I have never reviewed ambient on this platform, mostly because I have been scared to do so. With most of the music I listen to, there is at least something to seemingly follow, or in a way, talk about. In addition to being completely out of the ambient loop, this style of music has compositions devoted to feeling. Much like its incestuous brother, noise, ambient aims to generate a mood rather than a structured song. While I have listened to the ‘big’ names in ambient (Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, Stars of the Lid, Tim Hecker, hell even C418), the rabbit hole of ambient might even be larger than that of noise, which I have only just stuck my nose in. It’s truly daunting, but fortunately, we have a lot of time on our hands nowadays.
I’m not going to harp too much on the whole COVID-19 situation, as my last two posts outlined my feelings pretty cut and dry. To summarize though, it sucks for everyone, except for the CEO of Zoom, I guess. In this tumultuous time, however, we have been granted something to accompany our lonely isolations: Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts.
Nine Inch Nails was an essential stepping-stone in my early metal music listening. While not technically associated with that genre, Trent Reznor’s early work on Pretty Hate Machine (1989), the Broken EP (1992), and The Downward Spiral (1994) was unapologetically abrasive, in your face and extremely catchy. With the last mentioned release being one of the best albums of the 90s, Reznor has the popular attention he deserves as being one of the greatest influences in industrial rock. In 2008, Nine Inch Nails released Ghosts I-IV, which is similar to these two albums, was comprised of exclusively ambient music. This launched Reznor’s career in film scoring, who has gained wide praise for his work in extremely popular films such as The Social Network (2010), The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011), Gone Girl (2014), and Bird Box (2019). These projects were not completed alone, however, as he was accompanied by Atticus Ross, a UK-based member of another of Reznor’s electronic projects, How To Destroy Angels. Ross joined Nine Inch Nails in 2016, and as the very first permanent member of the group, other than its founding member, it seemed change was coming for the project. 2018’s Bad Witch proved, however, that the rockin’ side of NIN was going nowhere soon. But come the current year, and we have the complete other side of the two’s sound.
I know I have given a lot of background detail on this, but I think it is all relevant. Both of these releases are monolithically sized, and I do not think I will do as competently of a job as I normally do, due to the genre break that we are looking at. Sonically, both of these records are beautiful, haunting and extremely well-crafted. If you really like film scores, you will be engrossed by these releases.
Firstly, Ghosts V: Together sounds to me much closer to ‘traditional’ ambient. It has swirling synth passages, reverb-laden backgrounds, and piano lines that match the tone perfectly. “Letting Go While Holding On” has an extremely ‘hooky’ chord progression, which builds to a massive conflux of sounds that hypnotize the listener into giving in to the music itself. “Together” takes piano and brushed drums to create a curious and intriguing track while droning tones soar overhead like an airplane roar. “Out In The Open” sounds like an old thriller, with a quiet swell that eventually invites more instrumentation, while “With Faith” is far more ominous, sporting an uncomfortable synth akin to Radiohead‘s Kid A-era as distorted vocals fade in and out like ghosts passing by one’s head.
“Apart” is the longest song on either album, standing at a massive 13 and a half minutes and is the perfect amount of grand that it needs to be. It brings us through a serene journey, with a strong piano presence that ground the fluttery chords and keeps the track on pace. “Your Touch” follows this up, and creates another ominous and weighty atmosphere, courtesy of its 80s-esque synth wave. Similarly, “Hope We Can Again” shares a chord progression with the last song we heard, but drones on similarly to the opening track. Finally, “Still Right Here” is an optimistic and ominous track that builds with the help of guitar feedback to an abrasive beat ripped straight out of the Nine Inch Nails back catalog, which descends as soon as it began. It slows and brings the album to a calm ending, which is really emblematic of the work as a whole. Ghosts V: Together is easily the more optimistic of the two releases, and while the ominous and sometimes sinister aspects do creep into the soundscapes, Reznor and Ross do a phenomenal job at keeping our hopes up and following through to finish the beauty they started.
Where Ghosts V: Together was the soundtrack to your meditation throughout this time of quarantine, Ghosts VI: Locusts does exactly the opposite. Immediately unsettling, “The Cursed Clock” is a piano-driven track that sounds like the ticking of a very old and extremely cob-web ridden clock. It also never changes dynamics, and therefore its distressing sounds just permeate over the course of the song. “Around Every Corner” returns to the traditional ambient instrumentation and feels like it should be accompanying a scene where a character is stalked as he walks home on a dark night. The name itself somewhat suggests this feeling of being watched. What follows this is “The Worriment Waltz,” whose optimistic yet somber trumpet adds a layer of both anxiety and hopefulness to the piano and strings that make up the composition of the track. “Run Like Hell” is another example of Nine Inch Nails‘ amazing songwriting chops even more than 30 years since the group’s inception, as this quick five-minute track has an addictively driving beat that even someone not into ambient could enjoy for its similarity to most of Reznor’s other work in the project. “When It Happens (Don’t Mind Me)” somewhat similarly follows in the last song’s footsteps, containing a propulsive string and piano section that is able to unnerve and intrigue all at once.
What this album most reminds me of is either a film noir or a modern thriller, the latter of which is reflected in the extremely short “Another Crashed Car.” A quiet but curious piano melody plays as a sample of an extremely strange sound plays, just before a dial-up tone springs out of nowhere as if to ask the listener to give up their search for what it is they seem to be looking for. This film score-like quality continues over the next few tracks, “Temp Fix,” “Trust Fades,” “A Really Bad Night,” and “Your New Normal.” The first is a quick little piano melody with some confusing sounds in the background, whereas “Trust Fades” is an alluring track that gives a shining light in the bleak void that encapsulates a lot of the music on this release. “A Really Bad Night” is one of my favorite tracks on both releases, as its minimalistic instrumentation creates a beautiful but truly melancholic feeling that settles over your body. “Your New Normal” is rather intricate, with a bell and bass groove that is much more of a banger than it deserves to be.
This, however, is where the album gets really, really good. “Just Breathe” is so unsettling and sad, but ends on a very buoyant but noisy note that contrast the extremely short “Right Behind You.” This isn’t as scary as the title makes it out to be, but it sure sets up the next track extremely well. “Turn This Off Please” is the second-longest song on both releases, and what a journey this one is. Maybe one of the most involved ambient tracks I have ever heard, this song is constantly shifting its instrumentation, mood, tone, and dynamics. They also included a warbly synthesizer tone ala harsh noise, which is right up my alley of music like this. “So Tired” is a nice cooldown from that last rollercoaster, and mirrors many of the tracks before it in its curious nature and sparse instrumentation. The final track, “Almost Dawn,” feels like it should be on Ghosts V: Together, as it serves as an “optimistic” ending for this really dark and disturbing ambient album.
It was difficult to write this review, as I think it is hard to really quantify what exactly the sonic experience over the course of these two albums is. My best recommendation is to just listen to the soundscapes that Reznor and Ross produce. If you need to relax, channel your anxiety or just vibe to some out-there music, this is here for you. At this time, I feel Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts are able to perfectly channel the emotions that we are feeling at this time in our world, and better than any other release yet. These two albums may be in total two and a half hours long with no vocals, and in turn somewhat daunting to listen to, but I promise they are very rewarding and provide an extremely unique catharsis unlike any album this year, and especially for this high-profile group.
Final Rating: ‘This is the first day, of my last days”
Favorite Tracks: “A Really Bad Day,” “Apart,” “Turn This Off Please”
FFO: Brian Eno, Stars of the Lid, C418
Ghosts V: Together
1. “Letting Go While Holding On”
3. “Out In The Open”
4. “With Faith”
6. “Your Touch”
7. “Hope We Can Again”
8. “Still Right Here”
Ghosts VI: Locusts
1. “The Cursed Clock”
2. “Around Every Corner”
3. “The Worriment Waltz”
4. “Run Like Hell”
5. “When It Happens (Don’t Mind Me”
6. “Another Crashed Car”
7. “Temp Fix”
8. “Trust Fades”
9. “A Really Bad Night”
10. “Your New Normal”
11. “Just Breathe”
12. “Right Behind You”
13. “Turn This Off Please”
14. “So Tired”
15. “Almost Dawn”