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Stand­ing in one place long enough to feel the grass grow un­der one’s feet has never been Trent Reznor’s thing. Nor has the act of looking back­wards, the self-con­grat­u­la­tory mas­tur­ba­tion of rev­el­ling in one’s own past glo­ries, as though achieve­ments al­ready achieved are of any value to an artist star­ing at the next blank can­vas. “The past is a for­eign coun­try,” wrote au­thor L.P. Hart­ley. “They do things dif­fer­ently there.” An in­escapable ob­ser­va­tion on the na­ture of nos­tal­gia and how a rear-view mirror skews per­cep­tion of our own his­tory – that fruit­less search to re­claim a golden age which never ac­tu­ally ex­isted in the first place – it’s a take that feels es­pe­cially ap­pli­ca­ble to Nine Inch Nails’ main-brain. In­deed, Trent’s stubborn re­sis­tance to smugly smelling his own 20-year-old farts has be­come part of the en­ergy of his work. For­ward, not back; the un­known, not the com­fort­ably fa­mil­iar – and fuck what any­one else thinks.

Which is why the big­gest sur­prise with Bad Witch (the third and fi­nal chap­ter in a tril­ogy that be­gan with 2016’s Not The Ac­tual Events EP, and con­tin­ued with sec­ond EP Add Vi­o­lence last July, al­though, due to the way stream­ing mu­sic is cat­e­gorised, it’s be­ing re­leased as NIN’S 11th al­bum) isn’t that Trent and co-con­spir­a­tor At­ti­cus Ross took so rel­a­tively long to make it, but that it sees them tak­ing a look over their shoul­der to an older time. In­deed, Trent has even said that, having vowed to never pick up a gui­tar again, he found him­self do­ing just that after wor­ry­ing that Add Vi­o­lence felt “forced”. But this isn’t sim­ply an ex­er­cise in tak­ing an es­tab­lished, easy road for quick grat­i­fi­ca­tion. Rather, Bad Witch dips its feet in the waters of the past – most no­tably sim­i­lar to 1999’s un­hinged The Frag­ile dou­ble al­bum – and, re­freshed, barges into the mu­si­cal un­der­growth on a bear­ing very much its own.

Opener Shit Mirror is a case in point. With dis­tor­tion bleed­ing all over the place, as hand-claps keep the beat and Trent de­clares, ‘New world, new times, mu­ta­tion feels al­right’ over a sleazy bass line, at first it feels like classic NIN. But then you no­tice how much wis­dom there is in­grained in the hands cre­at­ing it, twist­ing the song into shapes the younger Trent could not have thought of. And, you imag­ine, that Trent would smile at how the dis­ori­ent­ing pan­ning shifts of the gui­tars at the end does your head in, or just how harsh a wave such a melodic song can ride. Sim­i­larly, Ahead Of Our­selves is dressed in an over­coat of in­dus­trial metal, but what’s hid­den be­neath is filled with wicked ideas far sharper than such a tight-fit­ting de­scrip­tion can hold. The sax­o­phone-fu­elled am­bi­ence of Play The God­damned Part, mean­while, is like the un­nerv­ing sound­track to an Al­fred Hitch­cock movie cut up and fed into a se­quencer.

What’s no­table through­out is how en­er­gised Trent and At­ti­cus sound here. One could never say Trent Reznor sounds like he’s having ‘fun’, ex­actly, but be­tween the bedrock of the slightly fa­mil­iar start­ing points and the wild spon­tane­ity of its more ex­per­i­men­tal mo­ments, there’s a loose, in-the-mo­ment feel to Bad Witch that makes it feel like its smash­ing through your win­dows, rather than seep­ing in­sid­i­ously un­der the door. Which was the orig­i­nal point of this trio of re­leases in the first place. Trent may have looked back for a mo­ment while get­ting this al­bum’s shoes on, but once again, he’s ended up some­where unique, ex­cit­ing, and gen­uinely of his own mak­ing. NICK RUSKELL

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