Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts I-IV

It is somewhat strange that discussions about a group’s business model or attitude towards copyright law have now become an important part of the process of putting out an album. As we all saw with the release of Radiohead’s recent In Rainbows, the actual manner of distribution and the pricing system become more of a topic of conversation than the music on the album. In that case, many people, including several reviewers, were more concerned with how much they paid for it than how the album represented yet another shift in the group’s compositional process. This has not changed much, and the web-release of Nine Inch Nails new album Ghosts I-IV will most likely result in much of the same type of discussions. That being said, the way in which this album has been released does represent another high-level artist’s decision to opt out of the music industry’s distribution and profit machine—so it is worth talking about, but after we look at the music.

Trent Reznor, the founder, leader, and only permanent member of Nine Inch Nails, has always straddled the boundary between the niche industrial and electronica genres and more mainstream music. Much of his output Broken (1992), The Downward Sprial (1994) and Year Zero (2007), were released as complete albums and then, followed by remixers, where other artists, including Reznor, would rework the tracks to create new material—a common practice in the industrial/electronica scene. Thus, each album exists as a mainstream album and as a niche market transformation. With Ghosts I-IV he as effectively produced an album that is both at once. Working with guest artists Atticus Ross, a programmer, producer and long time co-worker, Adrien Belew, a guitarist who has worked with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads, King Crimson, and others, and NIN live band member Alessandro Cortini, Reznor has produced an instrumental album of surprising depth and cohesion.

Now sober and healthy, Reznor breaking his habit of producing an album every five years, has managed to produce three, With Teeth (2005), Year Zero (2007), and now Ghosts I-IV in only three years. Ghosts I-IV was written and recorded in only ten weeks and is less over worked than many of his earlier works. The result is a sound, which while being unmistakably Nine Inch Nails, is wonderfully fresh and open. It is sonically similar to his other albums, but starkly different in form and construction. For die-hard Nails fans looking for the seething angst and thumping rhythm tracks, this album will be somewhat of a disappointment, since it explores a different end of the emotional and tonal spectrum one normal expects of Mr. Reznor.

The music is still heavily sample-based, but in a way perhaps more similar to the electro-acoustic compositional experiments conducted by the famous electronic/computer music lab at our own University of Illinois, the developments of the musique concrète composers of the 1940-1970s, and the early days of the true industrial movement. However, when compared to earlier NIN products, there are fewer layers of sound, and you can focus on the lyrical quality of the music without being hit with that usual wall of chaos. Here, the emphasis in on melodic writing which is a little more dissonant and thought provoking than one normally finds on an album destined for the Billboard charts.

Each of the songs were written with a different collaborator, but grouped in a way that the entire hour and fifty minutes of music hangs together well. I’m not yet quite sure why the volumes are divided as they are, since many of the songs have a similar flow to them, and none of the volumes have a distinctive character. This means the album sounds almost the same on shuffle than in order. In this way, perhaps the album could have benefited from some editing. Now, I’ll talk a little bit about the business end of things.

Reznor released the four volume Ghosts Sunday March 2nd from his website, . A long-standing member of the mid-1990s remix-mad electronica and industrial scene, he has always stood firmly on the side of some form of free trading and use. In fact, during the release of his most recent albums With Teeth and Year Zero, he released songs in fully editable form on the internet and through anonymously placed memory keys to encourage his fans to remix and use material from the songs. With Ghosts I-IV he expanded on a previous online experiment, offering fans several options, all including lots of free goodies along with their purchases.

The only option not offered fans was the chance to price it themselves, which meant no more freebies, as with the Radiohead release. The only actually cost-free option is a one-time download of the first volume, which consisted of 9 tracks and lots of free pictures and wallpapers.

The full album, a total of 36 tracks spread over four volumes, is available as a $5 dollar download, a $10 preorder for actual physical CDs and a booklet (I know, how quaint), and a $75 dollar fancy-pants deluxe edition featuring a hardcover fabric slipcase containing: 2 audio CDs, 1 data DVD with all 36 tracks in multi-track format and a Blu-ray disc containing the album in a high-definition 96/24 stereo and an accompanying slideshow. The final option, which is already sold out, is a 2500 copy run of a $300 collector’s edition which includes all of the deluxe edition stuff along with high quality photographs from the artists who produced the booklet art.

All of these options include a one-time free download of the entire album in DRM free formats. These multiple options not only allow for a great deal of flexibility of choice but also push the boundaries of just what we are calling an album these days. In addition to being on the Nine Inch Nails website, the entire album is available for download from, although since the artwork is not available there, it is worth downloading the free tracks and extras from the NIN website.

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