“Feels like I’ve been here before,”
Released late Thursday, just a week after Reznor revealed he had made it, "Not the Actual Events" represents the latest in a series of comebacks for this influential industrial-rock band, which has spent the last decade shuttling between active duty and cold storage.
The five-song set also marks a return, following 2013's controlled "Hesitation Marks," to the bleak, pummeling sound that drove Nine Inch Nails to stardom in the early 1990s.
On "Hesitation Marks," which itself spurred Reznor to revive Nine Inch Nails as a touring act after earlier swearing off the road, he concentrated on gleaming textures and relatively luscious grooves. The live band he put together behind the album featured bassist Pino Palladino, known for his collaboration with the soul singer D'Angelo, and one of Whitney Houston's backup vocalists.
But "Not the Actual Events" opens with "Branches/Bones," a brief blast of fuzzed-out guitars overlaid with sinister words about "spiders crawling everywhere" and "pieces with the opening sewed shut." In "Burning Bright (Field on Fire)," the guitars get bigger and more serrated, ultimately cresting in a wave that drowns out Reznor's voice.
"I'm going back/ Of course I am," he sings. "As if I ever had a choice/ Back to what I always knew I was."
The music is still carefully constructed. Reznor recorded "Not the Actual Events" with Atticus Ross, his partner in the high-profile film-score work he started doing during one of Nine Inch Nail's breaks. Together they won an Oscar in 2011 for "The Social Network" and went on to score other movies, including this month's "Patriots Day."
The two also play in How to Destroy Angels, another on-again/off-again outfit they share with Reznor's wife, singer Mariqueen Maandig.
Here you can sense their attention to detail in "Dear World," with a machine-tooled drum track that keeps shifting to emphasize unexpected beats, and "She's Gone Away," which features Maandig singing in ghostly harmony with Reznor, her voice nearly imperceptible in the mix.
It's there too in the EP's exacting artwork — a true sign of aesthetic commitment, given how few listeners even see packaging in the age of digital streaming.
Yet the EP's impact is blunt, as the band itself was quick to proclaim in a statement announcing its release. "It's an unfriendly, fairly impenetrable record that we needed to make," Reznor said.
For "The Idea of You," Reznor recruited Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters (who handled drums on Nine Inch Nails' 2005 album, "With Teeth"), and his muscular playing gives the song a punky intensity as the singer seems to shake off a vivid nightmare: "None of this is happening." (Another guest, Dave Navarro of Jane's Addiction, appears on "Burning Bright.")
Why the reunion with noise and fury? It might be Reznor's way of waking up a society in which "everyone seems to be asleep," as he sings in "Dear World."
Or perhaps working in Hollywood just built up some steam he needs to blow off.
"Oh my God, I have missed you," he sings in "Burning Bright" with the frazzled emotion of a man who's sat through too many meetings with too many executives. "It has been so long."