FYF

Bad Witch opens with a clear challenge to the listener in the form of a song titled “S**t Mirror.” As with parts one and two, Not The Actual Events and Add Violence, it quickly becomes clear that the experimental direction will continue throughout this final chapter in Nine Inch Nails’ nearly two-year-long music trilogy.

These three short albums have included songs ranging from haunting, atmospheric head-trips like “She’s Gone Away,” to radio-ready, comparatively conventional rock and roll songs like “Less Than.”

Heart-wrenching moments like “This Isn’t The Place,” reminiscent of cuts from Radiohead’s Kid A, seem a million miles away from “The Background World” two tracks later, as we listen to the 11-minute song devour itself.

These records aren’t for everyone, nor were they intended to be. But for the frustrated music fan still holding out hope for some kind of audio renaissance just across the horizon, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have provided something of consequence.

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails performs onstage on day 3 of FYF Fest at Exposition Park in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images for FYF)Featured image credit: Rich FuryGetty Images

As Bad Witch begins, we’re not looking at a With Teeth type situation, where Trent opened with “All The Love In The World” and listeners sat fixed in their seats, stricken with the knowledge that this song could go anywhere from here. “S**t Mirror” paints a clear picture in its first moment. The most significant bit of clarity being that once again, Trent and Atticus are in control. We kick off with a song that is at least one part Joy Division and two parts boot to the face, by the tortured musical genius banging on a tambourine. This song goes hard.

As we venture into “Ahead of Ourselves,” which was premiered in Las Vegas a few nights ago, it becomes apparent that this song is every bit as chaotic here as it was for the live performance, and maybe then some. A jarring hook appears out of nowhere, which only gets better on repeat listens. Trent’s distorted vocals reminisce sounds of the 1987 Max Headroom incident, which paired with a prominent sonic ripping and tearing throughout, “Ahead of Ourselves” provides a layer of abrasive discomfort largely (though not entirely) absent post-Fragile Nine Inch Nails.

As the instrumental track “Play The G*d**ned Part” starts up, listeners may again be slightly reminded of Kid A, specifically “The National Anthem,” as layered woodwind and brass instruments seem to permeate the track. Unconventional even by Nine Inch Nails standards, the song remarkably maintains an unmistakable Nine Inch Nails signature sound. Though to successfully identify what that sound is, exactly, is to probably be able to create a Nine Inch Nails record. What exactly makes such an expansive discography uniquely identifiable as a Trent Reznor work, when absent his voice? It’s impossible to articulate, but like Lynchian art, you know it when you see it.

“God Break Down The Door” doesn’t sound like an obvious single, but then, with the exception of “Less Than” and “Discipline,” pretty much nothing has sounded like an obvious single off of anything Nine Inch Nails has released since 2008. Looking back at the album Hesitation Marks, “Came Back Haunted” might well have been the lead single, but it sure didn’t seem obvious. A fantastic song, sure, but it never really seemed like big single material. For that matter “Various Methods of Escape” probably would have fared better on rock stations. Digressions aside, “God Break Down The Door,” as has now been mentioned about 7 million times, is quite reminiscent of David Bowie’s Blackstar album, however intentional that may have been. It also features a wonderful middle section which seems to drop out for a moment and then come back for the listener’s soul. We have a pulse-pounding outro as Reznor repeats some cutting lyrics taking listeners back to the bleakness of the Broken and Downward Spiral eras.

“Remove the pain and push it back in.”

While “God Break Down The Door” may not be an obvious single, it’s admittedly a little more obvious than “I’m Not From This World.” An instrumental track that could be the result of Michael Gira scoring a David Lynch film, instead incarnates as what may well be the darkest Nine Inch Nails song in the entire discography, rivaling “The Downward Spiral,” “I’m Looking Forward to Joining You, Finally” and… honestly “She’s Gone Away.”

Bad Witch closes with “Over And Out,” which is half an instrumental track and possibly the least remarkable song on this album, though Trent’s singing is definitely a bit more robust than listeners are probably used to. Furthermore, we’re given what is at least a third example of what may be a motif within the world of Nine Inch Nails. The song ends with Reznor repeating the words “time is running out,” which is oddly close to how “While I’m Still Here” ends on Hesitation Marks,“ticking time is running out.” Back in 2007, the Year Zero song “The Warning” also featured a close similarity with the repeated line “your time is tick, tick, ticking away,” which by the way overlays the wickedest guitar part on that album. So what does it all mean?

Probably nothing.

Nine Inch Nails is a band with motifs appearing, then seeming to disappear, only to come back again unexpectedly (see the video for “This Isn’t The Place” referencing Year Zero, after 10 years mum). Whatever Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross mean by the inclusion of such recurring content, they’re not interested in talking about it. It’s for fans to notice and ponder on, adding a layer of mystery to an already heavily-layered band.

So the trilogy is complete. There seems to be a vague political undertone throughout all three records, though the political content never becomes cliche or ham-fisted. It mostly stays in the background, acting as a kind of malevolent spirit, haunting listeners at sporadic moments of realization that everything is not OK. But we expect a foreboding tone here. What’s haunting is that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are telling the listeners something a bit different now. They’re telling us that things aren’t just falling apart inside a Nine Inch Nails record anymore like they’re supposed to. Now they’re sending a clear warning that the chaos isn’t just in there with them anymore, things are falling apart all around us.

Thematically, Bad Witch, Add Violence, and Not The Actual Events carry an unmistakable motif of degradation, corrosion, a breaking down. Emotionally? As a society? Reznor and Ross seem to be answering yes to both. The newest album from Nine Inch Nails is probably the consistently strongest of this recent decomposition triptych, it feels a bit more cohesive, a little more complete. It’ll be interesting to see what configurations fans tinker with to perfect this trilogy and if Trent will keep good on his promise to also release it as one LP.

Bad Witch, arrives in stores tomorrow. 8.8/10