Thursday, August 27, 2015

Helluva Band: Nine Inch Nails

Hello and welcome to another edition of Helluva Band, where I dissect and discuss a particular band or artist I have grown to enjoy, thus forever ruining your experience of listening to them with my overanalytical gobbledygook.

Today I'll be talking about Nine Inch Nails, easily the most famous and well-respected of all industrial rock bands, and brainchild of enigmatic visionary Trent Reznor (Is there a cooler name in rock music?).  I'll discuss their/his various works and how I came to be a fan.

I first became aware of Nine Inch Nails in high school in the early 90s, mostly because the "alternative" kids had the logo sewn or drawn on their bookbags and jackets.  I had no idea what the band was all about and figured it was some sort of punk outfit, based solely on which of my classmates listened to them.  I myself was a metal guy, preferring the chunky guitar riffage and gutteral vocals of Metallica and Megadeth, and paid little attention to much else (The Beatles were an exception). 

At this time MTV had a weekly metal video show called Headbanger's Ball (goddamn this show was awesome) which aired from 11pm-2am every Saturday night.  I would stay up late long after my parents had retired for the evening and tape the videos I was interested in.  MTV used to be pretty spectacular back when they were actually MUSIC television.  One night a Nine Inch Nails video popped up on my TV screen for a song called "Wish."  This featured tinny, preamp-overdriven guitars and a fast, metal-ish tempo.  It was certainly unlike anything I had heard before, which at the time was a bad thing.  I wasn't terribly open to new and unusual music like I am these days, so I dismissed it as noisy crap.

The one that started it all.....

Two years later another Nine Inch Nails song started showing up in the rotation of my favorite station WAAF.  It had this weird, almost disco-esque feel to it, and the singer was blathering something about "fucking like an animal."  I'll be totally frank; I HATED this song when it came out.  It did nothing for me musically and I actually resented that metal fans everywhere (including some of my best friends) were embracing this wholly non-metal-sounding dance music with crude lyrics (Somehow I was rather uppity about including excessive cuss words in song lyrics even though I've had a mouth like a trucker since I was twelve).  Even my girlfriend at the time kinda liked the song and found it a little sexy; the idea of her enjoying another guy singing "I wanna fuck you like an animal" decidedly made me squirm.

Kinda looks like a guy about to eat a piece of poop.

So it's safe to say I had no intention of ever becoming a NIN fan.  Over the years they released other albums and few songs here and there caught my attention but I didn't really give them a fair chance.

Everything changed in 2009 (Yeah that's right, it took me fifteen years after "Closer" to come around.  Shut up.), during which time I was actively seeking out new music to add to my iPod (I honestly don't know where I'd be without this modern technological marvel), and one of my friends brought over his external hard drive for me to peruse.  I noticed his library included The Downward Spiral, which included that icky sex song that had so traumatized me in college.  Eh, what the hell, I thought.

I finally gave Mr. Reznor's breakthrough album a full listen without any sort of preconceived impulses, and I'll be goddamned if I didn't enjoy it.  From the power drill buffeting of "Mr. Self Destruct," to the sardonically mellow "Piggy," to the demented horror assault of "Becoming," to the awful finality of "Hurt," the album and its overarching concept of a man's descent into madness and suicide finally soaked in, and I was fascinated.  Few pieces of music are as psychologically complex or bursting with palpable dread.  The protagonist's process of shedding every layer of ethos until all that remains is self-revulsion makes for a haunting listening experience, particularly during the title track where his moment of destruction is augmented into a three-minute sound poem.  And I even finally embraced "Closer."

It's safe to say I was hooked at this point.  I went to Wikipedia to see what other albums were in Reznor's catalog and noticed that the newest one, 2008's The Slip, was released as a free download.  I obviously scooped that one up without hesitation, and while it's an uneven album (of the ten songs three of them are rather skippable instrumentals), the good tracks on there showed pretty fantastic songwriting maturity.  "1,000,000" features a driving snare beat with a simplistic but awesomely memorable chorus, "Discipline" is undeniably hooky with an electronic dance groove, and the album closer "Demon Seed" has a very loose repetitive structure but due to its unusual time signature and over-the-barline guitar rhythms never gets old (One thing about Reznor is his uncanny gift for writing passages of music that can be repeated ad nauseum without ever overstaying their welcome).

I gave NIN's earliest works a day in court at this point, having long ago become a fan of "Head Like a Hole" from the debut Pretty Hate MachinePHM didn't click for me as a full album but there are a few standouts.  Besides "Hole" I like the simplistic late 80s electronica of "Terrible Lie," and the mournful piano driven "Something I Can Never Have."  As for the 1992-93 EPs Broken and Fixed, I found those a little too noise-heavy and one-note.

Love this cover but the EP itself never did it for me.

Now it was time to catch up on what I'd missed since 1994.  Reznor went five full years after The Downward Spiral before finally releasing a double album called The Fragile, in 1999.  I had heard bits and pieces of this one before, specifically the single "We're in This Together Now," and the poignant, layered-vocal-heavy title track (which remains one of my favorite NIN songs), but had never given the other 21 songs a shot.  The theme of this album was a central character trying in vain to keep the pieces of his life from flying apart.  While conceptually I didn't find this idea as intriguing as Spiral, I liked the music itself even more.  Both melodically and in terms of songwriting and nuanced layers, The Fragile offers a richly detailed and complex auditory experience, including several atmospheric instrumental tracks like "Pilgrimage" (which for me conjures images of a biblical epic) and the dance-poppy "Complication."  Other standouts include the aforementioned title track (Reznor describes this as the closest he'll ever come to writing a love song), another vocal harmony-laden song called "Into the Void," and the desolate, nihilistic "The Day the World Went Away."  The Fragile is heavy on guitars and other stringed instruments to convey a sense of imperfection; of pieces that don't quite fit together.  It was a deeply personal album for Reznor, who at the time was struggling with serious drug and depression issues.

Reznor checked into rehab shortly after this and would reemerge in the public eye six years later, releasing With Teeth.  This album was a much more straightforward rock album, peppered with industrial and electronic elements.  Dave Grohl lent his drum talents on several of the tracks, and the result is a very streamlined, radio-friendly, dark rock n' roll record, on which Reznor bares all, detailing his long and emotional journey to sobriety.  The overall tone of With Teeth is much more optimistic than its predecessors, communicating an almost defiant message of "I'm not goin' anywhere!"  My favorites on this album include the instantly hooky, melodic pop of "All the Love in the World," the epic addiction confessional "Every Day is Exactly the Same," and the pensive, somber piano ballad "Right Where It Belongs."  I found With Teeth instantly outstanding and gave it repeated listens.  It was briefly my favorite NIN album, that is until I discovered Year Zero.

Released in 2007, Year Zero is a brilliant political/sci-fi concept record exploring the potential consequences of the current American geo-political landscape.  As the story begins, the country has become a corporate/religious police state, where independent thought is squashed and the populace is fed drugs via the water supply to keep them compliant and docile.  As this abuse of government power escalates, the planet is visited by "The Presence," in the form of scores of giant hands that reach down from the sky (Are they aliens? God?  This is deliberately left vague.), punishing the human race for squandering its massive potential.  Musically the album is unlike any of NIN's other work.  The electronic elements really drive the music, in the form of dissonant, abrasive soundscapes.  There is a very stripped-down sensibility to the album, echoing the harsh alternate reality of the story contained within.  Standouts include the brutally austere "Survivalism" with its gang-style chanted chorus, the scathing anti-corporate commentary of "Capital G," and the bleak, apocalyptic one-two punch of the album's denouement, "In This Twilight" and "Zero Sum," in which the entire human race is seemingly wiped out after failing to redeem itself.  The musical and conceptual ingenuity on display here is staggering.  Reznor has created a detailed, intricate universe contained within a 64-minute piece of music while defying all conventions of rock.  The ambient electronic pads are woven into an aggressive backdrop, over which Reznor's vocals angrily stab at the tenets of an uncaring, short-sighted and self-important society.  This is NIN's masterpiece.

Dude, it's a GIANT HAND!

I next gave Ghosts I-IV (Reznor's quadruple album of instrumental tracks) a listen but didn't find enough there to sink my teeth into.  It makes for interesting background music though.

Upon becoming a confirmed Nine Inch Nails fanatic, I was chagrined to learn that as of 2009 Reznor had shelved his most popular musical venture in favor of focusing on film scoring (Reznor and producer Atticus Ross scored David Fincher movies The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and The Social Network, for which they won the Best Film Score Oscar).  "Figures," I thought.  "I finally get into this stuff and I'll probably never be able to see them in concert." 

He looks like an anime character!

Then in 2013 Reznor released Hesitation Marks, the first new Nails album in five years.  Its sound somewhat melds The Fragile and With Teeth, though with a heavier emphasis on syncopated electronic beats, and with more of a simplistic pop vibe.  While not as much of a groundbreaking effort as some of the previous NIN albums, Hesitation Marks fits very comfortably in the overall catalog and measures up admirably.  Top tracks include the super-hooky "Copy of A," with its polyrhythmic math-rock elements, "Came Back Haunted," which sounds like the quintessential NIN radio single, the somber "Various Methods of Escape," and the understated, defeatist, but endlessly fascinating "While I'm Still Here," featuring the first use of a saxophone on a Nine Inch Nails album.

In 2014 I finally got to see NIN live in concert, and it was a pretty spectacular thing to behold.  Reznor brings an amazingly emotional energy to every song, seemingly conjuring at will his mental state at the time he wrote each one.  The set list was missing some of my favorites and The Fragile was conspicuously unrepresented, but between the innovative use of projection screens and complex lighting effects I found the overall experience almost cinematic.  Alas my wife was disappointed to find that Trent Reznor is not the emaciated, mopey waif she expected, but a physically fit late-40s man with an almost jockish appearance.

Here's what she was expecting to see.

And here's the badass motherfucker
who appeared on stage.

As my musical tastes have broadened over the years I've found myself wanting to go back in time and slap 19-year-old Justin across the face for being so dismissive.  Then again, discovering an older band's entire back catalog at once is a lot of fun, and it also allows me to be completely objective in terms of deciding which albums constituted their best work. 

In becoming a fan of Nine Inch Nails I've found Trent Reznor to be an amazingly inventive, musically fearless auteur, creating a truly original form of sonic art using both positive and negative energy to shape his vision.  The use of full-album concepts and storylines adds weight and dimension to each work as a whole, bestowing purpose to the individual tracks.  He has crafted and influenced an entire sub-genre of rock music, tailoring unique sounds and instruments for his musical tool kit, and unrelentingly furthering the notion of popular music as art, in an era when it is increasingly plummeting into the bucket of Product.  Nine Inch Nails is not so much a band as an entity; the reimagining of an analog music form into a digital pressure cooker of rage, depression, morbid self-examination, and ultimately in the case of Mr. Reznor, redemption.

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