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 remix.nin.com; “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.