Nine Inch Nails - Ghosts I-IV

(Halo 26, available as paid download, download plus 2CD set, and two limited editions
released 03 March 2008)
available from the Nine Inch Nails Ghosts website - Ghosts I available free

A few months back Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails announced that he was now free from any record deal and record label, and that he could now do what he wished with any music that he was to make in the future. No labels and no middle men as such could mean theoretically releasing albums yourself and retaining much more of an artistic control, as well as be able to distribute products via other means and not just physical media - but also paid for downloads as well.

After the partial success of the experiement that was Radiohead's "In Rainbows" album, where fans could choose how much they wished to pay for the download of the album, plus order limited edition versions, this model clearly did at least show promise. A slightly modified model is present when you wish to order Ghosts I-IV. For a start, the first part, Ghosts I, is available free of charge in MP3 format. This actually makes a lot of sense - give people a taster, and if they then like it, they can order the rest of the album as well, so win win there. Then there are four options, although one of them is now no longer available:

$5 download - simply you can download the whole Ghosts I-IV set in a variety of download formats, and once you pay the $5 cost, that's it. Nothing else to pay.

$10 2xCD set - get the whole album on 2 CDs in a six panel digipack package plus booklet. The CD will be shipped in April 2008, and you also get access to downloading the album straight away, just like the $5 downloads. This makes good sense - after all, you want to download the album now so you can listen to it but it'd be nice to have it on proper CD audio format as well. Incidentally, the 2-CD set will be released in most parts of the world as well in April, along with a deluxe vinyl set, so that at least gives you the choice too.

$75 Deluxe Limited Edition - I was so close to going for this version. You get a hard bound fabric slipcase package containing the 2 CDs, a data DVD of all 36 tracks in multi track format (so you could probably mess around with them on GarageBand on the Mac, as Trent has previously released his multitrack stuff that way), and on top of that, a Blu-Ray disc with the whole album in 96Khz/24 bit high def surround plus slideshow to accompany it. And a deluxe hard bound 48 page book as well on top of that. It might be nice for the high def sound to be in DVD-A or SACD formats as well as a standalone release?

$300 Ultra Deluxe Limited Edition (sold out) - Everything as per the Deluxe Limited Edition above, plus another box with a hard case which contains a four disc 180 gram high quality vinyl set, and two deluxe prints as well. All of the 2,500 of these were also hand signed and numbered by Trent Reznor himself too, so well worth consideration if you got in quick!

With all the four options above, you get to choose a variety of formats to download the album in. Once I'd paid for my 2CD set, I received an email with a download link and instructions which were simple to follow - good move there. When you click the download link, you can select one of three options, either high quality MP3 format (they're in 320Kbps LAME encoding, spot on quality wise), FLAC lossless audio (good move) and Apple lossless, for those who just want to chuck it straight into their iTunes library. One word of note: make sure you select the format that you want correctly, as once you've selected it, you cannot re-select it. In my view, that's not such a great move: it would have been nice to be able to download all three formats, but that's me nitpicking. On the major plus side, and credit to Trent for this, all the download options are DRM-free! Yes, no annoying digital rights management so that you can only use the files on certain media players or certain devices or whatever - but freedom to do as you wish with the tracks, after all you've paid for them haven't you? Kudos for that, without doubt.

Okay, so that's the selections out of the way. The download links were slow for the first couple of days of release and they kept stopping, which was frustrating, but once that was sorted out, I managed to get the MP3 download quite quickly in the end, and it all worked well. Contained within that was also a PDF of the booklet, the web graphics and some wallpapers too for your desktop, so that rounded off the package very nicely indeed.

So, most importantly of the all, the music. Is it worth the while downloading or buying the deluxe editions? Well, first and foremost Nine Inch Nails diehards who like their full on Industrial stuff with Trent belting out loud vocals should be warned now: it's not all like that. It's an album composed entirely of instrumentals - yes, instrumentals. Some recent NIN albums have seen some more leaning towards that kind of sound, and indeed, the limited package of "All That Could Have Been" had a companion CD "Still" which was mainly softer quieter versions of tracks. Here, the focus is entirely instrumental, and it definitely sounds much more like a film soundtrack than anything else.

To put this into concept, Trent Reznor describes the album as "working from a very visual perspective - dressing imagined locations and scenarios with sound and texture; a soundtrack for daydreams." and in essence that's pretty much what it is. If you've ever heard Clint Mansell's superlative soundtrack for "Requiem For A Dream" there's plenty of emotions that are invoked when listening to this. It's hard to pinpoint an exact style here, but there's certain tracks which have hallmarks of being NIN, in terms of the full on drums and pretty intense noises, but they segue well into more piano led tracks which are silently more reflective by their nature.

And indeed, Trent didn't muck around when he chose his personnel. Indeed, on several of the thirty six tracks, no less a guitar player than Adrian Belew is drafted in to add more complex guitar led layers of sound into the whole proceedings. Those hallmarks are clearly audible in the whole sound and add a sense of urgency as well. I should note though that it was a careful selection, not just for name's sake, but to integrate into the effects and sound that were to be recorded here, and that was an important aspect to have done.

There's numerous highlights throughout the thirty six tracks, with each of them in some small part reminding you of part of NIN's back catalogue. Some will remind you of their sprawling classic epic that is "The Fragile" (still one of my favourite albums ever) and even some of the electronic stuff harks back to "Pretty Hate Machine" but in an altogether good way. Think of each of the four "Ghosts" segements as a separate nine part soundtrack and you're pretty much there into the way of thinking. Indeed, track 34 (the seventh part of Ghosts IV, essentially) really does remind me of how "The Fragile" sounds. It's like learning all your best parts and managing cleverly to blend them all together into the package.

I do think that in order to fully understand the album's concept and to enjoy it at its finest, you do need to listen to all thirty six tracks and play the whole thing through. Admittedly that's close to two hours' worth, but the whole reason a lot of people didn't understand "The Fragile" for what it was, was simply because they looked at it as a part, rather than a sum of all the parts together. "Ghosts I-IV" is very much of the same ilk, as it moves from quiet reflective pieces to loud blasts with guitars to electronics to deep intense noise and all in between. It could well be a soundtrack for a daydream and certainly if Trent were to release some accompanying visuals, that would indeed be of interest.

It's a brave move, and one I wholeheartedly applaud. For anyone who likes film soundtrack pieces, particularly say Requiem For A Dream or Koyaanisqatsi, where the film visuals and soundtrack are a near perfect fusion, then this album is defintiely for you. It's broody, it's sprawling, it's epic, and it's unmistakably got the hallmarks of Trent Reznor all at the same time. It won't be everyone's cup of tea, far from it, but if you're willing to be brave and listen to it for what it is, you will be rewarded and it will grow on you.

Warren's rating: 83%