Nine Inch Nails – “Hesitation Marks”

(Photo Credit: Consequence of Sound)

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Copy of A,” “Came Back Haunted”

The most immediate thing about “Hesitation Marks” is that Trent Reznor went through some changes in his time off from Nine Inch Nails. There’s no way of knowing what, but forming a band with his wife and winning, of all things, an Academy Award both seem to have livened him up, just a little. “Hesitation Marks” is distinctly a Nine Inch Nails record – lengthy, synth-based tracks with many layers of sound. But there is something gone, and it’s the gloom-and-doom feel. I hesitate to say it’s ‘missing’ because Reznor never really sounds like he’s trying to recapture it. Instead of lyrics about fear of religion and death and mutilation, there’s more inward songs about betrayal and personal responsibility. There may be keyboards and synthesizers abound, but the songs are more structured and sound more accessible than previous Nine Inch Nails records. Reznor did something no one saw coming. He made a rock album.

This isn’t a bad thing, either, because it works for the most part. The album starts off with a 52 second intro, before kicking off with two of the faster songs, “Copy of A” and “Came Back Haunted.” A majority of the songs hover in the 5-6 minute range and follow typical rock song structures. The songs generally get slower as the album goes on, before ending with a 1:29 instrumental outro. Reznor concocted a typical rock album, just one that lacks in guitar.

“Hesitation Marks” lacks the heaviness that is present on nearly all of his past albums. “The Downward Spiral” was one of the best albums of the 90’s because of it’s wicked and menacing layers of volume. “Ruiner” actually sounded like an empire collapsing, and “March of the Pigs” was a better punk song than most punk bands are capable of writing. The layers are present on “Hesitation Marks,” but the outward anger is gone, both lyrically and musically. Instead, we get a more early-80’s sound, like Reznor opening the door a bit for Depeche Mode. While it’s disappointing on paper, Reznor still pulls it off remarkably. The album drags at points, and it’s less memorable than most NIN records, but it is still its own great thing. This is a different side of Reznor, still angry but at different targets, and flirting with commercialism. And at 61 minutes long, there’s a lot of it to take in.

-By Andrew McNally

Queens of the Stone Age – “…Like Clockwork”

Photo Credit: Rolling Stone

Photo Credit: Rolling Stone

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “I Sat By the Ocean,” “Fairweather Friends”

“…Like Clockwork,” the long-teased and longer awaited new album from hard rock heroes Queens of the Stone Age, should be listened to with “Songs For the Dead” in mind, their behemoth, Grammy-winning album from 2002. “…Like Clockwork” is similar to “Songs” in three ways. The first is the re-introduction of former contributors Dave Grohl and Mark Lanegan, as well as ousted bassist and founding member Nick Oliveri (who only shows up in background vocals on two songs, but it is still a re-introduction). The other two similarities are thematic. “Songs” was a concept album, imagining a radio playing on a drive in southwestern America, and featured many Christian references. “Clockwork,” too, seems to feature a number of Christian references, if nothing more than metaphors. (Compare 2002′s “God Is in the Radio” to 2013′s “My God is the Sun”) Casual listeners might equate Josh Homme’s lyrics to those of the religiously-tortured soul of Dave Gahan, but Homme frankly chooses to sing about whatever he wants to.

The third similarity is the idea of conventional radio rock. “Songs” had a running theme of QOTSA’s songs playing on every station, in an attempt to solidify themselves as the kings of conventional rock radio. It worked, oddly enough, and they reflect that on “Clockwork.” Every one of the ten tracks feels significantly more conventional and regular than anything they’ve done before, with musical build-ups in slow songs and catchy guitar rhythms in the faster ones. Homme’s vocal melodies are incredibly catchy, even radio-friendly (particularly on the track “If I Had a Tail”). The album is still heavy, of course, but this is a side of QOTSA that has always stayed subtle. It is the band’s shortest album, and has only three songs over five minutes, a departure from the five on “Songs.” Homme likes to throw the audience loops and keep things fresh, which is tough to do for a rock band. “Clockwork” is almost a bit of a joke, in a way, that the original thing about it is its unoriginality. One almost has to wonder if the almost-optimistic sound is a response to Homme’s brush with death, or whether it is more of QOTSA’s relentlessly great tongue-in-cheek humor.

This does lead to some problems, however. “Keep Your Eyes Peeled,” the opener, never hits the intensity it thinks it does, and although the hauntingly-rhythmic “I Sat By the Ocean” follows it up, the tepid and unnecessary “The Vampyre of Time and Money” sits right after. And having this feeling of ‘Is this a joke or not?’ is a little iffy given that people have been waiting six years for a new album. The album grows stronger as it proceeds though, bolstered by barely audible but still appealing guest spots from Trent Reznor, Alex Turner and Sir Elton John (which was a surprise to come across). Homme is still heroically egotistical at times, which is when QOTSA is at their best. The album lacks at some points, falling too far into the unoriginality, but it is yet another great entry from the band overall.

-By Andrew McNally