Because it is the final Nine Inch Nails release for Interscope, it’s hard not to hear Year Zero Remixed as anything other than a contractual fulfillment, as holiday-timed product for the Hot Topic crowd. After all, most of the post-album remix discs released by Trent Reznor and company have been exactly that: simple product, with NIN’s transgressive misery-rock pasted into overlong, synth-stabbed dance tracks with generic electrobeat palpitations slicing through the mix. Where the original songs — like “Closer,” “Down in It,” and “Into the Void” — already struck a provocative balance between the introspective melodrama of rock theater and the oozing physicality of dance music, the remix collections (1992’s Fixed EP, 1995’s Further Down the Spiral, 2000’s Things Falling Apart) typically fell into mindless techno variants of one another, creating nothing more than a tapestry of buzzing background noise. Only the brutal aural assault of Fixed and a few Aphex Twin remixes distinguished themselves with creative manipulations that echoed and extended the themes of the originals.
Year Zero Remixed, however, is the first remix album in fifteen years that, though certainly not necessary, manages to move beyond its nature as callous product and expand upon the vision of its predecessor — in this case, the myopic dystopia of the Orwellian Year Zero. Sporadically powerful as the noisy Zero was, it sometimes felt as if Reznor was trying too hard to capture the chaotic immediacy of his earlier work, making an overlong album of glitch-based noise and hackneyed lyrics. (How many times can you work “on your knees” into an album?) These remixes, though, feel liberated where Zero felt constrained, bound as it was to its overarching theme and Reznor’s brand of laptop-based crimethink rock. Remixed truly is anarchic, a sound Year Zero could only approximate.
While still moored to the Zero’s premise of nightmarish totalitarianism, Remixed isn’t as stifling. Through its electrofunk freak-outs of gear-grinding beats interspersed with ambient lulls of eerie, spine-sliding keyboards and looped, clipped, and sampled lyrical snippets, the album remixes Year Zero’s tired soapboxing down to its essentials and pushes the music to the forefront. In doing so, the remix artists free up space for the sadness, regret, and resignation that lurked beneath the surface noise of Year Zero, allowing them to flower through the newly accentuated melodies. From Finnesz’s spaced-out, silvery synth haze of sorrow that is “In This Twilight” to the twisted, atonal beauty of the Kronos Quartet’s “Another Version of the Truth,” the artists featured on Remixed rip the original songs apart not just to create a product to be carried forth by Year Zero’s sales momentum. Rather, in their chaotic pillaging of Zero, musicians like Ladytron, Epworth Phones, and the Faint are building upon the original in order to make something more challenging, if not better.
Not every track is a success — Saul Williams’s “Survivalism” is a predictable NIN remix of distorto clattering lashed to the thudding lull of a narcoleptic pulse, and the fourteen-minute loping drone of Olaf Dreijer’s “Me, I’m Not” sounds like an ultrasound of Brian Eno’s large intestine — but it’s the best remix collection in the Nails’ oeuvre. By simply removing some of the self-seriousness of Reznor’s admittedly staggering music and not so staggering lyrical stabs, and by adding the shredded hip-thrust sinuosity of creative, intelligent house music, the emotional heft of Year Zero’s vision is allowed more room to breathe, despite the paradoxical doublespeak of the inherently cold and digital manipulations. And wasn’t that, before the straightjackets of narcissism and rock stardom stagnated Reznor’s artistic trajectory, the point of Nine Inch Nails all along?