In the late 80's, no one knew what “Industrial” Music was. Depeche Mode was still just in an infancy, and at the time the biggest purveyors of the sound consisted of underground bands like Ministry and Skinny Puppy. Both are great, but it lacked that more contemporary sound than would get them major airplay. In Mercer earlier in his life, and Cleveland after that, Trent Reznor had an idea to bridge the gap. Reznor's approach was more in the form of mixing the world of Industrial as well as bringing more pop sensibilities to the environment.
The result was 1989's “Pretty Hate Machine.” Its release is still one of the best examples of a divisive sound being refined and altered into something pars cold, pars catchy aesthetic The first track on the album, and one of the band's most popular songs even today, “Head Like a Hole,” found a interesting and wanting crowd of underground music fans who were willing enough to give the band a chance. Much of the album is subdued compared to what would come later, but it sets the stage, albeit it in a more cautious way, but with anger and frustration spilling gradually over. Songs like “Terrible Lie,” “Sin” and “Kinda I Want to '' have beats that are so common now in theme that the record still holds up truer, and better than before.
The album also gives us a brief glimpse into how well rounded he is as an instrumentalist. The best example of this is the hauntingly dark “Something I Can Never Have.” Having been a piano player from a very early age, Reznor was very proficient at the instrument. This is glaringly obvious here. He builds the tension quietly and deliberately at first with soft but ominous undertones, but the sound gradually progresses to a textural palette that is vibrant in ways that most dark music rarely reaches. One of the best uses of his voice is his ability to convey a certain pain. This is done expertly on “SICNH,” but it won't be the last,
Like many musicians who are getting into the industry for the first time, Reznor felt unfulfilled by what his current label, TVT was willing to do to get the record out and heard. If you watched the amazing docuseries “The Defiant Ones,” Reznors recalls being told the debut record was “an abortion,” so you can see what he was dealing with. To get away from that awful aura, the band launched touring as part of the inaugural Lollapalooza tour, and alongside Jane's Addiction, the Rollins Band, and Living Colour, the band finally got to know a much deserved bigger audience.
During this period, feeling as though stuck and obviously pissed off, Reznor put together a short, violent EP called “Broken.” Recorded in secret and enraged, it wasn’t until Jimmy Iovine of Interscope records fame was able to get Reznor, and by definition nin, out from under TVT that the existence of the record became known. It’s a simple and thorough fuck you to Reznors former label and chief Steve Gottlieb. The album is insanely intense and very unlike PHM, but tracks like “Last,” “Gave Up” are stand out classics. “Broken” is also where the violent, oftens sexually exploited content in videos start to arrive.. “Wish” essentially takes place in a chaotic, strobe lit, prison, and “Pinion” depicts a toilet being flushed into a man's mouth while he wears a lovely BDSM outfit. Even those don't top the list of intensity though. The two biggest examples of the change in tone are “Happiness in Slavery” and an underground video never officially released called “Broken.” “Happiness” sees a man who begins by getting pleasured by a machine, but quickly it turns sadistic as the man is tortured, killed, and eventually put through a meat grinder. You can imagine the curiosity of a 16 year old boy watching this.
The worst though, the “Broken” video is so insane it's only been known to circulate in unofficial states. What we see here is simple. A man convinces a younger man to come home with him, and various methods of torture ensue. The footage in intercut with the other proper music videos, but the damage is done slowly as you see the killer take his anger out on this poor, poor soul. It's so bad and realistic it was rumored to be investigated by the FBI. During this time the band decided to relocate to Los Angeles and record in the house where the Manson family killed Sharon Tate. It's almost as if you can hear the effect it had on the music.
That album, “The Downward Spiral,” is not only a crowning achievement for forward thinking rock music, but also for Reznor himself. The instrumental aspects on this record are beyond anything you had ever heard from this genre before, not just in scope but in the array of sounds and textures conjured up in the studio. The album opens with a sample from “THX 1138,” and “Mr. Self Destruct” tears through in a vicious wave.
To put it mildly, this album was a severe game changer for the every member, but now Reznor was front of center, the parents' new modern nightmare. In a matter of months, and on the back of a legendary performance at Woodstock 94, Nin found themselves filling arena's instead of halls and theaters, and were the ire of concerned good people everywhere. They became the “edgy” bands lame television shows like the “Nanny” name dropped to make the kids seem rebellious.
The album itself, which tells the story of a man slowly descending into utter madness, is full of amazingly intricate beats, soundscapes and sheer madness for the duration. Unorthodox beats perfectly build the tension during songs like “Piggy” and “Ruiner,” while also managing to make beautiful and eye opening creations in a track like “A Warm Place.” Technically speaking, there really isn't a bad song on the album. “March of the Pigs” is still a brute force track, and one of the best to see in a live performance setting. Literally I remember seeing the band in Shreveport where the crowd got so intense during the track that I realized my feet were off the ground and I was just going with the flow of bodies for a good 15 seconds. When you hear Reznor scream “March!” there's this undeniable urge to be apart of a frenzy, and it's one of the best experiences during a concert I can ever recall. Like I said, intense.
If you had to pick out one song that played the biggest role in NIN’s transformation to giant band though, the song you mention more than likely is “Closer,” The chorus of “I wanna fuck you like an animal” is a little bit played out these days, but that's only because the song is so absurdly well known. In truth though, it's a great song, and the overwhelming beat throughout is classic. Even the video itself is a masterpiece. The way the images are able to stay with you and haunt you is a great ploy by Mark Romanek to create a video creepy enough to compliment the song. If you live under a rock and haven't seen it, check it out. One of the classic videos from the decade. The song was at the right place at the right time, and for better and worse, it changed the whole trajectory of Reznor's career.
Now, these shows weren’t as technical as some of the future tours, but the gothic sheeting, battered drum and keyboard stands, and dirty outfits of the band, all made for one of the most memorable tours of the early 90’s, but the chaotic, almost juvenile behavior represented by the band and their tour mates made it difficult to go back to normal life. By the time Downward Spiral's two year tour was over, Reznor was a mess. There has been drama between Courtney Love and various others, not to mention drugs and alcohol had taken over his life, and one top of that, people were greatly anticipating his return to the studio to create new music. Usually in the music industry, you strike while the iron is hot, but for Reznor, and his bandmates like Loehner, Finck, and Clouser and things would never be the same. Five years passed before we would hear anything new.
“The Fragile” years proved to be both amazing and horrible for Reznor. His grandmother, who had raised him, passed away, and on top of all that, his long time dog also passed away. Now I've dealt with my grandparents all dying, but I can't imagine the difficulty of losing both a grandparent and my animal in a small amount of time. As you can imagine, this didn't help the addiction situation much, and it just got worse.
Thankfully, after years of waiting, and years of Reznor working on the project, word slowly got out that the album was actually completed, and would be arriving very soon. While “The Downward Spiral” is the best known album, “The Fragile” remains the best record of his career. It's a monument to sadness, difficulties, and the emotional core of the record touches on things that still strike a chord. Most of the hardcore fans I know instantly recognize the album as a masterpiece, and it's been mentioned by Reznor more than once that it's his favorite album in the NIN cannon. To listen to it it isn't hard to understand why. At over twenty songs, and two hours of music, song after song delivers in ways that the previous song didn't. “The Day the World Went Away” bellows with an ethereal chamber quality, while others like the catchy “Into the Void” make you wonder what's coming next.
From the opening moments of “Somewhat Damaged,” the level of production, detail and songwriting skill are abundantly well done, but just as it was with TDS, the sadness and reflecting nature of the lyrics take the main attention. It reeks of isolation, fear, contempt for the world, and most importantly, the continuation of exacting beats and thoughtfully concise movements that evolve at times over multiple songs.
The album's diversity is pretty astounding, even today. During his career, Reznor had been known to toss in instrumental tracks on releases, and “The Fragile” is no exception. Some of these are among the best songs on the whole record. “Pilgrimage” hits you toward the end of the Left Disc, and the imagery painted makes you instantly think of a Nazi march. The best though, comes in the way of “Just Like You Imagined.” To put it bluntly, it's a killer intense song, and it's probably the best instrumental track ever made under the nin moniker. It was used brilliantly in a trailer for 300, but it’s rarely played live, unfortunately.
When we discuss these tracks, sometimes the term “instrumental” is used loosely. Some of the songs do contain voice work, but in these moments the vocals are used more ethereally, and not meant to be crucial to the finished product. It just helps with the overall tone of what he was trying to convey. Above all else, Reznor is an amazing producer and composer, and in the pursuit of his ultimate vision, he never missteps.it may take time, but the finished product is almost always worth the wait.
A big aspect of the album, obviously has to do with the loss of grandmother Clara. The song, “I'm Looking Forward to Joining you, Finally” always rang a chord within me, even long before the death of my own grandparents. This song is one of the most darkly honest on the whole album, and also gives a peek into the type of mindset he was in during that album.
It's rare that a piece of music containing so much can at the same time be so effective and enjoyable, with little to no filler. Certain songs clearly aren't the strongest, but more or less the songs do an excellent job of showcasing various aspects of Reznor's unique sound. You have tracks like “The Wretched” or “Somewhat Damaged” that have the vibes from other records, filled with negativity, great beats, and some of the best usages of imagery on the entire album. As a composer, TR has always been able to make you feel part of the world, and on tracks like the two mentioned, you're instantly pulled into the world.
But the listener also gets hints of positivity and beauty. “Were in This Together” is an instant classic, and while it's been hugely ignored during live shows since its release, every listen makes it worth the wait. Between the gradual buildup of electronic components and the awe inspiring vocal work, it still holds up even twenty years after its release.
The next thing that stands out about this album is the thought process that went into it. By this point the man behind the Nine Inch Nails brand was heavily into assorted substances, and that's part of the reason the completion of the album took so long. Having said that though, to hear the finished product and to be aware of the giant mountain he was climbing during this makes “The Fragile” even more of a once in a lifetime, landmark album. The sounds emanating from the speakers when you press play are light years ahead of the previous albums, and the way it was produced by the great Alan Moulder really lays a underscored tension to the overall feel of the record.
In the end though, the album and the tour were big successes, although it nearly drove Reznor over the edge. He sank all of his money into the tour, and had been pushed to the edge of sanity. Much like the character he had portrayed for two albums, he had become a man who was on the verge of becoming “Ripe, With Decay.” In the end though, the album gave fans a goldmine of material, and years on, and with the subsequent release of the “Definitive Edition” vinyl, fans get to hear classics like “We’re in This Together,” “The Great Below,” and many others in a different yet highly worthy way.
Again, a significant amount of time(five years), passed. What emerged was a completely different person. News began to trickle out regarding the newly “reunited” and energized Nine Inch Nails, and as that news became known, we found out a few things. One, he had been hiding the whole time, getting sober and getting his head right to make sure he still felt as though he had something to contribute to the world of music. Secondly, we found out that indeed, he did have something to give to us, and third, that album “With Teeth,” would be out soon. The album itself, while good, is often cited as one of their weaker records to date. Certain parts feel like NIN, but it's more rooted in rock then the industrial tinged, electronic effects of the past. Since the release of the album, Reznor has stated that the album was a little bit more forced, and also the result of him trying to make sure he could still write music.
Some of the songs though, are quintessential nin. “The Hand that Feeds,” has a certain ability to be steeped in rock, but also embraces slight twinges of their beat driven past. Honestly, it's one of the better singles they've ever released, and one of the best songs on “With Teeth.”
Another among the other great tracks on the album, for my money, is “The Line Begins to Blur.” The thump driven quality of the beat works well, and the lyrics are utterly reminiscent of something you might have heard on earlier records. Again, this is a winner among some good but not great songs.
One thing that Reznor has always been great at, for lack of a better word, would be slower songs, or “Ballads.” The term itself makes me think of horrible 80's rockers from Poison, or Bon Jovi, but the types of slow pieces TR composes are in a league of themselves, and demonstrate his high ability to compose thought provoking music. Often times it's these songs that are the most honest, self aware, and poignant on the albums. This is very much true in the case of album closer “Right Where it Belongs.” It follows in the footsteps of awesome but slow album closers like “Hurt,” and “The Great Below,” and is haunting to both see and hear displayed in a live setting. The imagery he sets up with the line “You keep looking but you can't find the woods, While you're hiding in the trees” shows a world where the person is trying to fight for what he believes is right, but he's so engrossed in the bullshit that change is impossible. Major, major changes must be made, and with this record, Reznor took the first step in changing many of the things that troubled him over the years.
As a brief aside, one of the things that has always stood out about Reznor's output has been his multiple re-mix albums, soundtrack selections, and b-sides. “Burn” off the Natural Born Killers soundtrack (which Reznor oversaw, and produced) is one of the best tracks in the whole canon, while the “Things Falling Apart” album is just as good as anything that he's released as a proper solo album. He's released four remix albums, contributed to at least three soundtracks, and even completed an album of slower versions of many previously released songs titled “Still.” And then there's the live albums, live concert DVD's, remixed albums where other bands take their shot at NIN tracks, and last but not least, various B- Sides that have never been officially released on a record. One of the best of those, “Non-Entity” was only released at part of the second disc of the live concert DVD “ Beside You in Time.” The song, along with the “With Teeth” b-side “Home” are two of the best tracks not easily available on proper albums or streaming services. After the success and tour of “With Teeth.” I was among the people that expected Reznor to take years to release a new album. Thankfully, I was very mistaken.
This part of the story begins with hidden portable hard-drives being discovered at various venues over the lands of Europe. A new world was being unraveled piece by piece, and this new world, this “Year Zero” was eventually announced. Among all the years I've been a fan of this band, this time period was easily the most refreshing, and exciting time to be a NIN fan. The websites, part of a brilliant and wide sweeping ARG campaign depicted a country ruled with an iron fist, where a mythological hand known as the “Presence” “came down from the sky” and horrified citizens of this country. Trying to find the sites was super fun too. Every time a new billboard, or website was unearthed, I'd run to it, finding new clues, and wondering what it all meant.
The resulting album, “Year Zero” is one of their best albums, period. It tells the story from various viewpoints of the resistance and of the state of those in power. Songs like “Survivalism” are both oppressive and inventive, and have the trademark sound not entirely heard in quite a long time from the band. The opposing forces in this universe unveil themselves in many songs, across many lives and perspectives. Songs like “Capital G” come from the perspective of a corrupt yet still hungry for power politician, while the uprising takes form in early track “The Beginning of the End.”
The album as a whole though, re-establishes Reznor's proclivity for stories and cohesiveness in albums, and it's one of the best, yet unappreciated concept albums of the last fifteen years. Many of the songs here are simply amazing. The whole album is very much made to make the listener contemplate the world we're living in and what we're allowing our “leaders” to get away with. Sadly, seeing as what we’re currently dealing with in terms of our nation's politics, the lesson and darkness surrounding the albums seems to have been a message many of us missed. It’s sad but true that in our current landscape, where politicians run spirits into the ground, while factioning sides are debating the pros and cons of slights.
In short, We simply care too much about the next iPhone launch, or what a reality TV star might be doing. The closing track of the album, the underscored and honest “Zero- Sum” finds us vulnerable, having been through a battle and having potentially lost it. The song is the defeated battle cry as both sides realized they were being made to fight against the other side by an enemy so intelligent, large and diligent, that we didn't find out if it was for nothing until it was all too late. Like the track says, “All we ever were, just zero's and one's”
From there, it was a crazy time to be a fan. In the year following “Year Zero,” not one, but two albums came straight out of nowhere. The first, “Ghost I-IV,” is by far the most interesting and left of center album(s) Reznor ever released under the Nine Inch Nails banner. Consisting of over thirty purely instrumental pieces, it's really impressive and eye-opening. Every song more or less, has elements that really hadn't been done by TR up until that point.
While not a huge seller and an album whos tracks are rarely featured live anymore, it has its merits. For one it forces the listener to see a different, more patient side of the band. Vocals are nowhere to be found, but its perfect for a great many settings. One of the reasons it's so well put together, for me, is because I think this was the stepping stone for Reznor starting to branch out into film. Seriously, those scores are probably better than anything on the “Ghosts” records, and they may have not been possible if he hadn't attempted it.
Following that, “The Slip” arrived with only a little bit more warning. More in line with the rest of his discography, “The Slip” has really amazing tracks. From the moment of the second track, “1,000,000” you feel right back inserted into the world the band fans have grown to love. It's not the best regarded album per se, but the tour that came with it was one of the best productions I've ever seen. Multi- layered screens filled the “Lights in the Sky Tour,” along with two full hours of chaos, and tracks from every album. It encompassed all of what Reznor wanted the band to be on the road. Honestly, seeing it the three times I was fortunate to was something I'll never forget, and I'm willing to bet a lot of other people feel the same way about that stage production.
Following the tour, it was announced that the band would be putting up their touring boots, and a very brief final run was announced. Over a few weeks of shows the band hit New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The performances were among the longest, and most historical in the bands history. On two separate occasions, the band played the breakout album, “The Downward Spiral” in full.
It would be another few years before Reznor showed his face as the creator of the band. Having done some great score work on a few David Fincher films, it had been four years since the world has witnessed Nine Inch Nails. Around that time, new music started to be recorded, under the pretense that would be part of a greatest hits collection, but eventually the songs morphed into a full length album. The result, “Hesitation Marks, would come out just in time for a round after summer festivals, and a full fall tour was planned. Everything’s from the idea of it as a sequel to the “Spiral” and the design work of Russel Millsreflect on that time.
The album itself is another exercise in TR pushing his limits and and the limitless potential of the band and the sound they helped to shape. Quite a few of the tracks are instant classics and among the bands best songs. “Copy of A” opens the album and is purely electronically driven, while “Came Back Haunted” and the subsequent David Lynch directed video is literally a sight for sore eyes.
Two of the best songs on the album though, are the full on funky and out of character “All Time Low,” which at once seems distant and familiar to fans of the previous works, and the slow, methodical “Various Methods of Escape.” “VMOE” especially is a stand out track, and upon hearing it was instantly thrust into the list of some of my favorite works ever created by Reznor.
The album's music, and even the artwork, were thought of largely as a companion piece to Spiral. In interviews, Reznor mentions that he came to view the album as a kind of witnessing what the character from that album might have been like if he went back to him. Long time fans were very much able to see the connections.
The band, of course, set out to tour for over a year, and saw many great stages and shared them with some awesome bands. Perhaps the best portion of the tour was the Soundgarden tour from the summer of 2014. That was without a question one of the single best shows I've ever seen in my life. I wished more shows like that happened. Just the chance to see two of your favorite bands from their era, both playing headlining sets(both played around 90 minutes) made it just a once in a lifetime day.
Again though, silence approached. This natural silence didn’t exclude any but official nin material though. In recent years, Reznor and now official band member Atticus Ross has begun to be known for the masterful score work. In the last few years alone, we’ve received blisteringly intricate scores for “ The Vietnam War” series, “ A Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and many others. But much like a sleeping beast, the time has come for new nine inch nails to enter the world.
And then of course the announcement comes. A new 6 song Ep titled “Not the Actual Events,” comes out on Christmas eve. it's typically intense in chunks, but it finds Reznor and Ross stretching in ways they haven’t in awhile. “Branches/Bones” is a short rocket into the atmosphere, while other songs like. The foreboding nature of tracks like “She’s Gone,” paints a picture of a smoky forest, then the final song “Burning Bright (Fields on Fire)” sets the musical landscape ablaze with thick swatch’s of sound and thickness. No the question is, could the next installment be better? What exactly were they going for?”
With “Add Violence,” we got a very firm,”most of the time.” “Less Than” is a political anthem that’s not completely meant to be, and one of the better of nins late stage career. Honestly the only not amazing song is “Not Anymore,” and still it’s pretty good. The record is nothing short of a brighter moment in Reznor and Ross’ career. “This Isn’t the Place,” is slow and deliberate, and nothing if not ominous. Then we glimpsed into “The Background World. This song is an instance classic to me, and it tors in much of what nin excelled at. The bea, vocals and finale are some of the best he’s cooked up recently.
Sadly, with all the fuss of the last section of the trilogy, it ended up not being quite on par with the other two, although it has its moments for sure. “Shit Mirror” is a decent opener for the band, but the best part for me is the experimentation. The visibility of the saxophone usage is great in itself, because it shows then still going and trying new things, which more bands should do.
After that though, a unique styled theater tour was announced, and with it fame much excitement, and a little bit of confusion. These exclusive multi night stops in cities were the first if style of these nin had done in a tour format, but the added surprise of fans having to actually go to the venue to buy tickets in person was something that simply isn’t done these days. It proves to be a decent hit, with fans being able to mingle and share in the excitement of actually getting tickets. I myself got a pair for the first and third night stand in New Orleans, and with the first show happening tomorrow, I couldn’t be more pumped.
The setlists for this tour has been remarkable, to say the least. Many deep cuts and b sides have been appearing, starting with never before played songs like “The Perfect Drug,” and the somber build of “And All That Could Have Been.” Last but certainly not least, the band opened the tour with a full performance of the brutal Ep “Broken,” which has so far appeared a few times throughout. These shows are bound to hold special places for nin fans and the band themselves, and they still aren’t done. It’ll be interesting to see where they go after this, but I’d be being selfish if I said I didn’t think the band didn’t deserve a nice restful sleep after all of this.
During Thanksgiving week, 16 months ago, I was fortunate enough to attend two of the three New Orleans Saengar shows, and they weren’t without plenty of special moments. Because both shows were so different and great though. Each show delivered plenty of tracks that aren’t in the normal rotation, but standouts like night 1’s “All the Love in the World,” “And All That Could Have Been” And the in your face “Last” from day #3 all helped to showcase that these middle age men can still blow away the younger bands in terms of sheer intensity. It’s not every day you get to see Reznor, Ross, Fink, Cortini and Rubin mix it up in an intimate venue, which makes it even more awesome and memorable.
Landon Murray is a New Orleans native, who thrives on painting the world he interprets through the useful forms of all types of art he feels connected to. He's seen over 1000 bands, and had loved mostly every minute of it. He has an amazing 10 year old dog, and is loving life.
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