Monday, June 30, 2008
Sunday, June 22, 2008
Monday, June 16, 2008
(Story originally written for Starpulse.com)
Considering most musicians in their 40s tend to slow things down, Trent Reznor has been a busy boy. Coming from the man who once spent five years to release a follow-up album (the highly ambitious/anticipated double-disc mammoth The Fragile), and another six for its successor (2005's With Teeth), the last two years for his band Nine Inch Nails have been some of the most creative and innovative in its career.
Reznor's recent creative spur all started on the tour for NIN's fifth studio album, the rather uninspired "With Teeth." Desiring to record a bleak futuristic concept album to shed light on the United States' current administration, Reznor created (or rather conjured up) Year Zero. Exorcizing his inner demons once again, "Zero" was a refreshing return to form for Reznor and would be the start of new day for NIN both musically and conceptually.
The sprawling 16-track "Zero" was significant not only for its message but also its delivery, primarily the extensive viral marketing campaign that backed the album's official release and an organized Internet leak. While past NIN efforts showcased Reznor as a sonic mad scientist, constantly pushing the envelope of the industrial genre he helped start, "Zero" was a vehicle for Reznor the savvy businessman, or anti-businessman.
The concept of "Zero" was to include not only the album but also a record of remixes (Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D), a possible feature length film, and now, according to Reznor, a television series all encompassing the shambled dystopia of Reznor's future America. Reznor even came up with some creative methods for leaking the songs and portions of the album to diehard NIN fans - leaving mini USB memory cards chock full of MP3s and other "Year Zero" propaganda in the bathroom stalls at concert venues or treating frequent website visitors to snippets of "Zero." Reznor has always treated fans to pleasant surprises.
"Year Zero" was the last official studio album on NIN's former label, Interscope, fulfilling a long-standing frustrating contract and paving the way for complete musicalindependence. After releasing "Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D" Reznor followed in the footsteps of Radiohead and many other artists currently embracing the inevitable industry changes in how we acquire music with an Internet exclusive release of a 36-track suite of instrumental compositions entitled,Ghosts I-IV.
While initially coming out of left field (after all it was released just shy of a year after "Year Zero," which was unexpected considering NIN's last couple spaced out releases), the content of "Ghosts" and the methods used to release the album seemed inevitable choices.
For starters, "Ghosts" was a pet project Reznor was aching to do for many years but never could due to pressures from his label. A four-volume set comprised entirely of bizarre instrumental compositions, carefully paired with bleak photographs (included in a 40-page book) doesn't exactly scream Billboard trendsetter. Artistically, however, "Ghosts" serves as a haven for Reznor to showcase his undisputed gift for taking ordinary sounds and taking them to extreme, undiscovered directions.
On past NIN efforts instrumental tracks were commonly used to bridge songs together, provide glimpses of grace amongst cuts rooted in chaos, and, in the case of The Downward Spiral's "A Warm Place," pay homage to a major influence, David Bowie (the song is a manipulated cover of a Bowie B-side, "Crystal Japan"). Many have also said that while Reznor continues to evolve his sound, his lyricism has always been an Achilles' heel, often recycling the same dismal predictable themes.
"Ghosts" was no doubt marketed mainly to diehard NIN fans (36-tracks without a solid single to anchor it down isn't exactly aiming for the mainstream). By allowing listeners to have a choice in how they acquire the album Reznor embraced the future of music distribution and did so with success. "Ghosts" was released in a number of formats ranging from a free nine-track sampler to an expansive limited edition vinyl, CD, and MP3 suite.
For digital music sampling wizards (and Reznor realizes that there are many out there) "Ghosts" was also made available in a number of different digital formats, allowing fans to take individual tracks from songs and remix the content to create their own unique compositions. While much of these methods were no doubt lifted from Radiohead's In Rainbows pay-what-you-feel Internet stunt of last year, Reznor was clearly taking things to a higher level.
Last month Reznor surprised fans yet again with The Slip, a surprisingly low-budget, 10-song record blending messy, fast-paced garage rock with moody ambient ballads that was released 100% free to listeners at NIN.com. While "The Slip" isn't as conceptually sophisticated as "Year Zero" or as groundbreaking as say Pretty Hate Machine or "The Downward Spiral," it is a rough and fun rock record that not only gave Reznor a single (the catchy techno cut "Discipline") to tour with but again proves that Reznor is currently enjoying the luxuries of his newfound creative spree. He even managed to produce Saul Williams' last album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, which was also made available via digital download.
For most established artists some people might argue for content over quantity, believing that it's better to take time between masterpieces rather than unleash mediocre album after album. In the case of Nine Inch Nails, Reznor seems to have found a happy balance between the two. "Year Zero" was as innovative and interesting as NIN's early records, "Ghosts I-IV" was the result of an idea that Reznor seems to have been dreaming up for quite some time, and "The Slip," while not a masterpiece, is a nice taste of what Reznor has up his sleeve, served gratis to boot.
It's hard to say what else Reznor is cooking up musically, since the past two records were released out of the blue. NIN is about to embark on a major U.S. tour, and Reznor has already spoken of his future plans for the "Year Zero" concept. Whether or not NIN's current creative spree seems like an overload of more loud industrial rock, consider this: a veteran artist like Reznor could continue taking his time between records and still reap the benefits from a loyal fanbase, but instead he's experimenting and treating the world to his art. Good or bad, that's entirely up to the listener, but it's hard to deny that at the age of 43 Reznor's artistic inner demons are still hard at work and he remains one of the most innovative musicians working today.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
Monday, June 9, 2008
(Story originally written for Starpulse.com)
At the age of 23 Bear Grylls was the youngest climber ever to ascend the summit at Mount Everest. Recently Bear drank his own urine for the amusement of thousands of television viewers. In 2000 Grylls traveled around the island of the United Kingdom on a jet ski. While filming in the African savannah Bear took a hearty bite out of a recently deceased zebra. In 2003 he led the first-ever unassisted crossing of the North Atlantic Arctic Ocean by boat. This past fall Bear skinned and disemboweled a camel then used the empty carcass for shelter.
Bear Grylls is without a doubt a self-professed adventurer. He's also the host of Discovery Channel's extreme survival show, "Man vs. Wild." You can judge for yourself which of the feats mentioned above encompass Bear the accomplished outdoorsmen or Bear the over-the-top TV personality.
Then there is Les Stroud, the more refined Canadian super outdoorsman and host of Discovery's other hit survivalist series, "Survivorman." Stroud is less concerned with the flashiness of reality television, choosing technique and survival tactics over sensationalism. In terms of popularity, Bear's got him beat. Let's face it, we're a culture obsessed with over the top drama.
To be fair both survivalist series are very similar in their intentions - send a man off into the wild solo and learn about the various survival techniques needed to brave the elements. The shows are highly informative, even though the chances of the average viewer being forced to climb inside a dead camel are about as slim as said viewer even seeing a camel outside of the comforts of a zoo. Then again, television has always been an escapist medium.
So which show is the more realistic? Which show is worth the viewers 45 minutes? To answer this question one must question what they look for in a television show of this nature?
For the true adventurers, "Survivorman" is hands down the most authentic look at what it takes to survive in a multitude of different scenarios. Stroud walks viewers through the basics like finding potable water, making fire, staying warm, hunting and gathering food where you would least expect it, etc. Each episode is based off an entirely plausible scenario of being stuck in the wild (canoeing accident, lost in forest, broken down vehicle, even an impressive episode where Stroud is on a raft in the middle of the ocean). To top it off Stroud is alone for a whole seven days without a camera crew (a luxury Bear so controversially benefits from). Despite this arguably more impressive setup, the restless viewer might find Stroud's no thrills how-to lessons to be a bit trite.
Grylls falls at the other end of the spectrum - action, suspense, and the gross out element. Almost every episode of "Man Vs. Wild" begins with Bear doing a back flip of sorts from a plane or helicopter into his newest destination (seriously, even during a scene as simple as jumping six feet from a tree branch into a marsh, Bear finds it necessary to wow viewers with his acrobatics).
Bear's stern British narration voice makes even the simplest of feats seem to be life threatening. Above all, when this man takes on the wild he seems destined to look for the most extreme ways of surviving, rather than the simplest or safest methods. Sure, while you could technically spear a salmon and eat it while it's still alive (as our Bear so fittingly does in an episode braving Alaska) why not just wait till it's dead?
In one episode of "Survivorman" in which Stroud is stuck in a Georgia swamp, he shows viewers an old Native American technique for catching fish and frogs in a makeshift water corral trap. Whereas Bear Grylls seems solely concerned with putting his body through excruciating unpleasantness for the pleasure of the television audience, Stroud is more focused with informing us about the many survival techniques out there and the history of his given environment.
With a name as blatantly over-the-top as Bear Grylls it's no wonder that the self-proclaimed survivalist/thrill seeker's show has higher ratings. An extreme sounding name such as Bear or the even more ridiculous, Dog the Bounty Hunter is ripe for sensationalist reality TV, which is what the average viewer yearns for.
Television viewers these days enjoy watching people eat horrible things or live out excruciating situations from the safety of the living room. "Survivorman," which was created before "Man Vs. Wild," is currently on a hiatus from TV with a third season possibly in the works. "Man Vs. Wild" is still going strong, proving that no matter what ratings always prevail in the television arena. While "Survivorman" is without a doubt the superior program when it comes to the authenticity, Bear's on-screen personality will always garner the most viewers and nails the entertainment draw of survival television.