Sound — 8
Busy with a full plate of other projects, from helping run Apple Music as chief creative director, to scoring films with producer pal Atticus Ross, Trent Reznor made sure to tell all the Nine Inch Nails fans, who had been waiting since 2013's "Hesitation Marks," that new music would be coming in 2016. Technically, he kept his promise by the skin of his teeth, releasing the 5-song EP "Not The Actual Events" at the tail end of December, and also went on to promise two more NIN releases for 2017.
Once again, Reznor announced the details for new music on short notice, but mercifully followed through much faster than he did last year. Being the second installment of a three-EP series, "Add Violence" can be seen as the second act of a movie, offering the most downcast moments for this trilogy. This isn't immediately evident, with the opening song "Less Than" running out of the gate with its '80s-evoking synth arpeggios that later kick into thickly layered industrial guitars, but the following songs make that descent into the sonic nadir, containing much less guitar energy than in "Not The Actual Events." "The Lovers" weaves a dark ambience with its eerie synth pads, filtered piano chords and murmuring singspeak. "This Isn't The Place" pushes a droning wall of sound made of ambiguous timbres, ranging from string swells, analog synth buzzing, and vocal moans. And the ending "The Background World" flies serene textures above a "Hesitation Marks"-esque synth instrumental and forlorn, heavily filtered vocals, before gratuitously looping its final murky riff for seven minutes, growing more distorted with each cycle (fans have presumed that a message might be found in this elongated outro when put through a spectrogram, though nothing solid has been found yet).
The more-synth-than-guitar recipe used in the EP may make it a close relative to the similarly synthy "Hesitation Marks" at face value, but "Add Violence" also contains some moments reminiscent of NIN's magnum opus, "The Downward Spiral." The best example of this is in the penultimate "Not Anymore," where Reznor's vocal performance bears a bipolar shift between the simmering verses and the boiling choruses, as well as the wailing guitar dissonance that also erupts in the choruses, but even the jangling tambourine thrown into the slow-going "This Isn't The Place" sounds like a throwback to the tambourine used in "Piggy," being the same kind of juxtaposing bit of perky percussion inserted into a sullen song.
Lyrics — 8
Though the lyrical portrait Reznor is aiming to paint in this EP trilogy is still far from completion, there are more dots to connect with the lyrics found in "Add Violence." The most apparent theme that continues on is the binary state of sleep/awakeness (more likely being figurative than literal), though with conflicting remarks made in the first-person perspective ("Finally / Everyone seems to be asleep but me" in "The Lovers"; "And I can't seem to wake up" in "Not Anymore"; "I'm going to keep myself awake / I know what's coming / I feel it reaching through" in "The Background World"), it's still tough to pin down what perception of reality the main character really has a grasp on.
This burgeoning narrative about falling in and out of reality is the most solid arc seen in the series so far. Stating a desire to leave the world he felt trapped in during the previous EP's "Dear World," he voices his liberation from such in "The Lovers" ("I've slipped out of time again / Leaving all of you behind / And I'm free"), though that moment of relative happiness is short lived, later observing a sense of losing himself in "Not Anymore" ("Surprise / I must have let it get in / Started to turn into somebody else"), and dreading the epiphany that escape is impossible in "The Background World" ("There is no moving past / There is no better place / There is no future point in time / We will not get away").
Overall Impression — 8
With the previous "Not The Actual Events" reloading on the industrial metal energy that wasn't as prevalent in "Hesitation Marks," "Add Violence" wavers back to NIN's synth-centric likes for the most part. As pointed out earlier, this easing back on metal aggression and focusing more on dark, atmospheric songwriting is likely due to "Add Violence" being the second act of this EP trilogy, which is meant to be the darkest point before rising into the climax of the third act. Though there's still one step left before this musical concept reaches completion, "Add Violence" is another fine example of how Reznor shines as a sonic storyteller with a scrupulous, sensory-stimulating vision as a composer and producer.