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Bad Witch conjures up a brew of spellbinding darkness

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Nine Inch Nails’ new misanthropic masterpiece Bad Witch was officially released on June 22. The highly-anticipated offering is the final instalment of an interconnected trilogy, following 2016’s Not the Actual Events and 2017’s Add Violence. Although all three were originally slated to be EPs, Bad Witch eventually evolved into a full-length album (albeit on the shorter side at 31 minutes) that feels simultaneously rough and yet refined while introducing new experimental elements and angles to the familiar gritty, industrial sounds and bleak, somber tones the band is known for.

Starting off strong with a steady, buzzing beat, introspective opener “Shit Mirror” encourages us to reflect on both ourselves and our world, even though we may not like what we see staring back at us. At one point a sharp and sudden break to near-silence hits like a brick, followed by Reznor repeating “New world / New times / Mutation / Feels alright,” eventually singing in different ways layered together, increasing in urgency as the rhythm builds and creating a slight sense of unease that seems to grow along with the storm.

“Shit Mirror” then sharply transitions to the next song, “Ahead Of Ourselves,” a heavy and belligerent track with a hazy overlay. The lyrics convey a cynical, unimpressed opinion of humanity, with Reznor delivering some lines in a weary or sarcastic way while angrily shouting others in biting bursts of rage: “Obsolete, insignificant / Antiquated, irrelevant / Celebration of ignorance / Why try to change when you know you can’t?” Electricity crackles almost tangibly.

Exceptional use of the saxophone is made throughout the album, something Reznor hasn’t played around with very much in quite some time. It’s found both weaved into the background as well as coming to the forefront, such as on the instrumental third track, “Play the Goddamned Part,” which integrates some familiar flavours from past pieces and blends them with new ones, incorporating all kinds of different instrumental effects, and on the following “God Break Down The Door,” a haunting piece that feels very Bowie-inspired, both in the music and Reznor’s vocals; the track could be a B-side of Blackstar. The sax howls mournfully as Reznor croons deep and smooth: “You won’t find the answers here / Not the ones you came looking for.” The other instruments come crashing back in full force and his voice lowers. “Remove the pain or push it back in.”

“I’m Not From This World” feels fittingly otherworldly at times. A pulsing base line slowly burns into a chaotic, almost alien cacophony that still holds an obvious method to its madness, dark and hypnotic like a shower of dissonant raindrops beating down and drenching you in their dystopian rhythm. The practically palpable atmosphere the song creates would certainly provide some suitably unsettling ambience if used as background music in a sci-fi horror film or video game. (Unsurprising, as Reznor and fellow band member Atticus Ross have also had great success outside of NIN composing often harrowing musical scores.)

This unnerving quality is traded for a more subdued but also surreal one, with more plunky percussion following alongside in the final track, “Over and Out,” awash in white noise. “Time is running out,” Reznor muses, “I don’t know what I’m waiting for.” These lines, joined by others intermingling, echo, soft and subtle, and eventually disappear, followed in a similar manner by the music, intensifying once more before slowly dissipating into the void.

Bad Witch is a raw, aggressive flirtation with nihilism at times and at others a spiraling acid house bass trip through jazzy starfields. The interconnected series as a whole is a culmination of both melancholic personal examination of who they’ve become, as well as a reflection on and of the rest of society around them. “It feels like things are coming unhinged, socially and culturally,” as Reznor described it during an interview with the Guardian. “The rise of Trumpism, of tribalism; the celebration of stupidity. I’m ashamed, on a world stage, at what we must look like as a culture.” Ross also explained that the album is “a reflection on the way we are now in the world we live in now, and the scary things in America. A dark journey.” Dark, but travelled with a cold determination to keep fighting while moving forward.

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