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Hail the anti-hero Trent Reznor fills another disc with existentialism

TThis has all been done before.

Many have imagined a world where subterranean forces move the rest of us around like pieces on a chess board, where an apocalypse is imminent and Big Brother spins the Satanic mills while we the people stumble around unaware. From Aldous Huxley to David Bowie, the prescient artistic imagination has had little trouble depicting a totalitarian hell-on-Earth.

Trent Reznor, mastermind behind Nine Inch Nails, has long turned his grim attentions toward a nihilistic vision of interpersonal relationships. In fact, Reznor has been a drama king, a conjurer of narcissistic dysfunction, and surveyor of a world in which the anti-hero is king. His masterpiece to date, the grandiose buzz kill "The Downward Spiral," turned depressive navel-gazing into high art. Along the way, it became the unofficial goth-industrial soundtrack to Generation X's self-flagellation. Reznor's anger always seemed to be directed inward, and it didn't seem to be doing him or anyone else a heck of a lot of good.

"Year Zero" finds him, finally, lifting his head up and looking around a little bit. Guess what? What he sees has not exactly filled him with hope for the human condition.

Reznor is smart, make no mistake. As an aging alternative artist whose sound, once groundbreaking and original, has been appropriated far and wide by now, Reznor knows a new album from him is not a guaranteed blockbuster. Since "The Downward Spiral," his work has been consistent, but less than revelatory. Reznor managed to tread water for the better part of a decade following "Spiral," until finally showing some signs of life with the recent "With Teeth" and a successful concert tour promoting that album.

Still, the industry offers no sure things these days. If Reznor sought to further the reach of his bleak visions, he'd have to please both his now late-thirtysomething base, and grab the attention of Generation iPod as well. This would take some unique marketing. Reznor, as it turns out, does unique marketing pretty well.

Last summer, European NIN tour T-shirts used an encrypted code, found by unscrambling highlighted letters on the shirt's back, to spell out the rather cryptic Reznorian phrase "I Am Trying to Believe." Some savvy fan figured this out, Googled it, and discovered the Web site www.iamtryingtobelieve.com.

Here's where things started to get interesting, though in a highly convoluted manner. The site -- and, by this time, the dozens of others connected to it -- outlined a nightmarish dystopia not unlike the one Bowie conjured with his chilling "Diamond Dogs" album. The year is zero; the past is referred to in negative numbers; the government has been adding a drug to the water supply of the citizenry that it insists is to combat bioterrorism, but is instead dumbing-down the already docile masses. The same government forces have created a new drug, called Opal, a cheap and easy-to-produce distraction made available to all and turning them into the equivalent of crack addicts. Cheery, huh?

Amid all of this, Reznor posits his anti-hero, a maverick who employs art as a form of resistance.

News of all of this shot across the Internet with alarming speed, so that some three months before the release of "Year Zero," the record was being discussed daily, new clues and hints popping up rapidly, as net-savvy surfers decoded the whole knotty affair -- an impressive feat, given that, at first, it was unclear whether this was all an elaborate hoax, the cold, hard truth or some mix of both.

Like some analog to "The Da Vinci Code," Reznor's "Year Zero" project left a trail of breadcrumbs in the ether and found a large audience willing to follow it. Sites like www.anotherversionofthetruth.com, www.opalo.MP3, www.ballgameover.MP3, www.nohurry.MP3 and www.bethehammer.net -- among many of others -- deepened the complexity of Reznor's eerie tale.

Considering all of this, the actual release of "Year Zero" was bound to feel like a bit of a letdown. After all, part of the brilliance of Reznor's plan was its labyrinthian complexity, which was quite seductive and more than a little bit sinister. Not knowing exactly what was going on added to the mystique. Could the music Reznor had created match the bizarre subculture that had sprung up around it?

Yes and no, as it turns out. "Year Zero" is a great NIN album, but it's also a quite sketchy one, its plot-line exhibiting some gaping holes and gaps in verisimilitude, even from the first listen. Musically, it's Trent being Trent -- which means there are skittish, snarling synthesizer lines that sound like Depeche Mode in a bad mood, elements of industrial sturm un drang, whisper-to-a-scream vocals, and plenty of bile to go around. The record is dynamic, flows well and sounds great -- particularly when played incredibly loud.

Reznor is a visionary, still. "Year Zero," though not perfect, succeeds by blurring the lines between paranoia and awareness. It sure is getting ugly out there.

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

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