Concept album envisions not-so-distant future

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When the bombs drop, and our soldiers snap, and everything we currently know about the world is destroyed, what will it sound like?

Nine Inch Nails’ most recent release, “Year Zero,” is Trent Reznor’s chronicle of the events leading up to what could be the end of the world, or at least the end of the world as we know it. This extremely stylized concept album is a return to the hard edge industrial sound the band made famous.

The album tells of a possible future, hinting at the incorporation of religion into the U.S. government, the soldiers of our future military, and the often-bleak view of what tomorrow could be. To contrast that, it also details the right to survive, and just what surviving would take.

The album is a return to the sound of earlier NIN discs. “With Teeth,” the band’s 2005 release, featured more of a mainstream, hard rock sound, while “Year Zero” takes NIN back to the syncopated, dark and highly-synthesized sounds made famous on the albums “The Downward Spiral” and “The Fragile.”

The instruments don’t create typically heard sounds. There are no killer riffs or traditional song structures; they are primarily used to make sound effects and eerie melodies, employing heavy guitar, bass distortion and synthesizer squeals. They are all held together by extremely syncopated, yet simple, drum tracks and Reznor’s unique and haunting vocal delivery. The overall sound of this disc is dark and brooding, like a cloud that lacks its silver lining.

The first single, “Survivalism,” has quickly taken off on mainstream radio, topping the modern rock charts before the album’s initial release date April 17. It sets the standard for every other song on the album. It’s very disjointed and awkward, with peaks and valleys in the thickness of the sound. The quiet verses use simple, yet memorable, melodies, and then the chorus explodes through the speakers like a hand grenade, leaving shrapnel in the minds of listeners. It is a call to survive, or at least a flaunting commentary about how some could survive.

“The Good Soldier,” another track that employs some of the same disjointed melodies that abound on this album, also shows Reznor’s ability as a storyteller. The songs tell the story of a soldier, the incorporation of religious elements into military life and the hypocritical issues that arise from such a situation. Even though the lyrical content isn’t a direct telling of the story, the song gives a first person perspective from this particular soldier that splatters the already stark picture in your head with the blood from a gunshot.

This album is an intelligently-written warning sign to show just what the future could hold. The music and lyrics blend extremely well into one of the best concept albums since Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” The promotion completes this comparison by adding another element to the tale of “Year Zero”: the multimedia scavenger hunt. While the music speaks for itself, “Year Zero” also adds various Web sites and phone recordings to tell the story. There have also been rumors circulating about Reznor turning this album’s concepts into a movie, which add yet another facet to the already innovative experience.

If you’re willing to get sucked into the story of “Year Zero,” then the tale of this Orwellian nightmare could become a new obsession. If you just want to hear some of the most creative and powerful music that has been released in recent memory, then this album will still deliver everything you’d hoped NIN would do again.