Sound — 8
Still active in music, Trent Reznor's activities in recent years have been geared towards playing a behind-the-scenes role rather than continuing to steer his flagship project Nine Inch Nails. Since the release of 2013's "Hesitation Marks," Reznor's focus has been increasing in his film score work with Atticus Ross, working on movies like "Gone Girl," "Before the Flood," and "Patriot's Day." Reznor also acted as a major player in the development of a music streaming service for Dr. Dre's Beats Electronics, and while the project was absorbed by Apple in a big buyout, Reznor parlayed into being Chief Creative Director with Apple Music.
With these endeavors primarily filling Reznor's plate, he had stated in passing that he was tinkering with some new music for Nine Inch Nails, ultimately saying that the project would have a new release in 2016, but as the year went on, Nine Inch Nails were silent. In response to a question asked in October about if there actually would be a new release this year, Reznor ominously teased "2016 isn't over yet," and even when there still was no release in December, Reznor reiterated: "Just wait and see." Lo and behold, Reznor fulfilled his commitment, and with just a week left of the year, Nine Inch Nails returned with their new EP, "Not the Actual Events."
One can hear a few tricks carried over from "Hesitation Marks," whether it's the blipping synth arpeggios that drive "Dear World," or the wailing tremolo guitar swells in the dark atmosphere of "She's Gone Away" that previously appeared in "Disappointed." But whereas the previous album focused more on synthetic elements and honed more of a trip-hop/synthwave vibe, "Not the Actual Events" brings back the guitar power heard in Nine Inch Nails music from decades ago. The opening "Branches/Bones" is a short dose of industrial rock similar to what was heard in "With Teeth," the massive Wall of Sound that trudges on in "Burning Bright (Fields on Fire)" ends with a squealing guitar outro akin to the looping outro in "Mr. Self Destruct," and the 6/4 flow of "The Idea of You" cranks the guitars up to a classic '90s industrial metal distortion.
Lyrics — 8
Continuing to flaunt his bleak and unnerving imagery ("Cold and black and infinite, with nothing left to lose / If you try to keep the flies away, the makeup hides the bruise" in "Branches/Bones"; "I was watching the day she died / We keep licking while the skin turns black" in "She's Gone Away"), much of Reznor's lyrics in "Not the Actual Events" are chosen to be vocally delivered in a singspeak style. This decision for narrative over melody is generally intended to be a more straightforward option for communicating meaning in songs, but Reznor still keeps his cloak of ominousness donned. With the letter of disgruntled existence in the bridge of "Dear World," the production choice of its murmured delivery panning and overlapping upon itself helps portray the theme of schizophrenic perspective that shows up again in the whispered verses of "The Idea of You" ("If I start to tell you anything, please don't pay attention / That's not really me in there, I would never do that / Just go back to the idea of me"), and in the distant ending lines of "Burning Bright (Fields on Fire)" ("It's getting hard to know which side is the dream / I can't tell if I am dreaming anymore").
Overall Impression — 8
Though his compositions in recent years have gravitated more towards electronica, Reznor hasn't forgotten the louder and more aggressive side of Nine Inch Nails, and similarly to how the metal-driven EP "Broken" followed the industrial dance style of "Pretty Hate Machine," the output in "Not the Actual Events" shows Reznor tending to his metal side much more strongly than what was heard in the previous "Hesitation Marks." Whether or not the EP's sound is a precursor or a red herring for what Reznor has in store for next year, "Not the Actual Events" serves its purpose well in Nine Inch Nails' catalog.