Nine Inch Nails – ‘Ghosts: V-VI’ review: a timely two-part dip into daydreams and nightmares

Trent Reznor's surprise double album, despite its spatial beauty, eerily captures the mood of a world rocked by crisis

Though the timings suggest it can’t possibly have been conceived in the midst of such strange times, difficulty arises in listening to the new, surprise double album released by Nine Inch Nails this week, siloed from current global events.

The release is split into two parts, ‘Ghosts V: Together’ and ‘Ghosts VI: Locusts’, and serves as a continuation of the Ghosts series initiated by Trent Reznor back in 2008, when the 36-track ‘Ghosts: I-IV was released. Reznor described the music on that album as “a soundtrack for daydreams” and it was hard to argue otherwise. There were nods to the ambient noodling of Brian Eno and the soundscapes of King Crimson survivor Robert Fripp. The first release upon the expiry of the band’s Interscope Records deal, it felt like a gasp exhaled upon being released from an extended chokehold. It sounded like musical freedom.

The Ghosts project can certainly be said to have opened the doors to the unrestrained creative liberty which Reznor enjoys these days. This is a man whose 1990s’ anthems still dominate rock club dancefloors; whose work provided the soundtrack for 2019’s best TV show (HBO’s Watchmen), and who – and this is unconfirmed – may well spend his evenings swimming in a vast vault of money, a bit like a heavily tattooed Scrooge McDuck.

We speak of course of the mega dosh from the royalties for Lil Nas X’s globe-humping hit ‘Old Town Road’ – the longest running Number One in Billboard chart history! – which, unbeknown to the composer took a short, uncleared sample of banjo from the track ‘34 Ghosts IV’ and turned it into the sort of hook that could land Moby Dick.

But what kind of as-yet-unmade feature could ‘Ghosts V-VI’ soundtrack? After all, what is instrumental music if not the palate for imagination? Well, as we said, it’s impossible to absorb both sides of the record without viewing the record as a soundtrack to a global pandemic. Here’s some good news for panicked times. Part 1, ‘Together’, is a collection of music more soothing than balm.

Spatial beauty is the order of the day. Reznor has long known that the spaces created between the music are often as important as the collection of notes and sounds positioned on each side. There are vague glimmers of electronica peppered throughout, the sound of broken machines and the synthetic hum of a sampled choir in closer ‘Still Right Here’ offers the sort of glacial beauty that Jason Spaceman of Spiritualized has been looking to recapture for years. ‘Together’ is the soundtrack to an edit of 2001: A Space Odyssey where no-one dies. A film where HAL chills his circuit board and leads everyone in song. It is beauty and grace and light, and it’s impossible not to listen to a track called ‘Your Touch’ right now and not feel a stirring. It is a triumph.

On the other hand, Part 2 is as unsettling as a record entitled ‘Locusts’ should be. It opens with staccato piano, then a relentless ivory march segueing into competing syne waves and an incoming second piano which feels like a serial killer rehearsing their scales. It’s called ‘The Cursed Clock’ and it sounds like utter desolation. It’s also the cheeriest song on this side of the record. What follows is a collection of music that is both deeply cinematic – ‘The Worriment Waltz’ is positively Hitchcockian, ‘Trust Fades’ could be lifted from one of Akira Yamaoka’s acclaimed Silent Hill soundtracks – and yet comes over much like you’d imagine the end of the world would sound. It is the film that’s happening right now that we’re all starring in.

Much like Reznor said last time Ghosts swung round, ‘Ghosts: V-VI’ is music for daydreams. But it’s only fair and decent for us to let you know that it’s also music for nightmares too.

Release date: March 26

Record label: The Null Corporation

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