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Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts V & VI: Together & Locusts

2,385 words

Nine Inch Nails released the albums Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts simultaneously on March 26th, 2020 with a whopping price tag of free. Trent Reznor, the group’s central creative member, announced the surprise records with a Tweet: “Anyone out there?”

The two albums are a continuation of the group’s Ghosts series that began with Ghosts I-IV in 2008, the band’s first studio effort after becoming independent of a label. The Ghosts series consists of lush, drone-influenced, ambient soundscapes that defy the rules of traditional songwriting and release methods. Ghosts albums are meant to be taken as peculiar wholes, music that envelops you and serves better as a vehicle for contemplation than active analysis of themselves. I-IV bore hallmarks of Brian Eno’s ambient work while incorporating a diverse array of influences, like the banjo lead that was sampled [3] by American rapper Lil Nas X on his obscenely popular country-rap crossover hit, “Old Town Road.” (This bit of pollination landed Reznor and Atticus Ross a Country Music Award [4] in 2019.)

Ghosts V and VI were both clearly produced with the same premise in mind. They are albums that pull off the remarkable feat of being present and acknowledged in one’s ears without forcing their way into the foreground of one’s thoughts. The two differ quite substantially in their individual moods, however, with V: Together being the duo’s more optimistic — albeit thoroughly melancholic — half, and VI: Locusts being permeated with brooding and the dark ambient sounds that Reznor and company cut their teeth with during Nine Inch Nail’s early years as an industrial-crossover band. Listening to the two side-by-side makes the contrast most apparent, but also highlights just how complementary the sounds of each album are to each other. It’s heavily implied that Ghosts V and VI are shots meant to be taken right after each other, and digested as a whole.

The group’s decision to release Ghosts is due to the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19. Reznor and Ross stated that the music contained within the records, while certainly much older than the outbreak of the disease, takes on new meaning for those stuck in isolation [5] as the virus spreads. Together, the lighter side of the pair, is for “when things seem like it might all be okay.” Locusts, the darker side, is left for the listeners to “figure it out.” This Ghosts release is, therefore, a strong candidate for the first example of what I and the internet like to call “doomer music” released by a mainstream artist with an explicit focus on the pandemic Zeitgeist. Ghosts V and VI certainly do the job well, too; far from a mere capitalization on a global crisis to market the albums, Together and Locusts make for superb soundtracks to plaintive window-gazing, shut-in spring cleaning, or hiding underneath the bedsheets when things seem a little overwhelming.

You can buy Greg Johnson’s The White Nationalist Manifesto here [6]

Ghosts V: Together heavily utilizes harmonic drones treated to subtle modulation and simple, albeit refined chord progressions to create soundscapes befitting of a film soundtrack. It opens with the gentle “Letting Go While Holding On,” a delicate track that moves deliberately throughout its several passages without disrupting its own cadence. Its broadly Space Age-influenced sound serves as a suitable backdrop for a dusting of organic instrumentation, and despite its length — nine minutes, thirty-eight seconds — it does not seem to drag along by virtue of the fact that it never seizes your attention.

“Together” is a piano-based song with a similar choral ambiance to the preceding track. Feather-light touches of string find their way onto this track, as do the stretched, crystalline sounds of chimes. “Together” is appropriate; the track’s elements meld beautifully, and the sum of its parts makes for an excellent canvas to ruminate upon the importance of our loved ones, especially if they’re near — and even if we can’t be with them right now. “Together” also dabbles in the looped noise that will be featured more prominently on the rest of the album.

“OUT IN THE OPEN” makes for greater use of the low-end, and introduces greater texturing in the form of mildly noisy, guitar-reminiscent harmonics that rumble beneath the track’s harmonizations. “OPEN” is one of the most reliably ASMR-inducing tracks on the album.

“With Faith” is produced in a similar vein to “Letting Go,” albeit with greater rhythm, a lower synthesized choir, and strokes of synthwave-inspired melodies that give the track a more easily discerned center. The use of modulation and traditionally-arranged marimba leads on “Faith” give it a pulsating quality.

“Apart” is more sinister. It begins with a discordant, unsettling stretch of feedback-like synthesizer that meanders over the track’s first several minutes before it morphs into a string-inspired tone. More gentle instrumentation, such as the soft piano and choir, form a juxtaposition between themselves and the ethereal, yet haunting textures that saturate the track. “Apart” excels in bait-and-switch, as well, as instruments like the flute in the track’s latter half tease sweetness, but quickly drop into minor keys and feed into the composition’s foreboding atmosphere. The track’s pummeling, muffled kick-drum ending provides minimal closure.

“Your Touch” — a world of difference from the aforementioned “Apart” — carries the themes from the end of the previous track into a more abstract setting. Kraftwerk-like glides over the synthesizer, distorted strings, and a consistent, gentle bassline give “Your Touch” the unique quality of aimless drifting. “Touch” carefully pairs its unpredictable movements with familiar sounds carefully cherry-picked from pop and orchestral music to ground the listener just enough that they don’t fear what’s coming next.

“Hope We Can Again” is a sentence that is probably on the lips of millions. It has a raspy, 80s feel, and makes use of chimes and the aforementioned crispy, low-end harmonics to great effect. Much of “Again” is reminiscent of the decrescendos that follow the climaxes of a Godspeed You! Black Emperor track — “Storm” [7] being the most appropriate example. “Hope” becomes ear-piercingly shrill and violent around its midway point, its squeal and rattle abruptly collapsing into a distant howl and then a modified version of its central leitmotif. It’s comfort interrupted by a fleeting moment of excruciating pain.

“Still Right Here” is the closing track. It oozes drama, and finally packs a punch behind the crunchy, distorted riffs that quaked beneath the synthesizers and gentle tones of most of the album. The guitar work on “Here” becomes discernable, then dominant, then the track explodes into a furious, cut-time cacophony of late industrial breaks and melodies. It’s defiant, a sudden outburst of martial efficiency softened by the human spirit to make merry — but even this doesn’t last long, as the song disintegrates into distant shouts and panned wooshes. What’s left behind is nowhere near dread, however. It’s a reflection on the track’s course, and perhaps the course of the listener’s emotions and experiences as they bubbled up to the surface through the album’s teasing. “Still Right Here” is solace incarnate.

Together. Optimism. Focus. Congruency. Ghosts V leaves an impressive mark. Its composition is similar to other ambient albums, with its precedents identifiable to a trained ear and its tonal center almost entirely compatible with the comforting internal frequencies of the average listener. Locusts, on the other hand, is the hypothetical detour. To Together’s tapestry of interwoven parts, Locusts asks: “What if it were all to become tangled?” What if there is no satisfying conclusion? What if meditation does not lead one to inner peace, but simply exacerbates existing turmoil? There are plenty of narratives that are making their rounds regarding the fate of the world at the hands of this pandemic. Many insist it’s simply a matter of time before we return to the fantasy-land status quo of neoliberalism. But fantasies are ephemeral. They melt away at the slightest lapse in disbelief, their discarded carcass a mess of unpleasant truths.

This pandemic is revealing a number of unpleasant truths to us. Apparently, tossing nations into a meat grinder and reassembling them into zones corresponding to a stock market can have nasty consequences when things need to be put on pause. If you outsource your labor market for the purposes of cutting costs down on your balance sheet, you might end up paying a far greater price later on, whether that’s in the form of large-scale corporate dysfunction or accidentally importing infectious diseases. Jef Costello recently discussed the notion of SARS, Chapter Deux being the wrath of God [8], suggesting that it might as well be. This virus is a plague of locusts descending upon a populace who knows that they’ve done something terribly wrong, deep down.

Locusts is the album for both the guilty conscience and the apocalyptic devotee.

Beginning with “The Cursed Clock,” a track centered around the incessant plinking of a slightly detuned piano and a shrill, mosquito-buzz drone, Locusts differs from Together in the sense that it is an indulgence rather than a reflection. In an age of Keep Calm and Carry On, Locusts extends a hand to the doomsday dwellings lurking inside the listener’s head — and then offers to pull them up from underwater.

“Around Every Corner” cribs the same staggering piano from the previous track and drenches it in insect-like rustling, anachronistic horn, the sounds of storms striking against paneling, and eventually, an affected bassline knocks on one’s ears like a stalker pounding on your front door. The repetitive rhythmic and melodic elements of the track provide no respite until the final disappearance of the ringing in one’s ears.

“The Worriment Waltz” is piano-centric as well, this time sandwiching its dreary melodies between choppy strings, far-away brass, and various types of treated static. After the track’s midway point, things begin to approach a Merzbow-like conflagration of metal-on-metal noise, before that abruptly shifts to the buzzing of tortured violin.

“Run Like Hell” is one of the album’s most coherent tracks, with a constant rhythm section and repetitive instrumentation to give the song’s orphaned noises a frame of reference. However, Locusts is a record that detests complacency; the track throws itself around acidic jazz loops, breakbeats, and syncopated click tracks with enough poise to keep the listener enthralled, but never disoriented.

“When It Happens (Don’t Mind Me)” is a short track centered around an enervating rhythm section built out of alarm bells. Dishwasher-like metallic howls jump in and out of the channels with regularity. It’s unsettling.

“Another Crashed Car” loops a sample of what sounds like a car failing to turn over, if said car was particularly squeaky. Simple, repetitive piano is a major feature of Locusts, and “Car” is no different, mixing eerie samples of the modern automobile with telephony and rumbling bass swells.

“Temp Fix” is one minute, forty-six seconds long. It seems to be the end result of putting a Daniel Johnston instrumental in purgatory for a month.

“Trust Fades” begins melodically and mysteriously, being one of few tracks on Locusts to maintain the integrity of its structure for its entire course. “Trust” very delicately builds tension for a climax that does not exist, its relative sweetness a mere taunt.

“A Really Bad Night” is underpinned by tape hiss. Its piano plucks frequently crack, making the entire track seem broken. Much of its initial instrumentation fades way in favor of a pained treble choir’s moans.

You can buy Greg Johnson’s Toward a New Nationalism here [9]

“Your New Normal” features a plucked bassline, chimes and bells, and the album’s characteristic machine whine. “Normal” uses a variety of unique sample loops, including what sounds like a spoon being struck against a glass. The underlying suggestion seems to be that our new normal will be a mortifying simulacrum.

“Just Breathe” opens with the same rattling of the bones that have shook about much of the record. It rehashes many of the sounds previously heard, such as the stretched metallic scratching and discordant piano pecks, re-interpolating them with heavy reverb and what could easily be mistaken for Mongolian throat singing looming ominously in the background.

“Right Behind You” is disarmingly warm. The piano on this track stays mostly within the range of harmony, with the exception of a few sour notes to remind you that absolutely nothing gold can stay any longer than it takes for you to notice it.

“TURN THIS OFF PLEASE” took the same cues as the most recent Daughters release [10] did, opening with a threatening sub bassline stripped of any and all niceties. “PLEASE” is the album’s dramatic conclusion; all of its elements play with each other in unexpected ways, such as the tormented rhythm track brushing alongside the piano’s downbeat. The atmosphere of the track could be described as equal parts ritualistic and futuristic, fusing an ancient drum pattern with bites of video game soundtrack-esque flourishes and a low end that could pass at any goth club. Where many of the other tracks on the album were insidious assaults on the ear or the brain, “PLEASE” relishes in just how much time it gives us to ponder each of its elements. Perhaps the danger lies therein, and we ought to heed the title’s warning before we begin to think too deeply.

“So Tired” pierces the veil of silence left behind by “PLEASE” with more foreboding piano and an outro that could have been ripped from any abandoned tape inside a music studio.

“Almost Dawn,” the album’s final track, reintroduces the marimba that flowed so delicately on Together. The solemnity of “Dawn” coupled with its eerily mismatched foreshadowing of doom in the drones creates a soundscape that I imagine closely matches the Minecraft soundtrack [11] if it had come from hell. The polykeys and polyrhythms that dominate the track eventually disintegrate into a mild choral ambiance, and then into bells and chimes. A distorted bassline and triplet kick pattern gain increasing power in the track until they dominate it, growing increasingly more compressed until they go completely silent and the song returns to its first leitmotif. “Dawn” makes excellent use of incongruent elements in its tracks, its abrupt movements seeming to pin down individual flights of emotion in an anxious person’s mind as they await something. What that something is isn’t entirely clear, but if the album’s tones and messaging are any indications, it’s not anything that we can look forward to.

Perhaps it’s better that we don’t acquaint ourselves too deeply with the locusts.