“To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.” – Chuang Tse: XXIII
Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is no stranger to concept albums. His most famous work, 1994’s The Downward Spiral, was touted as a concept album about self-destructive behavior in which a protagonist loses himself to drugs, sex, and violence, ultimately resulting in an act of suicide. Among many of his inspirations is Pink Floyd’s The Wall, the concept album about a rock star suffering a nervous breakdown and walling himself off from the world. Ten years after the success of Spiral, Reznor had been out of the spotlight for half a decade after the commercial failure of the outstanding follow-up, The Fragile.
In the intervening years, Reznor had gotten clean after a near fatal heroin overdose in London in 2001 and spent a summer in a rehab facility. It took time to get that artistic spark again. Nearly six years lapsed between The Fragile and 2005’s With Teeth. After that, his output skyrocketed—between Nine Inch Nails, his side-project How to Destroy Angels, his Oscar-winning cinematic scores with partner Atticus Ross, and production work for artists such as Saul Williams, fans received as much music in the span of 3 years as Nine Inch Nails had released in its first decade and a half of existence. But in 2004, a Reznor with shaken confidence attempted to grapple with a story that seems to have haunted his work to this very day.
The nin.com website had been updated after years of inactivity, including a Chuang Tse quote used by Ursula K. Le Guin to title a 1971 science fiction work—The Lathe of Heaven. In short order, Reznor announced an upcoming album, Bleedthrough, answered fan questions, and started an online NIN fan club called The Spiral. The album was eventually renamed because, “it was supposed to be about different layers of reality seeping into the next, but I think some people were thinking about blood or a tampon commercial.” He described the themes and focus of the album shifting—With Teeth is ultimately a much more personal work about his struggles with getting clean. However, some of the references to the original title of the work still appear in the released album. As a matter of fact, lyrics directly referencing “bleeding through” appear in a couple of songs: “Every Day is Exactly the Same” and “Beside You In Time.” Additionally, other songs, such as “Right Where It Belongs” or “The Line Begins to Blur” feature suggestions of layers of reality seeping into the next.
A lyric sheet, which Spiral members received as an oversized poster, accompanied the album, and included some tantalizing hints to a broader story.
Reznor is also no stranger to hiding additional lyrics in the liner notes of his previous records—all of them featured lines that weren’t used in the finished songs. But the With Teeth lyric sheet had whole songs that had been cut out. Never mind the vinyl-only track “Home” or the live-only “Non-Entity,” neither of which were included in the lyric sheet, but poems called “Message to No One,” “The Warning” (which may or may not have been related to the later Year Zero track), and “The Life You Didn’t Lead,” as well as a song titled “My Dead Friend” that he name-checked in a message board post. Reznor had a batch of ideas that he wasn’t using that had changed and morphed into the final With Teeth product.
It’s also important to take into account the Chuang Tse/Ursula K. Le Guin reference in relation to what Bleedthrough was going to be about. The Lathe of Heaven was the story of a man whose dreams could reshape reality, which he was trying to manage with drugs. George Orr (an obvious reference to 1984 and Animal Farm author George Orwell), after stealing a “pharma-card” to get drugs, is assigned a therapist, William Haber, who uses a machine to augment and dominate Orr’s abilities. You can see the influence this had on the Reznor of the early 2000s both through his statement about “the different layers of reality seeping into the next” and his getting clean—but especially the lyrics that were left in: “feel the little pieces bleeding through.”
After With Teeth, Reznor embarked on another ambitious concept album, Year Zero. This one was about a dystopian future fifteen or so years down the line, where a resistance movement struggles against a totalitarian government while strange phenomena occur involving giant hands reaching down from the sky, referred to as “The Presence.” He slowly unveiled this story through an elaborate alternate reality game of websites (created by 42 Entertainment). With each website, a glimpse of the world was revealed, a sort of snapshot of what Reznor thought the dystopian future would look like. The ARG may have been more popular at the time than the record, which Reznor has defended as “a great fucking album.” The story on the album does have a discernible storyline thread, that may involve a president-like character (see “Capital G”) who is coerced through drugs (“The Greater Good”) to launch nukes (“The Great Destroyer”), which triggers the Presence phenomena to an apocalyptic event (“Zero Sum”). Reznor even pursued a possible Year Zero television show, which would’ve been produced by Lawrence Bender.
Some of the glimpses of the Year Zero world revealed by the websites included: * The Presence—a ghostly hand that reaches down from the sky, theorized to be linked possibly to drugs laced in public water supplies. However, the phenomenon appears on both a small scale, such as to graffiti vandals, and on a large scale, such as at a stock car racing event. Relates to the song “The Warning.” * Angry Sniper—a prominent character on a message board, a former soldier on a killing spree. Relates to the song “The Good Soldier.” * Opal and Parepin—a pair of drugs that may be related to one another. Opal is considered “The new crack” and induces feelings of euphoria and possible religious epiphany. Relates to the song “Vessel.” * Art is Resistance—a resistance movement against the totalitarian government, characterized by a spray-painted flag stencil. Relates to the song “My Violent Heart.” * Judson Ogram Correctional Facility—a prison, similar to Guantanamo, for criminals related to Art is Resistance or people who mention the Presence. Not necessarily related to a single song, but many Nine Inch Nails songs after Year Zero include references to imprisonment, such as “Echoplex,” “Various Methods of Escape,” and “The Idea of You.” * Church of Plano—a right wing, conservative group preparing for the apocalypse, similar to the real-world Westboro Baptist Church. Related to the song “God Given.”
* U.S. Bureau of Morality—a government agency tasked with suppressing dissidence, regulating all forms of media. This bureau is specifically illustrated in the music video for the song “Survivalism.” * Secure Broadcast Informatics/The Solutions Backward Initiative—a group of scientists attempting to send information back in time using quantum computing to warn people about the world of Year Zero. This is meant to be an explanation for how people in 2007 were finding these websites. * Numbers formatted 24.x.y (for instance, a website would be found with the number 24.1.1 as a sort of tag for the site). A list of “known subversives” (corresponding to names/handles on fan club site The Spiral) was included on one of the websites.
After the success of the ARG, fans have speculated about a possible Year Zero sequel, which probably would’ve coincided with the television series that never materialized. Elements of Year Zero have popped up in multiple places in Reznor’s catalog. For instance, on The Slip, the follow-up album released in 2008, the Art is Resistance flag stencil from Year Zero appears as artwork for the song “Letting You.” Other elements seem tangential on The Slip—“Echoplex” deals with isolation and imprisonment, and “Lights in the Sky,” as you might tell from the title, references something otherworldly in the sky, which might be The Presence and might not.
By the time Hesitation Marks, Nine Inch Nails ninth studio album (depending on how you count) was released in 2013, those Year Zero elements seemed to be mostly gone. For this album, Reznor said that he had returned to some of the ideas from The Downward Spiral, even using Russell Mills to once again create the album artwork. Like With Teeth, it deals with more identifiably personal topics such as drug abuse, feelings of obsolescence, insecurity, and mortality. There’s also a thread of disappointment in the political discourse in the Obama years—With Teeth and Year Zero were certainly an angry response to the George W. Bush era.
2013 also saw the first full-length album from How to Destroy Angels, Reznor’s collaboration with Atticus Ross, his wife Mariqueen Maandig-Reznor (whom he wed in 2009), and his longtime art director Rob Sheridan. This album, Welcome Oblivion, shared a heavy synth and processed drum machine sound similar to Year Zero. Could this be where those Year Zero sequel ideas went? Aside from the similar sound, some thematic elements remained. Technological apocalypse, entities in the sky, and repeated lyrics. Trent and Mariqueen harmonize “the beginning is the end” on “The Loop Closes,” similar to one of the opening tracks of Year Zero, “The Beginning of the End.” On “We Fade Away,” Trent whispers, “breathe” repeatedly, similar to Year Zero’s “The Greater Good.” But an additional thematic element was introduced on Welcome Oblivion—waking up. This is something we’ll come back to later.
At the end of 2016, Reznor surprised the world with a new EP, Not the Actual Events, with the lead single “Burning Bright (Field on Fire).” The interesting part of this track is the quiet closing lyrics, “I can’t tell if I am dreaming anymore,” lyrics that recurred from the previously mentioned HTDA track “We Fade Away.” (“Burning Bright” also features a repeated refrain of “breathe” over and over.) He also announced that this would be the first in a set of three EPs, the second of which, Add Violence, was released in 2017, peppered with more Welcome Oblivion, Year Zero, and even Bleedthrough references. Could these references mean that many of the works since With Teeth are part of an interconnected narrative, something spawned from those early Lathe of Heaven references?
With Add Violence, Reznor said, “What the obsessives maybe don’t know is that if I were to explain everything to you, or just explicitly lay out what the new EP is about, you’d only be disappointed. You don’t really want to know. The experience of grappling with the thing is what makes it interesting, not the immediate gratification of going, ‘Oh, that’s what it means.'” (Author’s Note: And here I am, an obsessive, laying it out.)
The album artwork and the “physical component” that could be ordered through nin.com provide perhaps the most tantalizing threads for this narrative theory. The artwork depicts a control panel (“Panel K” according to the physical component, which is referred to as a quick reference guide for the machine, model number 24.0.00, using the numbering system from Year Zero) with a number of gauges, components, and adjustors. Some of these have very direct links to Year Zero—including a “Presence Console” and a “Termination Event Estimation” gauge. If you assemble the clues from the Panel K quick reference guide, you’re meant to infer that Year Zero was a simulated reality. The Presence Console measures interference in that simulated reality, which is estimated to terminate at 2022—the year that Year Zero is supposed to take place according to the alternate reality game.
A few other interesting items in the quick reference guide: * A mention of “self-aware substructures” roughly correlating to the number of people on earth. This term is related to the cosmological theory called the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis put forth by Max Tegmark, that “our external physical reality is a mathematical structure,” and is in line with a layer of the multiverse, of which Tegmark claims there are four levels. * A mention of the Kardashev Scale, which is a method of measuring a civilization’s level of technological advancement. Type I is a planetary civilization that can use and store all energy that reaches the planet from its parent star, and we’re not even at that level yet. Type II uses all energy from that star. Type III controls all energy from its entire galaxy.
You might be able to see how some of this could have been inspired by The Lathe of Heaven—Panel K is somewhat similar to the Augmenter of Le Guin’s novel. Reznor has indicated that Not the Actual Events and Add Violence, two of the three parts of the EP triptych, are part of a single story, and connecting these other works to the story through lyrical references and physical components means those works are part of the story too—as a matter of fact, they reach back to The Fragile and The Downward Spiral as well. Maybe it’s a unified theory of Nine Inch Nails.
The most prominent theme of the two EPs is sleeping and dreaming. “Yes, everyone seems to be asleep” he repeats in NTAE’s “Dear World.” As previously mentioned in “Burning Bright (Field on Fire),” “I can’t tell if I am dreaming anymore.” On Add Violence, “I can’t seem to wake up” echoes throughout “Not Anymore.” As a matter of fact, that last lyric is the name of Nine Inch Nails’ tour in 2017-2018. After dismissing Bleedthrough and The Lathe of Heaven over a decade ago, Reznor appears to be exorcising the story finally—a series of interconnected works that detail multiple layers of reality through sleeping and dreaming, determining what are and what are not the actual events.
“Because I don’t want to change things!” Orr said, as if stating the superobvious. “Who am I to meddle with the way things go? And it’s my unconscious mind that changes things, without any intelligent control. I tried autohypnosis but it didn’t do any good. Dreams are incoherent, selfish, irrational—immoral, you said a minute ago. They come from the unsocialized part of us, don’t they, at least partly? I didn’t want to kill poor Ethel. I just wanted her out of the way. Well, in a dream, that’s likely to be drastic. Dreams take short cuts. I killed her. In a car crash a thousand miles away six weeks ago. I am responsible for her death.” – Ursula K Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven
It’s not as simple as waking up in The Matrix or in the sense of Plato’s famous “cave” allegory. If there’s a control panel, then there’s someone controlling the simulation. Maybe that’s where The Lathe of Heaven parallel is the strongest. In Le Guin’s novel, George Orr is a weak and submissive figure, despite having the godlike powers of dreams that reshape reality. It’s William Haber, the psychiatrist and dream specialist, who dominates and abuses George’s power until he puts himself in the Augmenter, where he suffers a nervous breakdown that nearly destroys all of reality. In the Add Violence narrative, who is in control of Panel K? Someone is clearly inside the machine, but since the controls are manual, someone needs to be outside as well. Perhaps someone submitted to be placed inside, at the mercy of someone without—just like in Le Guin’s story.
To muddy the waters, Reznor posted a picture to his Instagram account of a Panel J (which comes before K alphabetically) accompanied by the term “Nescience” and an equation: G = X ·10-Y, which may be related to the Kardashev Scale portion of Panel K. The variable G typically refers to a gravitational constant, while X and Y are typically unknown variables. The dial on Panel J is a knob with the labels Nescient, Cognitive, and Conscious (pointing to Nescient). The definition of nescience is ignorance.
The Wake Up
Connecting the dots here in Reznor’s loose narrative, a character exhibiting symptoms of mental illness is caught between sleep, dream, and conscious states, but may actually be experiencing a simulated reality controlled by one or more external beings, whose physical or “background” world bleeds through, causing the symptoms of the mental illness—anxiety caused by disorder, or rather, how the external world affects one’s inner mental health, and perhaps vice versa. How we reshape our reality.
How all this connects to the other pieces of the narrative—the Year Zero world, the apocalyptic aftermath of Welcome Oblivion, or the earlier story threads of Bleedthrough remains to be seen. The description for Add Violence on nin.com exclaimed, “PART TWO. THE VIEW WIDENS AND EVERYTHING IS IN QUESTION.” Perhaps the third EP, whenever we receive it, will widen the scope further to close the narrative or provide us with ever more tantalizing clues. He could explain it all to us, but why should he? He’s a friend of David Lynch and a proponent of JJ Abrams “mystery box” style of storytelling, as noted in his earlier quote. The fun is not being told what the answer is, but in engaging the content to come up with our own answers. After all, the truth is that it’s all Trent Reznor’s world—it’s all Nine Inch Nails’ music—so it is all connected in that literal sense. How we interpret and shape that reality is up to us. After an artist releases their work to the world, it no longer belongs to the artist—and that’s the struggle. Reznor can keep the tightest of control over his work, but once it’s released… we are inside Panel K and he is at the controls—or is it the other way around?
“When you sleep, you don`t control your dream. I like to dive into a dream world that I’ve made, a world I chose and that I have complete control over.” – David Lynch
If you enjoyed this essay and science fiction stories that are also about different layers of reality seeping through to the next, check out my author page on Amazon. My first book, THE ERASED, is about imprisonment, artificial intelligence, and transcendence. My most recent series, I AM MERCURY, delves into multiple genres and multiple realities—journalists digging for the truth, spies looking to obscure it, fugitives on the run from it, and protestors dedicated to it. You can also follow me on twitter @heathen_king.