By Vincent Michael Festa

The last twelve months have been the most interesting for Trent Reznor’s project Nine Inch Nails and his die-hard fans. After last year’s Year Zero, Reznor finally divorced himself from his former label Universal, ending a very bitter, hateful history between him and the music industry. And a funny thing happened while on the way there: Radiohead decided to promote their new music by releasing it online only ten days after announcing it. But before then, Reznor did some major damage, traditional Nine Inch Nails style.

Starting with Year Zero, USB drives containing tracks from the album as well as very mysterious samples and hints to a website leading to the album’s dystopian futuristic concept were found at Nails’ shows in European music venues Multi-track audio files for that album and its remix companion Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D were released to encourage a free-for-all for fans to remix Nails’ songs to their liking. Around that time, Reznor broke away from his label and won his long, tortuous battle for artistic freedom and respect.

When Radiohead decided to release their music online as In Rainbows, they gave their fans a choice to download it for free or voluntarily donate to the band. Meanwhile, Saul Williams, with the aid of Reznor, promoted The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! in the same way Radiohead did.

All laid the groundwork for Reznor to finally do things his way. “Two weeks” was all he had to say to stir the up the already boiling pot, and his fans woke up with the release of Ghosts I-IV, a double-disc collection of soundscapes and instrumentals. Fans were given many choices: download some of the works for free, or pre-order the physical copies of Ghosts, up to and including a very limited-edition deluxe version signed by Reznor himself.

Before anyone could finally sit down and enjoy Ghosts (some were still waiting for their copies to arrive in their mailbox), Reznor gave his fans the same message: “two weeks”. Could his fans take much more generosity? The answer was a resounding ‘yes.’  The new song “Discipline” was released online for radio play and to the world only hours after it was mastered, and shortly thereafter, “Echoplex.”

And now we have The Slip.

The Slip is the eighth proper full-length from Nine Inch Nails and is Halo 27 in the Nails’ catalogue. At just over 43 minutes through 10 tracks, The Slip is more digestible time-wise. It is currently available at totally free and is available in MP3, FLAC, M4A, and 24/96 WAVE formats, with the physical release to be in July.

It is without an overall concept or theme unlike Year Zero. Instead, we are presented with The Slip’s visual artwork full of grim minimalist masonry, geometric puzzles, and right angle font.

The Slip itself, however, is several shades darker, more serious and grim than that of the slightly more playful Year Zero. Whereas Year Zero set the bar for accessibility, mechanism, and a bigger picture, The Slip pulls it back to being personal again. It runs the gamut in feeling more intense and upbeat, and on the other end, gloomier and miserable.

The slate-grey mesmerizing calm “999,999” arrives before the lightning storm “1,000,000” which gives way to a slightly distorted, yet aggressive breath of fresh turbulence. Right after comes “Letting You,” which trumps the previous cut in sheer speed with the aid of a very schizo breakbeat, raw electric guitars, and Reznor’s damning vocals. The anger vested here is about the frustration of the forces-that-be which continue to do what they want with no one or nothing to stop them.

The star track, “Discipline,” could be the re-worked, just-as-badass doppelganger of “Only” from the With Teeth album (2005) and gets right to business in heavy mid-tempo speed with full of enduring energy. What’s special here is how a singer miscues him or herself on record, a true rarity. Even more amazing is that Reznor’s vocal misfires here as he jumps the gun not once but twice.

The distorted “Head Down” crosses the halfway mark continuing the trademark deep, raw, and dirty Nails guitar rip which contrasts Reznor’s fast-paced vocals compacted to only short measures. Its very dense, layered, concentrated feeling is revealed as soon as the drums and sludgy riffs give way, continuing on until it goes to almost nothing.

The Slip then changes gears into deep blue territory when it arrives to “Lights In The Sky,” slowing down to Earth’s rotation. Reznor’s theme of coping with loss and dedication mixes well with his concentration of deep piano notes.

The Slip drops off even deeper into the polluted stark abyss with the ultra-black “Corona Radiata,” possibly the result of the previous track. “Corona Radiata” sinks lower and lower to bleakness with samples beating to a crawl and low-end guitar feedback adding to the illusion. Finally, it picks up with some hope in “The Four Of Us Are Dying” and goes right to “Demon Seed,” an upbeat cut about tolerance resulting in rebellion that ends the album.

The Slip marks Nine Inch Nail’s return into more sinister and devious territory. It plays much dirtier than Year Zero’s somewhat-subtle pop-overtones (Nails’ style) and even-more-subtle lyrical playfulness. True, die-hard Nails fanatics long for the return of The Downward Spiral (1994) where Reznor was at his musical apex and personal nadir (if you want to get into his personal demons at the time). The Slip shows an overall different structure, mindset, and result in Nine Inch Nails’ direction.

But more importantly, The Slip is a product of what could very well be at stake for Reznor, other artists and the music industry in the years to come. The idea of total control of one’s artistic material is nothing new, but it is thrust into a bigger light because it is a major-label artist who for years played against the label itself: the vehicle of politics, caution, and control for the sake of profit. With ownership issues at hand mixed in with technology and free accessibility, the tides may turn in the artist’s if artists like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead, who have a very faithful following, prove that it is a viable and successful idea.

The idea of total control rests on the shoulders of the artists who also need to be responsible with what they do with their music. Artists could price, package, and modify their music for themselves and for the fans to however they see fit and what works best for them. If this continues, the labels are no longer to blame for control and over-saturation of the market, rather it goes to the artists to decide just how much to release and of what. It also may show a re-structuring of the industry if the idea of major artist control as it is persists.