Originally planned as the third instalment of a trilogy of EPs, which began in 2016 with Not the Actual Events, Bad Witch evolved into a full album, and begins powerfully with “S**t Mirror”. The traditionally distorted, industrial sound so familiar to Nine Inch Nails fans has a strong presence and feels wonderfully excessive and somehow reinvigorated.
Bad Witch was recorded after a series of concerts given by Nine Inch Nails, and it seems that there has been an attempt to bring the live experience onto an album (lead singer Trent Reznor has even discussed this move in interviews).
With this opening track, there is an all-out assault on the ear, until the unexpected moment where everything stops for a second or two, and re-enters with marginally less intensity. This distortion of the actual structure of the song is unnerving and is yet another sign of Reznor and Ross’s expert compositional skills.
Towards the end, the vocal style takes over, and there is an almost mantra-like repetition of the lyrics “New world / New times / Mutation / Feels alright“. These and the rest of the words to “S**t Mirror” again seem to hark back to previous Nine Inch Nails work, a characteristic which pervades the album and is not self-evidently a good or a bad thing, at least to begin with.
The hardcore energy of “S**t Mirror” continues seamlessly into “Ahead Of Ourselves“, but takes on its own jauntiness, and becomes even darker. The industrial relentlessness remains, however, and comes across wonderfully brutal and cutting. This jauntiness is largely achieved through the terrific drumming, that keeps the whole track propelled forward uncontrollably.
In addition, interpolating bursts of overwhelming distortion erupt in the chorus, and just as unexpectedly disappear. It is a sign of Nine Inch Nails’ excellent songwriting ability that this flavour of energy complements the lyric content.
It seems Reznor is expressing anger against the folly of man (“When we could have done anything / We wound up building this“), and the bursts of distortion seem to voice a self-doubt and desire for annihilation in the endless march of progress (“Obsolete, insignificant / Antiquated, irrelevant / Celebration of ignorance“).
To lend this track even more unity, Reznor’s voice is subject to a series of distortions and is variously strained, filtered, strangled and shimmering. Furthermore, continuing the techniques in Shit Mirror, Reznor repeats We got ahead of ourselves over and over, in a kind of deranged trance.
For Bad Witch’s third track, “Play The Goddamned Part“, the vocals are removed and we are left with an instrumental. Its general character is experimental-sounding and fractionally slower-paced than the previous two tracks. Towards the end, the experiment becomes one of decay: it is as if the song is dismantling itself, stripping off one layer at a time, falling away to nothing.
This track also has a strong feeling of previous Nine Inch Nails work, especially in the drum part, which sounds almost the same as that from “Me I’m Not” (Year Zero, 2007). A new element, however, are the Bowie-inspired saxophones and horns. They add a new stylistic depth, and are similarly distorted, wailing with dissonance and a vague sense of doom and tragedy.
It has been argued that the similarity to previous work is a downfall of Bad Witch, but in fact it is exciting to hear Nine Inch Nails return to their roots, especially since the album is the result of honest, hard work (as is everything done by Reznor and Atticus Ross).
As the listener is returned to singing in “God Break Down The Door“, they will be surprised to hear Reznor’s voice. Its style is almost completely different. He employs vibrato, sings with much more nuanced expression, as well as attending to the melody more rigidly than virtually anywhere else. The stylistic debt owed by Nine Inch Nails to Depeche Mode can be heard strongly here, and is pushed even further with the dark, almost dance-like groove.
In addition, further echoes of Bowie come through, as the horns reappear, this time more reminiscent specifically of his song “I’m Deranged” (Outside, 1995). The recurring trope of repeated vocal segments is again found in this track, with the looped voice effects towards the end.
“I’m Not From This World” is another instrumental, and this time, signals a real change of pace in the album. It is atmospheric, disorientating and utterly haunting. This is an effect achieved through the measured and patient breathing of synths, again similar to work by Tool, specifically “Viginti Trees” (10,000 Days, 2006), which slowly build up in tension, volume and instrumentation.
As these layers are added to one another, the sound unfolds, dragging the listener inexorably to its peak. As soon as it arrives here, however, the atmospheric sound is stripped away, only building back up again later. The immersive nature of this track is irresistible, almost soporific, and completely sinister.
For the final piece of Bad Witch, the dark groove heard previously returns with a vengeance. A thick, heavy bass and groaning synths battle it out under a layer of scratchy distortion. Lighter touches are added, however, in the form of what could be synthesised marimba or xylophone sounds. This rich fabric of colours is complex but not at all overly-produced.
In keeping with Reznor’s desire to bring the live experience into an album, the production is rough around the edges, and the lived, messy experience of music being played by humans can be heard. It eventually renders the music more complex, not less.
Reznor’s singing is again different to how it is usually, matching “God Break Down The Door” and echoing Bowie. There is an endless background wash of sound permeating this track, and as all the elements fall away, it remains, and is utterly hypnotic. It fades into nothingness and provides the perfect conclusion to a very well-made album.
The possible criticism of it being too similar to previous work is predicated on an assumption that musicians must at all costs be novel. But there is something equally valuable about authenticity, and the nods to other great musicians (Depeche Mode, Tool, Bowie) and indeed Nine Inch Nails themselves is reassuring. Reznor has the rare ability to do new things with the same materials and in Bad Witch he certainly does not fail.
Purchase Nine Inch Nails’ Bad Witch album on iTunes here, and stream it on Spotify below.
Words by Ed Edwards