The future: What a concept

April 15, 2007


In or about the year 2022, America is a land of unthinking, easily manipulated zombies zonked out on "Parepin," a drug added to the water supply by the federal government allegedly to protect its citizens from attacks by bioterrorists -- or so you're led to believe on the Web site

The latest manifestation of our ever-burgeoning bureaucracy is "the U.S. Bureau of Morality"; its motto: "Zero Tolerance. Zero Fear." But if you visit a Web site called and click and drag over the seemingly innocuous picture of a flag flying over the tranquil countryside, you reveal a bombed-out wasteland and the words "the Beginning of the End: Zero Hope. Zero Chance." You can also click through to a secret message board full of paranoid (or maybe not) discussions of topics such as "Acts of Resistance" and "End of the World?"

Then there is the Web site, which appears to be run by a veteran of "the 105th Airborne Crusaders" turned freelance sniper. "I killed people in post-Iran after we dropped the bomb on Tehran," he writes. "They told me I was protecting America. This is a war ... I kill people. That's what war is."

How is any of this connected? Equal parts George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Orson Welles' panic-inducing 1938 broadcast of "The War of the Worlds," these Web sites and others turning up every day are part of a viral phenomenon and interactive work of fiction portraying a frightening vision of the future all the more horrific for its roots in the present. It is also a brilliant marketing campaign and an inextricable part of any discussion of "Year Zero," the sixth album by industrial-electronic pioneer Trent Reznor, a k a Nine Inch Nails, arriving in stores on Tuesday.

With "The Downward Spiral" (1994), Reznor gave us one of the most enduring and influential albums of the alternative era, creating a new kind of propulsive rock from a unique palette of synthesized sounds and computer instruments of his own device. He's been struggling to reclaim that peak ever since. First, he fell into a black hole of drug and alcohol abuse. He climbed out to portray his tenuous state on "The Fragile" (1999), a beautiful and ambitious double album that proved to be a commercial flop. Then he fell off the wagon; sobered up again, and finally gave us "With Teeth" in 2005, though once again, it made little impact on the pop mainstream.

A brilliant sonic sculptor, Reznor's shortcoming as an artist has always been his lyrics, which, like so much Gothic or industrial rock, have often been of the "woe is poor, pitiful, miserable me" variety. But the bilious 2005 single "The Hand That Feeds" found him shifting his gaze from angst-ridden self-obsession to furious invective hurled at the powers that be. And now he's created a new masterpiece that pursues that direction even further, and via some bold new avenues.

The buzz for "Year Zero" has been building for months through carefully planned leaks; the first of these surfaced after an MP3 of the song "My Violent Heart" was allegedly found on a USB drive left in a stadium bathroom during a Nine Inch Nails concert in Lisbon. A dedicated bunch, fans also stumbled upon the Web sites mentioned above based on clues from the concerts: The T-shirt from the European tour featured an itinerary with certain letters of the dates and cities highlighted. These spelled "I am trying to believe"; fans added the ".com" and soon they were off and running through an interlocking maze revealing bits and pieces of a grand new concept album that takes earlier masterworks such as "The Wall" and "Tommy" to a whole new level.

As CD sales continue to erode in the face of digital downloads, many music-industry experts have said that the only way to stop the trend is to give listeners more: more artwork; more video; more music, and an all-encompassing "album experience." Reznor is certainly doing that, but marketing certainly isn't the whole story.

"The term 'marketing' sure is a frustrating one for me at the moment," the artist wrote on one of his many Web sites. "What you are now starting to experience IS 'Year Zero.' It's not some kind of gimmick to get you to buy a record -- it IS the art form ... and we're just getting started. Hope you enjoy the ride."

In other words, like an open-source video game, "Year Zero" sucks you in and not only tempts you to play, but to add to and forward the story as you go. Still, none of this would be more than digital age novelty if the band's new music wasn't so amazing.

Reznor has never been better at crafting unbelievably dense soundscapes that can shift from the most punishing sonic assaults to moments of breathtaking beauty built on a gently distorted grand piano or an electronically treated kalimba. Unlike so many electronic collage artists, he has never skimped on melodies or driving rock rhythms. And if losing yourself in the world he's now creating requires you to suspend disbelief or consider alternative political viewpoints, the lyrics are ultimately open-ended enough to allow for interpretation -- and, again, you're invited to contribute to the unfolding story.

"Well I use to stand for something / Well, I'm on my hands and knees," Reznor howls in "Capital G." "Turning in the god of this war / And he signs his name with a capital G." Consider that blasphemous if you will, but Nine Inch Nails has never stood for anything more important, and it has never sounded better.



The buzz about Trent Reznor's new Nine Inch Nails album, "Year Zero," began when a male fan, allegedly by happenstance, found a USB drive with an MP3 of "My Violent Heart" in a bathroom stall during a NIN concert at the Coliseum in Lisbon, Portugal. Then came the tour T-shirt containing a highlighted Cleveland-area phone number that, when dialed, played a snippet of lead single ''Survivalism.'' And then, the Web sites:

* Fans discovered that highlighted letters inside words on a NIN tour T-shirt spelled out ''I am trying to believe,'' then located an eerie Web site explaining the first part of the story: the fictional drug parepin.

* Errant clicks on sites like will result in interception by the Bureau of Morality, which will then e-mail warnings that the user is ''A CONSUMER OF DISSIDENT MATERIAL ... Any further attempts to view, consume, or distribute un-american [sic] content will result in the loss of citizenship increments and/or the imposition of fines, penalties or imprisonment. You have choices. Make the RIGHT ones.''

* For further instructions on making good choices, the creepy note instructs the e-mail recipient to visit And another mind game begins anew, with its own set of rabbit holes.