With ‘Bad Witch,’ Nine Inch Nails is on an upward spiral

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

Few bands have been so consistent with their brands for as long as Nine Inch Nails has without wearing out their welcome. Frontman Trent Reznor has largely been unapologetically industrial in his sound and aesthetic, but part of the success of Nine Inch Nails is his uncanny ability to draw in threads from different genres and weave together an immersive atmosphere. In this sense, it’s no coincidence that Reznor and bandmate Atticus Ross are almost just as well-known for their work on critically acclaimed original scores. From the snarling elegy presented in The Downward Spiral to the cold darkness that pervades “The Social Network,” Reznor and Ross have proved themselves across platforms as master peddlers of grimy ambience.

Bad Witch comes at the tail end of what was initially conceived as a trilogy of EPs, coming after 2016’s Not the Actual Events and 2017’s Add Violence. These first two EPs, which followed the dizzily meditative fever dream that was 2013’s Hesitation Marks, were just starting to dip their toes back into the pool of the industrial rage Nine Inch Nails came to be known for in the 1990s.

Bad Witch follows in the footsteps of its trilogy-mates in recreating the recognizable aggression of earlier albums such as Broken and The Downward Spiral, but it also noticeably flares into a life of its own — enough so that even at just more than half an hour, it presents a cohesive studio album. In fact, the slenderness of Bad Witch is part of what makes it such a strong record; Reznor and Ross craft an entire musical aura in a Spartan format that never feels overgrown. The white-hot aggression poured into Bad Witch isn’t given a chance to cool down, creating a solid backbone of energy throughout the album.

In leaving behind the carefully layered synthy textures of Hesitation Marks, Bad Witch both falls back and expands upon an earlier Nine Inch Nails sound. The opening track, “Shit Mirror,” makes use of familiar devices from the band’s earlier oeuvre — noisy, gritty guitar, as well as vocals that alternate between animalistic panting and a ferocious roar.

Beyond these industrial hallmarks, however, Bad Witch also incorporates strategic novelty. Most notable is the use of saxophone, which Reznor himself played on tracks “Play the Goddamned Part” and “God Break Down the Door.” The presence of Reznor’s friend and influence David Bowie is keenly felt especially in the latter track, which plays out like a frantic B-side from Blackstar, especially thanks to the manic saxophone arrangements. Also Bowie-esque are Reznor’s vocals, which are uncharacteristically low and tremulous.

The fevered pitch Bad Witch hits again and again begins to twist into submission with the final two tracks, “I’m Not From This World” and “Over and Out.” No less energetic than the rest of the album, the tracks favor a more heavily electronic sound reminiscent of the quiet, bleak ambience achieved in Reznor and Ross’ soundtrack work. Beginning with the familiar, winding through the experimental and concluding on the exploratory, Bad Witch is simultaneously a homecoming and a promising outset.

The latter half of “Shit Mirror” encapsulates the emotional and sonic core of Bad Witch’s cohesive aural mood. Here, the track cuts suddenly, shockingly, to silence, before Reznor resurfaces with a muffled strain — “New world / New times / Mutation / Feels all right.” These words become representative of Bad Witch on two levels. On one, they serve as a forecast of the album that follows — one that crackles with experimentation.

On a more external level, these lyrics represent a response to a world whirling wildly out of control. In its early days, Nine Inch Nails growled with a youthful anger; as the band grew older, Reznor masterminded the maturation of the somber sound into subtler forms of angst. Perhaps the culmination of this growth came with Hesitation Marks, beneath whose deliberate arrangements lay an undercurrent of subdued, fearful diffidence.

As articulated in “Shit Mirror,” though, these are new times. This is an age when those with the most power refuse to protect those with the least. Now is the right time for the unabashed rage that throbs through the veins of Bad Witch.

Contact Sahana Rangarajan at [email protected].