Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts I-IV

An impulsive 10-week bro sesh—recorded at home, released onto the Net with no promotion and no record label—allows Trent Reznor’s loyal army of Diggsters and Halo opponents to rejoice, as the machine has officially been raged against. (Basic multiplication shows that the intrepid Nine Inch Nails made a healthy profit off $5 downloads, $10 CDs, and a limited-edition $300 future eBay staple.) Unfortunately, the gloomy repetition-as-ambience loops on the instrumental, 36-track, 110-minute Ghosts I-IV live or die on little beyond the accompanying 40-page PDF’s gorgeous graphic design (bleak and spacious, courtesy of resident NIN artist Rob Sheridan) and Trent’s name recognition (hell, he got  my money).

The same democratizing Internet that leveled the playing field for the label-free TrentCo may be the same one that disassembles him: It’s only a matter of time before his fans find out how easy it is to discover more interesting electronic music. In the mid-’90s, Reznor alone was the way your average  Hackers fan connected with the cutting edge, jacking in via his collaborations (Aphex Twin, Luke Vibert) and the signees to his Interscope imprint, Nothing (Autechre, Squarepusher). But now, just like Trent himself, everyone is one MySpace friend away from Ricardo Villalobos or Keith Fullerton Whitman or Richard Devine or Burial or Carlos Giffoni or Fuck Buttons or whomever. Not to mention it’s easier than ever to make your own electronic music. There’s photos of Reznor and collaborator Atticus Ross looming over mountains of gear—impossible tangles of wires, museum-ready rows of pedals, monolithic switchboards that might as well be manned by Lily Tomlin. But with some time and the right plug-ins, your friend might make a similar record on ProTools (if your friend could invite Adrian Belew to play a few ripping solos) that could escape a blind taste-test and grow to the heights of being one of the many records on Mush or Asphodel or Plug Research that don’t get written about.

Despite its anti-corporate model, Ghosts is a 110-minute endorsement for brand loyalty: For all the cues Reznor seems to be taking from Steve Reich and Eno/Byrne and Richard D. James, it’s basically a minimalist record that coasts on one’s predilection for NINoise. Rampant arpeggios, muted guitars that pop and sproingle, purple fuzz to suffocate an outro, distorted beats to score self-destruction, piano played slow and moody—it’s the same paintbrush he used on last year’s Year Zero, but now powering a lofty ambient record instead of a lofty Manson-style industrial record. Neither album reveals much beyond the fact that they can both survive constantly in medias Rez.


Remixes From the Masses

This remix thing used to be much more sublimely cerebral, ya know? In that bygone age of Lollapaloozas and Lilith Fairs, Nine Inch Nails guest remixers made the most of their auxiliary hard-drive acreage: sidemen and engineers showing off what didn’t make the studio albums before pink slips could hit their in-boxes, or U.K. outsider elders and new-jacks deconstructing Trent Reznor’s industrial-pop nihilism into arch sound-art and loaning the lead Nail some sweet muso legitimacy. The likes of Pretty Hate Machine, Broken, and The Downward Spiral flew off racks and stoked the inner furies of obsessive ninnies worldwide, but we hoarded those acid hits for the rabbit-hole castoffs of ambitious projects like Further Down the Spiral and so forth: “Ruiner” recalibrated for dance floors by Charlie Clouser; Coil’s deliriously creepazoid stab at “Closer”; the Orb’s twittering mockery of “The Perfect Drug”; J.G. Thirlwell’s exploded-drawing takes on “Wish”; “Piggy” tweaked and blaring courtesy of Rick Rubin; Aphex Twin building icy chill-out rooms from undeclared source materials. From The Fragile on, though, the going got dicey, with Reznor foolishly subcontracting out to El-P, DFA, members of Interpol, and others with dire, blah results.

A doomy sci-fi concept album laced with boom-shot beats and competing perspectives, April’s Year Zero was exceedingly bleak and spare: an ideal starting point for mixing-board rats keen to project and cannibalize.
Year Zero Remixed—sorry, Y34RZ3R0R3MIX3D—invites a new crop of outsiders to extreme-makeover each of the record’s 16 scenes, and throws in a data disc so you can play studio overload at home, if you so desire. (Trent is currently battling with Interscope over his desire to aggregate fan remixes at; “The man controls you,” indeed.)

What’s here already is frequently top-shelf, though, so bring your armchair A-game. Saul Williams upgrades furious instrumental intro “Hyperpower!” to “Gunshots by Computer,” shout-rapping polemics over the bang-bang amp-snarl as though Zack de la Rocha’s career depended on it: “This man and his army are praying in their fortresses/Making guns of steeples, insurgents of people/The messiah’s an immigrant detained at the border, separated from his trinity/His wife and his daughter.” Pirate Robot Midget shove “My Violent Heart” into the throbbing-noise red, turning this power-to-the-people empowerment anthem electro-raw radioactive—it’s like being trapped in the synchronized bowels of a working refinery, pistons pulsing and levers jerking as Reznor dusts off his best 21st-century Karl Marx imitation. The Faint sic vocoders on “Meet Your Master,” reducing the original’s guitar blasts to skeletal video-game disco. Ladytron don’t fare as well with their superficial gloss on “The Beginning of the End,” though: The piling on of glancing bleeps and stretched synths adds little, and the essential structure remains fundamentally unchanged. (Brownie points for tacking on a “Closer” coda at the end, though.)

Year Zero Remixed comes closest to evoking the glory days during its closing stretch. Olof Dreijer boils “Me, I’m Not” down to an endless house-music catwalk of sticky ticks and finger snaps that slowly grows in speed and intensity, with Reznor’s vocals being essentially afterthoughts, rotting papier-mâché versions of themselves. Furthermore, the Kronos Quartet and Enrique Gonzalez Miller’s interpretation of “Another Version of the Truth” brings a heartbreaking weight and sadness to the dour instrumental that Reznor, for all his technical skills, can’t quite bring to bear as a songwriter. For these two tracks, Nine Inch Nails is again unassailably triumphant, shattering, transcendent. And if you believe the potential exists to push Year Zero to still higher peaks, you’re as welcome as anyone else to give it a go, too.


No Sleep for Brooklyn

“I really don’t like looking at the back of a record and seeing the word featuring a million times,” says Brooklyn rapper–producer–label overlord El-P. Incidentally, his new album, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, features cameos from members of the Mars Volta, TV on the Radio, and Yo La Tengo (!?), not to mention Chan Marshall (a/k/a Cat Power), Matt Sweeney, and Trent Reznor, all mingling with the standard crew of guest rappers (Cage, Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif, Slug, Murs), most of those already on the payroll at El-P’s label, Definitive Jux. This ain’t a scene, it’s a goddamn arms race. Robert Altman films have less complicated credit rolls.

Whoa. Got distracted for a second there, sorry. “Let’s face it,” continues El-P, a/k/a El Producto, a/k/a Lazerface, a/k/a 32-year-old Fort Greene redhead Jaime Meline. “Most rappers have the worst possible taste in rock music, and most rockers have the worst possible taste in rap music. And a lot of times they decide that means they should get together and do a song. And then you get shit like, fuckin’, whatever. Limp Bizkit.

Meline sits in a Mexican restaurant near his apartment, enjoying guacamole and margaritas as he delights in the notion that he has filled his fan base with terror. Specifically, we fear an ostentatious, Santana-esque debacle besotted with the famous pals he’s accrued in the course of generating some of the most dense, apocalyptic, anxiety-ridden, deliberately nauseating underground hip-hop ever sired. If I say that Fantastic Damage, his discordant and suffocating 2002 solo debut, is one of the best records of the past 10 years—or that his Blade-Runner– meets-the-Bomb-Squad aesthetic, an acid bath with a wet-cement chaser, makes him the best producer in New York City—it’ll probably get both of us shot. Suffice it to say that people care very deeply about this shit, and about whether he now squanders such goodwill-through-sublime-ill-will on a Rolodex-humping duets album.

“I was sort of sitting there grinning,” he says. “I just knew exactly what everyone was thinking. You know what? I would think the same thing.” And what would that be, exactly? “That this is probably a really heavy-handed attempt at making some sort of pathetic crossover record, a clumsy collaborative thing that won’t work.”

Rest easy, kids—take Dead for a spin and marvel at how all Meline’s famous friends are absolutely buried. They’re swallowed whole by the decay, the rotting dementia. I have no idea where the Yo La Tengo guy or the TV on the Radio guy are. None. Brutally exhilarating opener “Tasmanian Pain Coaster” is five minutes in and all but over by the time the Mars Volta dudes show up for a minute or so of inconsequential falsetto wheedling. An hour or so later, Chan Marshall moans “Never again” repeatedly on charmingly titled album closer “Poisenville Kids No Wins/Reprise (This Must Be Our Time),” but the first few times you’ll probably mistake her for a Portishead sample or something. And yes, Trent Reznor shows up for some constipated muttering on “Flyentology,” but mostly he just screams “No!” as El-P invents a new religion.

Thank God. His heavily hyped guest stars are so bloodied and uglied up they could probably sue. “I’m a hip-hop producer,” Meline explains. “I sample. And now I can just sample people. I get to bring them in and use them and twist them to my advantage. I just wanted to do it and not be a douchebag. But I didn’t go out of my way to hide them. I could be accused of underusing—I did have someone tell me that they were shocked at how I squandered my resources. That’s not what it was about. Whatever I hear I hear, period.”

What he seems to hear is the atrophied heartbeat of a dying city. That’s purple prose, and we’ll get back to it later, but when it comes to despair and decay and deconstruction, this guy does not fuck around. Those unfamiliar with El-P’s work should consult Funcrusher Plus, the primary document left by his mid-to-late-’90s underground rap trio Company Flow; it begins with “Bad Touch Example”—sampling a don’t-let-anyone-touch-your-private-parts children’s PSA—and grows only more crass and disturbing from there. That nightmarish tableau will soften you up for “Stepfather Factory,” a truly horrifying monologue on his solo debut, Fantastic Damage, that introduces a new line of booze-addled, physically abusive robotic parents. The track fades out over a lonely accordion and a disembodied voice repeatedly intoning “Why are you making me hurt you? I love you,” at the exact intersection of corny and bone-chilling.

The one comparable sci-fi short-story moment on Dead—”Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love),” with its “I found love on a prison ship” mantra and goofy tale of doomed automaton lovers—is waaaay too far on the corny end of the spectrum. And the record’s wrenching emotional high point, “The Overly Dramatic Truth,” turns out to be a disappointingly straightforward it’s-not-you-it’s-me breakup letter to a young lass or two—though El-P’s official explanation, which involves his theory on how dating younger women is like being a magician, is honestly pretty funny. But the pathos on Dead is generally less amusing, and slathered in black hole-dense, eviscerating beats that twist and shatter and morph like pornographic, homicidal Go-Bots.

Success—commercial, social, financial, whatever—has not dampened his sinister cynicism. There’s a song here called “Drive” that’s mostly just Meline bitching about traffic; whether he’s issuing these profane oaths from Geos or Ferraris these days, his tracks serve as trash compactors that bash whatever point he’s driving into tiny, violent little cubes, terrible to look upon and wondrous to behold.

I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead begins with Meline approaching a down trodden-looking friend on the subway and trying to find out what’s eating him, and by extension eating everyone. (Actually, he asks “What’s the dilly-deal?,” but hey.) The answer takes about an hour to explain, and the diagnosis is neither pleasant nor pleasantly delivered. Grossly oversimplified, everyone is very, very angry. And so is Meline. Still. Company Flow dissolved in 2000, and though, as he puts it, “We tried to celebrate it, as opposed to it being some pathetic, dithering fart into nonexistence,” the breakup generated a considerable amount of hostility anyway, particularly toward their label, Rawkus. Meline’s self-made imprint, Definitive Jux (Def Jux at first, but now just unofficially, after a bit of a legal spat with Def Jam), blossomed soon thereafter, and the animosity between labels past and present peaked on what Meline has admitted is probably his most famous line to date, taken from Fantastic Damage: “Sign to Rawkus? I’d rather be mouth-fucked by Nazis unconscious.” A bit of a motif he had going there for awhile—once feebly needled on a diss track from Sole, a rapper with the West Coast crew Anticon, El-P responded with “Linda Tripp,” a gory seven-minute response that begins, “I oughta pierce this fuckin’ phallus through your rookie-ass throat.”

He might’ve outgrown such viscera since then, but not the underlying causes. “The moment that I’m not a kid is the moment I’m not angry,” Meline says. “The moment I’m not confused. Then I’ll realize that maybe I’m not a child anymore.” On the other hand, “Anger and intelligence are often synonymous. I don’t think [losing my anger] is possible.”

This might explain why last week Meline found himself feuding with Rawkus again, this time in a bizarre only-in-2007-and-between-underground-rap-entities feud touched off by a picture of Meline hobnobbing with P. Diddy that Meline had posted on his blog. (Let’s just skip the blow by blow, it’s a little too ridiculous.) Hostility still abounds. At the very least Meline is more comfortable now with temporarily taking a more behind-the-scenes label mogul/producer/remixer role. Most of Def Jux’s best records—particularly The Cold Vein, the deliriously frigid 2001 debut from Harlem duo Cannibal Ox—bear his production imprint, and in the yawning five-year lag between Damage and Dead he did some vanity-esque projects (a one-off jazz record, remixes for Nine Inch Nails and so forth). But mostly he’s been focused on backing Def Jux rappers like Cage (a rap-as-therapy primal screamer with a ridiculously checkered past), Aesop Rock (a nasal, professorial whirlwind who raps like he’s being paid by the syllable), and Mr. Lif (simultaneously more politically indignant and more cheekily laid-back than any of ’em).

Dead is the long-awaited resurgence of El-P the persona, the leading man—a curtain call a bit slow in coming but still well-timed. Def Jux could use another monster hit. Cannibal Ox has struggled mightily to record a Cold Vein follow-up. Another early label triumph was RJD2, a sample-heavy producer who emerged from Columbus, Ohio, in 2002 with the truly outstanding Ennio Morricone-goes-Motown epic Dead Ringer. Unfortunately, he chafed against the confining praise and DJ Shadow comparisons that followed and this year left Def Jux to put out a profoundly odd, almost singer-songwriter album, The Third Hand, that’s left his biggest fans and critical champions bewildered.

“I gotta give RJ props for not givin’ a flying fuck, though, right?” Meline says. “That’s some real shit. That’s the ilk of person I get down with. That’s the type of artists that we are. We’re OK with the idea of possibly fucking it all up. That’s how I feel about the whole label, and that’s how I feel about these records that I make. If I’m gonna fall on my fucking face, I’m gonna gloriously fall on my face. It’s gonna be a bloody horrible trainwreck.”

I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead doesn’t deliver on that threat—it’s a satisfying continuation of Damage‘s bloodlust, its search for deeper truth, however horrifying, in one guy’s smothering pathos. “The best way to make a record that’s about more than yourself is to make a record that’s about only yourself,” Meline he says. “We’re not these unique little snowflakes that exist in our own world of pain.”

Certainly not in New York City. The Atlantic Yards project’s imminent havoc is a burning issue in Meline’s neighborhood, but ask him how his hometown has changed in the last few years and he’ll skip over any eminent domain squabbles and head right for September 11. “There was a hollowing out of New York, apart from the obvious physical destruction,” he says. “The result of which seems to be a mass psychosis, a cloud, a dark cloud descended over the city. And it hasn’t left . . . the fuckin’ city needs therapy, and needed therapy for a long time. Something died, man. The machinery stopped fuckin’ moving.”

Meline, and Def Jux, and I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead are thus hunting big, ominous, carnivorous game. “I happen to be one of those cats who has the unfortunate reality of being incredibly tuned in to all that bullshit and weirdness,” he says. “I teeter on the edge of fuckin’ alcoholism and drug addiction and insanity and fuckin’ sexual addiction and all this shit. [Accepts margarita from cute waitress.] Thank you babe. Not only do I naturally do that, but unfortunately I think it’s actually what I should be doing.”

So enjoy the new El-P record. This is gonna hurt him more than it hurts you. Plenty of pain for everyone, though. Even the Mars Volta guys.

El-P plays the Bowery Ballroom March 22,


Teutonic Techno Terror Dives Drunk, Yells at Schmucks, Flashes Bird and Butt

If the typical electronic producer hunched over his laptop onstage lacks a certain machismo, Berlin’s Marco Haas seems more likely to give the finger, moon his audience, and beat up the bouncer. Blitzkrieg Pop, Haas’s fourth album under his moniker T. Raumschmiere (the German translation of William S. Burroughs’s “The Dreamcops”), celebrates Haas’s usual antisocial messages, with enough blistering industrial noise to suggest Trent Reznor in an irate mood. Unlike Reznor’s best compositions, however, Haas doesn’t tap into any palpable sense of raw emotional anguish; instead we get antipathy for antipathy’s sake—arguably still a fun enterprise in its own right. “Your mediocrity is standing out . . . /So listen up you schmuck,” he taunts on his digi-metal title cut, which swells with as much scorn as it does abrasive guitar. (Channeling malcontent is something of a habit for Haas; his former metal band was named Zorn, the German word for anger.) What keeps Blitzkrieg from descending into petulant shtick is Haas’s compositional ear, which reveals itself on “Diving in Whiskey,” letting Ellen Allien’s half-muffled vocals nuzzle artfully through his scratchy IDM textures. Haas offers the digitized rebel yell—sneering with tech-punk swagger at all the schmucks in the universe.

T. Raumschmiere plays the Canal Room September 21.


Lightwave Darkwaver Sticks Mostly to the Monotone He Knows Best

Though he’s a heartfelt electro singer-songwriter who traffics solely in Big Themes, VNVNation’s Ronan Harris sings as few different notes as anyone around, except maybe James Taylor. For instance, in the song “Entropy,” when he’s going on about important things like God taking sides and “no sense of self to speak of,” he manages a range of only three notes, E up to G. Over the course of the entire Matter + Form album, Harris accumulates one note short of an octave, an astounding feat of minimalism. To give some sense of scale, when noted monotone Johnny Cash sang Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” he ranged over an entire octave; when Trent Reznor sang the song, he brought the chorus up and reached just beyond an octave and a half. Trent’s extra six-note range both opens the song up and emphasizes the extreme nature of his pain, something left implicit in Johnny’s hard-eyed delivery.

As it happens, Johnny also knew something about careful high-note deployment, and Harris uses a similar less-is-more strategy. When, in the final half-minute of “Arena,” he adds an extra step to the top of the bubbly-stately syncopated tune, we glimpse new vistas of hope and delight. (This is fortunate, because the words sound and read more like someone trying in vain to match the emotion conjured up in the music.) Throughout the album, Harris sticks with the notes he needs, and his slightly nasal rasp sounds like the impassive (and Catholic!) offspring of Neil Tennant and Craig Finn. The abundant pleasure in “Arena” and the closing “Perpetual” comes from hearing these little straight lines of melodies move among the swirling synth accompaniments, the beautiful repeated New Order chords working all sorts of variations and burbling sound effects until you think this is why music was invented.

Granted, that’s only two songs. There are a couple dogs of the slow atmospheric breed, but the three fast instrumentals are also great; they’re harder-edged dance tracks, full of acid fuzz and screaming TIE fighter noises. Harris doesn’t really vary his ominous techno themes, though they’ll occasionally skip a beat or sound like they’re getting flushed down a drain or something cool; more often his technique is to keep piling different themes on top. Six minutes into the flashy “Lightwave,” though, the main hook starts to modulate up the scale, and it’s “less-is-more”-is-more all over again—a minor musical change knocking a seismic impact to your hypnotically flailing limbs.

VNVNation play Irving Plaza June 17 and 18.


Siren Wailing

You’d think there’d be some mathematical formula that could take into account the manner tossed, and how far, and what exactly “it” was, and tell you the all-time champion of Throwing It All Away. Until this analytic tool is devised, I can only say with certainty that Christina Aguilera has a seat at the table; in the sub-category Failure to Capitalize on a Debut, she may take the cake. The basic criteria are (a) how massive that first record was, and then (b) how long before the follow-up, which is (c) how lame? Ms. Aguilera is approaching four years since she made a better and far more beloved debut than, say, the Stone Roses. In teenpop years, this is a dog’s life.

It makes Trent Reznor, the former big kahuna of lacuna, look like he’s been huffing workohol. So there’s Christina’s career going into a coma, with nothing but Latin and Christmas and extreme-youth stopgaps to keep it breathing, and finally here comes the follow-up, siren wailing. Long story short, Stripped is an ambulance arriving too late to save its driver; when, oh when, will people understand that endeavoring to not mature is at the core of pop music? It’s nü-Mariah on mood stabilizers, extended with pseudo-pastiches of semi-popular songs. Carey on, my wayward daughter. But let’s not talk about it. Let’s talk about the Greatest Comeback of All Time.

You must fall from a great height. And you must descend into extreme obscurity, in ways Elvis and Dylan couldn’t even comprehend, such that a comeback isn’t even an issue because no one’s even wondering where you went anymore. But it’s not as easy as just disappearing like Shuggie Otis; more abject is actively losing your talent and appeal, forgotten but not gone. And then, out of nowhere and against all odds, you must be great again—greater, in fact, than you ever were before.

OK, I’ve convinced myself: It’s Marianne Faithfull. I suppose you could argue that she was never musically brilliant back when she was getting a little above-the-waist chart action in the Swinging ’60s. But she was famous and successful and desired, all the things that make a young woman a star, and then she pissed it away, and there was exactly no chance the world could have been ready for Broken English, which if you haven’t listened to it recently could use maybe a dash less Wicca and synthesizers, but will still rivet you to your chaise longue like the hand of god. So I suppose it’s a race for second place, which brings us to this particular moment and another rasp-throated burnout burning, against all likelihood, back in.

Linda Perry had one huge hit with 4 Non Blondes, and it was huger than you can imagine, unless you’ve traveled a little and understand that “What’s Up” remains the favorite song of every seventh passing car on at least three continents. A few years later she was self-releasing a solo album of crypto-blues-metal inspirational songs heard by perhaps 30 humans, and only because her sister mailed it to them. We knew absolutely that she would be remembered only for that one annoying tune, and a band name that provided endless non-amusing witticisms for music reviewers (“Three non-non-blondes from Oklahoma, the kids in Hanson”—see Failure to Capitalize on a Debut rankings, #6 ). Linda Perry’s doomsday clock had already thrown up its hands. Then came the Pink album Missundazstood (see Greatest Sophomore Breakthroughs, behind Hole and ahead of the Rolling Stones).

As you may have heard, that album’s title track, lead single, and a handful of ballads were all written by Linda Perry. They weren’t uniformly great: There’s something weird about “My Vietnam,” and something Led-Zep-should-sue about “Gone to California.” But pop was never about uniformly great. “Get the Party Started” is brilliant, and “Missundazstood” isn’t much less. Implausibly, Linda Perry was a genius. Suddenly she was the hottest pop auteur around. And her specialty was taking schoolgirls from crayons to perfume.

For 10 songs, Christina Aguilera’s record is aggressively boring, unless you’re fascinated by her half-repressed yen to remake “I Put a Spell on You” as it might be done by the Velveteen Rabbit. And then comes “Beautiful,” the kind of ballad Mariah made back when she was a natural. The following “Make Over” is deeply in debt to British garage-poppers Sugababes, not a bad source in the scheme of things. It’s the only song on the record that paints newfound maturity and freedom as more than a pickup line. All anxious rhythms and distorted vocals, it’s independence as a panic attack, which can only be soothed by a power ballad: “Cruz,” even more Bic-flicking than “Beautiful,” if not quite as beautiful. These three songs are Linda Perry’s contribution to Stripped, and they make almost everything else on the record sound as tawdry as it is. In fact, the next song, “Soar,” might be the strongest argument for Perry’s new-generation power: Written and produced by Aguilera and two strangers named Rob Hoffman and Heather Holley, it’s the first significant knockoff of what will be remembered as Linda Perry Pop, or We Were Only Sophomores Pop, or Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon If You Can Afford My Services Pop. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of becoming a brand name. I can hear Charlotte Church fumbling for her cell phone even now . . .


Worth 1000 Words (and Here’s 300)

The rivalry between Filter frontman Richard Patrick and his former employer, Trent Reznor, may well result in a surreptitious reconciliation that becomes the subject of a VH1 telefilm. In the meantime, it’s “Take a Picture” that’s repositioned Filter from the dissonant angst of “Hey Man, Nice Shot” into visceral introspection. Reznor has been trying to find himself, but himself keeps slipping away, and nobody is around to wonder if he’s enjoying the ride; Patrick, however, seems to be craving a photograph of himself, something to remind him, so he doesn’t spend his life just wishing. A ready-made soundtrack to graduation ceremony slide shows, “Take a Picture” ‘s surface feels mournful, even if its spangled surge is but a less malignant variation on Public Image Ltd.’s “Rise.” It ascends toward the plane of generic angst, Patrick kicking and screaming against sanctity, hypocrisy, and privacy. But then, its primordial denouement—”Hey Dad what do you think about your son now?”—sounds more the stuff of a smug Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? lifeline call than a Nine Inch Nails alum’s condemnation of parenting.

Turns out Patrick was inspired by flying the friendly skies au naturel, his passage into the smile-high club becoming swell fodder for radio. Its lyrics detail his nekkidness with such yearning that “Take a Picture” could readily join “True Colors” as the commercial soundtrack for future Kodak Moments. And in an era deficient in power balladry, Filter have pulled a fast one, with the balance of their Title of Record CD burdened by cranky crunch. Yet not since Ray Stevens’s “The Streak” has hedonism been celebrated with such shameless spirituality. By contrast, the only thing “Take a Picture” lacks is the kazoo solo.


All’s Well That Ends Well

If the decade in Modern Rock were a Shakespearean comedy (and what else could it be? Between hanging with Romeo + Juliet and Abercrombie & Fitch, and lending a name to superproducer Shek’spere and a script to 10 Things I Hate About You, he had a huge decade, second only to Kurt among dead white guys), it would end with four starfucked lovers left on stage. Having survived confusion, lies, and bitter wit, they would join in a glorious double wedding and exeunt omnes into the utopian future. Ah ModRock!—a midsummer night’s dream that lasted longer than anyone could have hoped, or wanted.

Act I opened with Tori Amos flirtatiously stage-whispering, “those demigods with their nine-inch nails” (“Precious Things,” 1991). Trent Reznor RSVP’d via “Big Man With a Gun” (1994), the role-playing answer to her “Me and a Gun.” When he sang in her choir on “Past the Mission,” you could feel them getting closer to god: twinned keyboard conceptualists freaked with guilt, avatars of the baroque and the interior.

Act II: Things fall apart. Trent saw his reflection in the snow-covered hills and thought it was love. But it was just sincere flatterer Marilyn Manson, who for a little bit of Nothing made Trent feel like a man. Spurned Tori marched out the pigs for cover art on Boys for Pele (1996); inside she purred, “made my own pretty hate machine.” She took her love and she turned around. And her fury took her higher: On her Courtney Love ode, “Professional Widow,” the Bosendorfer babe hit the stage shrieking “starfucker” over a groovyhatefunk so deep it landed on Decade of Ibiza (1997).

Yet because this is a Shakespearean comedy, everyone must dally together before it all gets sorted out. One day while Marilyn was out frolicking, Courtney and Trent made the rock star with two backs—or is that the head with two holes? It’s an act comical to the last, ending with Prince Reznor’s royal guard standing by in the hotel room. Amos nailed them both in “She’s Your Cocaine” (1998), detailing “the way she makes you crawl,” electro-banging over a murky boom. “Prince of Darkness?” she fumes as Act III ends. “Try squirrel of dimness.”

In the field of permutations, foul flowers grow; witness the Marilyn/Courtney fling. Were they not both comatose (“Sugar Coma,” 1997; “Coma White,” 1998)? Were they not both beautiful monsters (“Beautiful Son,” 1994; “The Beautiful People,” 1996; “Reasons to Be Beautiful,” 1998)? Thankfully, Act IV was brief.

And now, finally, the circuit is complete: Sashaying from the wings for “Starfuckers, Inc.” (1999), Trent rehabs Tori’s vocab and spits venom over Marilyn and/or Courtney: “My god pouts on the cover of a magazine, my god’s a shallow little bitch trying to make the scene.” Sheesh, god: Sometimes you just don’t come through. The song’s a breakneck noisedisco apocalypse overseen by the ghost of Carly Simon; who could ask for more? Except, no one cares. Welcome to Act V, in which catastrophic ennui obliterates the audience. Marilyn promises an “Astonishing Panorama of the Endtimes” on some wrestling-friendly compilation, and no one cares. Hole’s ragged bit of gender-baiting industrialismo, “Be a Man,” leads off Any Given Sunday (free MP3 at, and no one cares. Reznor, silent all these years, releases two more singles in quick succession: the industrial version of a power ballad, and the artrock version of an existential crisis, and no one cares. Tori, not to be outdone, releases two singles simultaneously, sending the pretty baffling “Bliss” to ModRock stations and the pretty coherent “1000 Oceans” to Adult Contemporary. The only people who care are drinking radical tea and paying rent in faerieland.

Maybe it’s not a comedy after all: no couples, no weddings, no utopia. Just a tragedy with mismatched heroes: a Hamlet and a Lady M, an Ophelia and a clown, every one with a knife in their back catalog. If they have one great single among them before the curtain drops like a guillotine, you won’t hear it in Sugar High; I quit. But anyway, listen: It’ll be Tori’s “Glory of the ’80s.” Between a modal synth wash and a Quaalude blues, she phases back to peoples’ parties circa 1985 and discovers that Then was just as grotesque as Now, with silicone party Barbies and Bugle Boy models and “no one feeling insecure we were all gorge and famous in our last lives.” For a famously opaque lyricist, each detail is transparent to anyone who managed to live through this, the music just distorted enough so you know you’re too high to get home, the melody’s doing flake while the bass does yoga and “my husband ran off with my shaman but they love me as I am.” Checking to see if anyone out there’s listening—past the party, beyond the stage—she proposes, “the end is nothing to fear.” And then “Blow the end. Now, baby, who do I gotta shag to get outta here?”


Who’s Beautiful Now?

My Marilyn Manson connection began with a T-shirt. As I was standing in line for a Tricky concert, kids fresh from Manson’s Antichrist extravaganza the night before arrived wearing his Satanic Army togs–a spoof of the Salvation Army. I knew I’d gone to the wrong show. Fuck the music. I wanted that goddamn god-damning T.

My other major Manson moment was at one of his book signings. Corn-fed girls you’d think would be worshipping Hanson were screaming in each other’s green hair, crying and passing out, and the boys were just as crazed. One had just met his hero. “I asked him if he wanted a blowjob,” gushed the lad, “and he said, ‘Not right now, thanks. I’m busy.'”

Manson has made a career out of T-shirts and blowjobs. A brainy, gawky guy who turned himself into a party-monster consumer-product to critique thoughtless consumerism, Brian Warner’s success rests with his ability to tap into the adolescent tribal-sexual angst that malingers within us: if I wear the right T-shirt, will I belong? Who will I have to suck off if I don’t and what will I have to swallow? Rock ‘n’ roll sold this Catholic school misfit the T-shirt that could get him expelled and give him a true religious experience. He’s been on his knees, wearing it, ever since. And loving it. And hating it.

Yet for nearly everyone old enough to remember the original shock-rock icons, Manson initially didn’t do much besides exaggerating the past. The contact-wearing pupil proved himself a worthy spectacle with Antichrist Superstar, but the grand concepts and assaultive surfaces couldn’t make the puny tunes any less inconsequential. Yeah, the lyrics mortified the fundamentalists and producer-mentor Trent Reznor out-Reznored himself, but how many fence-sitters can recall any MM ditty besides “The Beautiful People” and that Eurythmics cover?

Well, here’s one you will. “The Dope Show” is the first Manson single as memorable as its video. Over a skipping Gary Glitter beat, the pied piper of gloom celebrates the Clinton-era narcotics of oral stimulation and headrushing authority. Its sing-along chorus lends the social study a levity the Reznor period denied, and the bite-sized lyrics–bon mots like “Cops and queers make good-looking models”–help the medicine go down. Despite the guitars pumping the hook in the proven grunge tradition, this bouncy sugar pill is radical for Manson notonly because it’s pop, but also because it’s something few ’90s rockers have attempted: it’s sexy.

This born sophist once merely dared to deconstruct sexiness. By now embodying it, Satan’s ambitious little helper has relocated Manson theory out of its logical head and into a freshly liberated and femme-y cyborg that sets it in motion. Its slinky gloss going against the rough Reznor grain, Manson’s alien mannequeen declares independence from the industrial factory. As the title suggests, Mechanical Animals wraps its robot arms around a faked realness so artificial it liberates. “I’m as fake as a wedding cake,” he boasts over a bumpin’ and suitably processed “My Sharona” riff during “New Model No. 15,” one of the album’s plentiful playful fits. “You were automatic and as hollow as the o in God,” the last rock showman of the 20th century moans in the Ozzy-oid title track, the “you” standing in for sex / drugs / rock / Christianity / America/ Manson. Clutching even closer at the cloak of his own synthetic materialism, he delivers the album’s thesis in “Fundamentally Loathsome”: “When you hate it you know you can feel/But when you love it you know it’s not real.”

Mechanical Animals celebrates sexy celebrity in a typically Mansonian bacchanalia of contradictions. He’s said all along that dirty media dominance is the cleanest and closest thing to divinity in a world that crucified the god in itself and replaced it with blind faith. Now he understands first-hand that stardom sucks, yet while he lifts a platform boot against its phony fat ass he still can’t help reveling in the excess. Antichrist Superstar critiqued fame in order to make him famous. Having been there/done that, Manson wants more because more is the American way he’s hell-bent on subverting–even as he’s soaking in it.

A walking, talk(show)ing, fun-house mirror educated in the school of Madonna, Manson knows that taking his performance art project to the next level begins with a fabulous new wardrobe. Redressed in reinvented ’70s glam, accessorizing the alienation he wears on his sleeve with good ol’ Ameriteen adulation Spiced up for the millennium death ball, Manson aestheticizes generational despair. But you can bet he’s not about to merely embody it and then sacrifice himself like Kurt, Biggie, or Tupac. Like Courtney’s glamour move, Manson’s glitter-rock revivalism (timed with Todd Haynes’s upcoming early-’70s Bowie/Iggy biopic Velvet Goldmine) could backfire. His sparkling outfits are too colorful for the goths, too pricey for the average teen, and too homo-rrific for dudes scared of wayward desire. But oooh do they rock, simply because they’re too too.

You’d think the puppet couldn’t dance without Daddy NIN pulling the strings, yet Mechanical Animals is melodic, catchy, even soulful in a flagrantly soulless way. Like an AC/DC CD that shoots from a cocked hip rather than the usual padded groin, the album invites rockers to shake booty with real drums that sound like samples but groove with human rhythms, not the machine-gun beats of yore. Trading Reznor’s industrial sheen for ex-Material- art-funkster- turned-mainstream- rock-honcho Michael Beinhorn’s metal polish, the grinding guitars and bubbly synths generate finely crafted pop that grooves and proves the extended Manson family can rock it old-school–with results far fruitier than those of the postgrunge lemmings who ran off the cliff with industrial rock’s brutal bombast while neglecting its juicy transgender core.

Flexing far more range than rage, Manson’s feminization shifts his vocal power center from a diseased gut to a broken heart, starting with “Great Big White World.” The music pauses, breathes, and lets out a long sigh before building to a bite out of Bowie’s “Heroes” that climaxes like crazy. “I wish you were queen just for today,” Manson aches. Unlike Bowie, he knows love won’t happen, but at least he’s dreaming. “Disassociative” stretches the drama dynamics even further. Building from a trip-hop striptease to a power-ballad metal explosion then going back again, the sonics crash and subside with a Brit beauty Yanks rarely achieve. Someone in Manson’s camp must have been looking overseas: from its pill packaging to the pharmaceutical poetry, Mechanical Animals references last year’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space Spiritualized epic, even in the funky Butt-head anthem, “I Don’t Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me).”

Over the course of an hour, Twisted Sister’s pouty cousin kicks up the glams even harder than September’s other Beinhorn-helmed monster makeover, Hole’s Celebrity Skin. The slow songs are far more majestic than you’d expect from such a nihilist, yet it’s the speedy slam jams “Posthuman,” “I Want to Disappear,” and “New Model” that send all balls (or genital lumps, or angry inches) to the wall. Guitars roar and whine, bass booms, drums race, and synths twitter with a tweeness that’s gonna turn Durannie grannie Nick Rhodes’s gray roots green. Even as he declares “Rock Is Dead,” Manson res-erects it. That’s pretty sucking amazing for a T-shirt peddler.