Nine Inch Nails review

Posted September 8, 2008 in
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Deerhunter and Nine Inch Nails September 3rd 2008 E Center

Many years ago, fans went to a Nine Inch Nails show for two reasons: to hear how the band could turn Trent Reznor’s headphone music into the Tenth Level of Hell and to watch this group smash enough instruments to fill a Guitar Center. The light and stage show was pretty clever too, screens projecting decaying foxes and when-nature-turns-evil attacks, but you really didn’t care as long as Reznor and co., dressed and acting like Road Warriors, destroyed our ears and the stage.

But that was 1994.

2005 was my wakeup call that Nine Inch Nails, live, included a crucial element: Reznor’s recent sobriety. Add the then-recent heart ailment of drummer Jerome Dillon, a replacement drummer (now permanent drummer Josh Freese) two days before the Salt Lake show, guitarist Aaron North’s Joe Perry style dress and performance (someone Reznor once described as “that guy you just look at and want to punch in the face”) and the complete disregard for stage prop ruin (at one point, Reznor ran over to a statue, thought about smashing it, hesitated and ended up simply resting over it) and you have a show I wasn’t really sold on. I didn’t feel old, and I always try my best to avoid the need for nostalgia, but I sure longed for the salad days when audience members had to beware of falling mic stands, keyboard circuitry and guitarists. Keeping all this in mind, trying to have an open opinion about what might (or might not) happen, we sat in our seats on September 3rd, 2008...

This prelude is overly dramatic, but that is how anyone feels when faced with the idea that one of his favorite bands might actually slip into a broken, fragile downward spiral. Ahem.

Openers Deerhunter, a quintet a burly guy in the bathroom described as “like…Coldplay, or one of those bands” and the mid-40’s blue collar men behind us called “these yuppies” (I don’t think some of the crowd leaves their insulated bubbles too often), faced NIN fans who did their best to feign interest. Actually, for a band that maybe four people in the audience had heard of and despite the horrendous bass response of the E Center, they played their little indie, shoegazer-meets-Joy Division hearts out, and people clapped at the end of each song.

Oh no, sound issues too. Maybe?

Two minutes into NIN’s first track, “1,000,000”, and all my fears disappear; bang go the drums, growl goes space-aged, silver suited, Last of the Mohicans guitarist Robin Finck (fresh back from a lengthy stint as the replacement Slash in Guns ‘n’ Roses), out runs Trent, scream goes Alessandro Cortini’s modular synth and chug goes the earth shattering sound of long-time Beck bassist Justin Medal-Johnsen. Having replaced his live crew for pretty much every tour, Reznor has finally found the perfect mix, musically and visually; especially Finck and Freese whose boundless energy, commanding stage presence and virtuosity could someday allow the band to become a trio.

During the fourth song, “March of the Pigs”, I had an epiphany. Yes, I was excited to hear this old music – even just to see a crowd attempt to nod their heads in 7/8 time – but I was chomping at the bit to hear works from Year Zero (2007) and on, and I was actually relieved when they finished said track and launched into the detuned Master of Reality-esque “Head Down” (from 2008’s The Slip). Sure, the precise “how did he make those?” synthetic drums of “The Wretched” tickle my soul and the haunted screams of “Gave Up” still conjure up angst-ridden memories, but the newer music off the three recent NIN albums such as “The Warning”, “Survivalism” and the spectacular instrumental pieces from Ghosts (“V”, “XXV”, “XIX”) where the intimate ensemble included a full marimba, upright bass and stripped-down percussion kit (the Salt Lake audience didn’t really know how to react to this sudden “lax” and spent most of it yelling, farting because of excessive nacho intake, loudly discussing their day and waiting for the band to play “Piggy”) all definitely surpassed hearing “Head Like a Hole” for the millionth time.

Hardly any equipment was harmed during the entirety of the set, but it wasn’t missed. How did Reznor compensate? By employing a brilliant light show that would require schematics and a power point to properly understand without actually witnessing the show; it leaves anything I’ve ever seen, by any band (including Kraftwerk, Bjrk and Depeche Mode), wishing it hadn’t been born. Screens buried under screens buried under facades pumping out digitized visuals dreamt up on the Holodeck: white flashes turn to light-sensitive pixelized rain that disappears when touched with analog flashlights; an imaginary circular amphitheater formed of myriad colors tenuously locks around the stage as foliage steadily grows around the band; a gigantic step-sequenced drum machine appears and Freese selects the bass/snare/cymbal pattern of “Echoplex” like Vanna White turning tiles.

Nine Inch Nails is a different band than the one who wore corn-rows and covered themselves in flour while playing “Sin” over a four-track, but didn’t I like them in the first place for being a group who evolves? While you grind on your girlfriend and wave your hands in something that resembles flexing-meets-West-Side during “Closer”, pummel people in the head during “The Hand That Feeds” (pummel a girl half your size in the face, that is, asshole) and light your lighters during “Hurt”, I will be the one sitting down, reverently in a trance, during a marimba and sleigh bell solo.