Nine Inch Nails Ghosts Double-Release Showcase Inspired Art During Trying Times

Photo Courtesy of The Null Corporation

Speaking from my own experiences as a music consumer, out of any other genre of music, ambient music is the most beautifully crafted by far. Don’t get me wrong, thoughtful production is important no matter what kind of music you make. Classical and jazz producers have to make sure every instrument in their band is heard as intended; rock producers have to make sure the bassist is drowning in the right mix of guitars and drums; hip-hop producers have to handle each instrumental or sample with the utmost care to make sure it fits with the flow and overall tone of the song.

Yet, ambient producers and composers have different goals in mind. Their work is focused on the atmospheric, free form nature of music. Rarely are there beats or rhythm to ground the listener in a given work. If there is, the percussion is often unconventional. Some artists don’t even bother with actual drums and prefer to use noise instead.

In short, ambient music is about evoking emotion through the atmosphere it creates, and the overall layering of a piece, rather than any conventional song structure. But even further, there are schools of thought where ambient should be unobtrusive as possible. 

Brian Eno, famed British art rock and ambient musician, said in the liner notes for Ambient 1: Music for Airports, “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”

This is a sentiment I disagree with. I don’t think ambient music needs to be reduced to background music to liven up a space. It should be as engaging and deep as any symphony, jazz suite, rock song or hip-hop beat. Enter Nine Inch Nails and Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts, two very well crafted and engaging ambient albums released just this past March.

Nine Inch Nails has been the premier industrial rock group of the past 30 years. They blend rock, industrial, pop, electronic dance and ambient to create a soundscape of catharsis and angst. The band has been masterminded by virtuoso Trent Reznor since its inception, and longtime collaborator Atticus Ross joined in 2016. Reznor and Ross are the only permanent members of the band as of writing, and the two have collaborated outside of the band for years, composing the Academy Award winning score for 2010’s “The Social Network.”

So, back to Ghosts V and VI. These albums act as sequels to Ghosts I-IV, Trent’s first foray into an ambient-oriented record. I had the chance to listen to bits and pieces of Ghosts I-IV, and for the most part, I enjoyed what I heard. I do feel like these sound similar to outtakes from Reznor’s previous efforts, like his 1998 record The Fragile. Ghosts I-IV was a nice listen, but there really wasn’t much binding the lengthy 36 song tracklist together.

V and VI, however, are conceptual albums about the COVID-19 pandemic. “As the news seems to turn ever more grim by the hour, we’ve found ourselves vacillating wildly between feeling like there may be hope at times to utter despair,” Reznor and Atticus wrote on the download page. “Ghosts V: Together is for when things seem like it might all be okay, and Ghosts VI: Locusts… Well, you’ll figure it out.”

Both records definitely live up to this tagline. V: Together is the lighter of the two albums, placing emphasis on spacious electronic, string and piano arrangements, while VI: Locusts is much darker in tone, featuring more cacophonous passages and moodier arrangements.

The overall production on both records is fantastic. Every single note is crystal clear, which is incredibly important when making albums like these. You want to hear everything and fully immerse yourself in the world that Reznor and Ross create.

“Letting Go While Holding On” starts V off on the right foot, featuring very warm drones throughout the piece paired with recurring, one note synthesizer tones. There are some rather ominous vocal chants in the piece that give the song a sense of dread despite its overall charm. 

The next song “Together” is built off of a single piano melody that deteriorates into warm static by the end of its runtime.

“With Faith” is the next song that I’d like to talk about, and it’s one that I like a lot. It features this whimsical music box melody that is backed up by a growing orchestral, electronic and vocal section. This piece actually lacks a lot of the dark tension that’s found on other songs, and it’s a welcome break from what was established prior.

“Apart,” however, shifts back into the melancholic tone. It starts with a whirling, high-pitched string arrangement before transitioning into a really gorgeous piano melody that plays until the halfway point of the track. The track closes on a very lush string arrangement, followed by dense, bassy pulses.

The final track, “Still Right Here,” actually closes this album on a really energetic note. There’s an interlude in the middle of the track that features an electric guitar and a propulsive drumbeat. If I were to describe the overall mood of this album, it’s that there’s an underlying sense of dread and sorrow despite the ethereal tone. I wouldn’t call it a bleak record, but there’s something going on beneath the surface. Maybe this plays into the tagline for the record, things only “seem like it might be all okay,” which doesn’t necessarily mean they are.

VI, the second album, opens with “The Cursed Clock.” The really interesting thing about this piece is that it’s 60 bpm kept in time by the strikes of piano keys, making the song quite literally tick away second by second. I think this may be recycled material from the score Reznor and Ross did for HBO’s “Watchmen,” as clocks and time are strong motifs throughout the “Watchmen” franchise, but this is pure speculation. Regardless, this is a really tense piece that gives you the feeling that time is slipping by.

“Around Every Corner” is a really fantastic slab of dark jazz and drone music. There’s a forlorn trumpet calling out every so often during the piece, which makes me feel like I’m walking down the grimiest New York street at night, alone. 

What follows next is the “The Worriment Waltz,” and it isn’t strictly a waltz, but it is very worrisome. The piece starts innocuous enough, with a very soothing piano riff that plays during the beginning. Quickly, this is overtaken by synths before devolving into a menacing, industrial noise explosion.

“Run Like Hell” is the only classifiable “rock” song on the record, and it’s a welcome switch up from the 30 minutes of drone that dominate the first half of the record. I feel like this is a reference to Pink Floyd’s own “Run Like Hell,” a fast-paced rock track from their seminal album The Wall. Much like “Around Every Corner,” there’s a trumpet throughout the song, but here it sounds manic and hellish.

After “Run Like Hell” there’s a suite of songs that covers five tracks, and the last song I’d like to talk about is “Turn This Off Please.” It’s a harrowing piece that features a dense percussion that swirls around you and a brooding bassline. It ebbs and flows between these more overwhelming portions to an atmospheric string and piano section, but these are just moments of calm before the storm.

VI is definitely the more depressing of the two albums, but I think I like this one much more. VI has a lot of momentum for it and plays with sound in a much more interesting way than its sister album, V.

Overall, this is a really solid set of ambient albums by the duo. They’re pretty lengthy to consume back to back, clocking in at 150 mins, but again, these were very enjoyable listens, and I await Nine Inch Nails’ next album.

Grade: ⅘ stars.