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Nine Inch Nails was never about consistency. While the band has been around since the early ’90s, its line-up has changed with each successive project, with Trent Reznor its only steady member. Since 2005’s With Teeth, Atticus Ross has also lent his input to the project and collaborated with Reznor on other work — most notably, on soundtracks for the The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which won an Academy Award and a Grammy respectively.
The soundtracks hinted at the pair’s versatility and seemed to signal a broader mainstream appeal that carried into NIN as well. On 2013’s Hesitation Marks, Reznor’s caustic edges gave way to a more subdued, complex sound. It was still unmistakably NIN, but it felt decidedly tamer than what had come before it.
Not the Actual Events () almost reads as a willful distancing from the accessible sheen of Reznor and Ross’ soundtracks that bled into Nine Inch Nails. The more electronic, atmospheric bent that Ross brought to the project is still present, but the more cerebral tone seems to have been abandoned. After a manic, guitar heavy opener and a tense, drone-like interlude, the brief EP peaks in energy and intensity on its latter tracks, “The Idea of You” and “Burning Bright (Field on Fire),” which pulse with an angry energy that recalls the pre-Ross days.
It’s a lot to pack into 21 minutes, and more than anything, Not the Actual Events seems like a brief highlights reel, recalling the grating, industrial sound of the band’s first decade. Despite Ross’ influence, it is difficult not to get the sense that we’ve been here before, and the callback to NIN’s earlier work has the unfortunate effect of making the project feel self-congratulatory and navel-gazing.
The EP also marks Atticus Ross’ first credit as a member of Nine Inch Nails, rather than a collaborator. But given his near constant presence over the last decade, it’s too early to tell what new directions he might pull Reznor in. That is, if breaking new ground is even the point. Given the EP’s similarity to what has come before it, we’re left to wonder whether it will actually make much of a difference at all. After all, the eerie, industrial ambience of NIN owes much to his input, and so the announcement that he had been added permanently to the lineup felt somewhat anticlimactic. It remains to be seen what exactly his inclusion will mean for the band. Not the Actual Events is a solid enough record, but it offers little that we haven’t heard before — and gives us very few reasons to be excited for what happens next.
Not The Actual Events is available now at Amazon.com and through streaming services.