In or about the year 2022, America is a land of unthinking, easily
manipulated zombies zonked out on "Parepin," a drug added to the water
supply by the federal government allegedly to protect its citizens from
attacks by bioterrorists -- or so you're led to believe on the Web site
The latest manifestation of our ever-burgeoning bureaucracy is "the U.S.
Bureau of Morality"; its motto: "Zero Tolerance. Zero Fear." But if you
visit a Web site called www.anotherversionofthetruth.com and click
and drag over the seemingly innocuous picture of a flag flying over the
tranquil countryside, you reveal a bombed-out wasteland and the words "the
Beginning of the End: Zero Hope. Zero Chance." You can also click through to
a secret message board full of paranoid (or maybe not) discussions of topics
such as "Acts of Resistance" and "End of the World?"
Then there is the Web site www.bethehammer.net, which appears to
be run by a veteran of "the 105th Airborne Crusaders" turned freelance
sniper. "I killed people in post-Iran after we dropped the bomb on Tehran,"
he writes. "They told me I was protecting America. This is a war ... I kill
people. That's what war is."
How is any of this connected? Equal parts George Orwell's Nineteen
Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Orson Welles'
panic-inducing 1938 broadcast of "The War of the Worlds," these Web sites
and others turning up every day are part of a viral phenomenon and
interactive work of fiction portraying a frightening vision of the future
all the more horrific for its roots in the present. It is also a brilliant
marketing campaign and an inextricable part of any discussion of "Year
Zero," the sixth album by industrial-electronic pioneer Trent Reznor, a k a
Nine Inch Nails, arriving in stores on Tuesday.
With "The Downward Spiral" (1994), Reznor gave us one of the most
enduring and influential albums of the alternative era, creating a new kind
of propulsive rock from a unique palette of synthesized sounds and computer
instruments of his own device. He's been struggling to reclaim that peak
ever since. First, he fell into a black hole of drug and alcohol abuse. He
climbed out to portray his tenuous state on "The Fragile" (1999), a
beautiful and ambitious double album that proved to be a commercial flop.
Then he fell off the wagon; sobered up again, and finally gave us "With
Teeth" in 2005, though once again, it made little impact on the pop
A brilliant sonic sculptor, Reznor's shortcoming as an artist has always
been his lyrics, which, like so much Gothic or industrial rock, have often
been of the "woe is poor, pitiful, miserable me" variety. But the bilious
2005 single "The Hand That Feeds" found him shifting his gaze from
angst-ridden self-obsession to furious invective hurled at the powers that
be. And now he's created a new masterpiece that pursues that direction even
further, and via some bold new avenues.
The buzz for "Year Zero" has been building for months through carefully
planned leaks; the first of these surfaced after an MP3 of the song "My
Violent Heart" was allegedly found on a USB drive left in a stadium bathroom
during a Nine Inch Nails concert in Lisbon. A dedicated bunch, fans also
stumbled upon the Web sites mentioned above based on clues from the
concerts: The T-shirt from the European tour featured an itinerary with
certain letters of the dates and cities highlighted. These spelled "I am
trying to believe"; fans added the ".com" and soon they were off and running
through an interlocking maze revealing bits and pieces of a grand new
concept album that takes earlier masterworks such as "The Wall" and "Tommy"
to a whole new level.
As CD sales continue to erode in the face of digital downloads, many
music-industry experts have said that the only way to stop the trend is to
give listeners more: more artwork; more video; more music, and an
all-encompassing "album experience." Reznor is certainly doing that, but
marketing certainly isn't the whole story.
"The term 'marketing' sure is a frustrating one for me at the moment,"
the artist wrote on one of his many Web sites. "What you are now starting to
experience IS 'Year Zero.' It's not some kind of gimmick to get you to buy a
record -- it IS the art form ... and we're just getting started. Hope you
enjoy the ride."
In other words, like an open-source video game, "Year Zero" sucks you in
and not only tempts you to play, but to add to and forward the story as you
go. Still, none of this would be more than digital age novelty if the band's
new music wasn't so amazing.
Reznor has never been better at crafting unbelievably dense soundscapes
that can shift from the most punishing sonic assaults to moments of
breathtaking beauty built on a gently distorted grand piano or an
electronically treated kalimba. Unlike so many electronic collage artists,
he has never skimped on melodies or driving rock rhythms. And if losing
yourself in the world he's now creating requires you to suspend disbelief or
consider alternative political viewpoints, the lyrics are ultimately
open-ended enough to allow for interpretation -- and, again, you're invited
to contribute to the unfolding story.
"Well I use to stand for something / Well, I'm on my hands and knees,"
Reznor howls in "Capital G." "Turning in the god of this war / And he
signs his name with a capital G." Consider that blasphemous if you will,
but Nine Inch Nails has never stood for anything more important, and it has
never sounded better.
The buzz about Trent Reznor's new Nine Inch Nails
album, "Year Zero," began when a male fan, allegedly by happenstance, found
a USB drive with an MP3 of "My Violent Heart" in a bathroom stall during a
NIN concert at the Coliseum in Lisbon, Portugal. Then came the tour T-shirt
containing a highlighted Cleveland-area phone number that, when dialed,
played a snippet of lead single ''Survivalism.'' And then, the Web sites:
* Iamtryingtobelieve.com: Fans discovered that highlighted letters
inside words on a NIN tour T-shirt spelled out ''I am trying to believe,''
then located an eerie Web site explaining the first part of the story: the
fictional drug parepin.
* Errant clicks on sites like anotherversionofthetruth.com will
result in interception by the Bureau of Morality, which will then e-mail
warnings that the user is ''A CONSUMER OF DISSIDENT MATERIAL ... Any further
attempts to view, consume, or distribute un-american [sic] content will
result in the loss of citizenship increments and/or the imposition of fines,
penalties or imprisonment. You have choices. Make the RIGHT ones.''
* For further instructions on making good choices, the creepy note
instructs the e-mail recipient to visit thepriceoftreason.net. And
another mind game begins anew, with its own set of rabbit holes.