Trent Reznor’s Christmas gift in 2016 is an unapologetic return to the angsty industrial noise of Nine Inch Nails’ commercial breakthrough period in the 1990s. This five-track EP channels the blunt-force aggression of The Downward Spiral-era NIN as a riposte to, as he put it a recent interview with Apple Music, the prevalence of “boring” and “polite” rock music.
It’s also a reaction to his softer soundtrack work with composer Atticus Ross, who is now an official member of the band. Over 21 minutes, Not The Actual Events puts the guitar at the foreground of NIN’s sound, pairing a manic surf rock-like groove with wailing that sounds like Reznor trying to resist the earth’s gravitational pull. “Feels like I’ve been here before/I don’t care anymore,” he roars, perhaps anticipating criticism the band is repeating itself.
However, the trigger for this aggro direction is a mystery: the majority the lyrics are indiscernible, though song titles such as Dear World, She’s Gone Away and The Idea Of You vaguely hint at some sort of drama.
At best, Not The Actual Events is a reminder of how sexy Nine Inch Nails can be. When they emerged, the genius of band wasn’t just that they were noisy but that their loudness was often anchored in grooves that were as suited to pole dancing as they were to an head-banging. So it’s not a complete stretch to imagine Reznor in leather pants humping an LED screen on stage to the hypnotic beat on She’s Gone Away or the big, distorted riffs on Burning Bright (Field On Fire).
The burst of primal aggression is welcome (especially in today's political climate), but this EP is too meandering and amorphous to hit as hard as the band’s best stuff. Part of Reznor's appeal is the honesty of his songwriting and that is lost as he shifts the emphasis to atmosphere and texture. Ultimately, Not The Actual Events feels more notable for what it recalls than what it is, but at least it isn’t boring.
Top Track: Burning Bright (Field On Fire)