Nine Inch

Originally published in Orange County Register on June 1, 2000

Times have indeed changed since Reznor's Nine Inch Nails unleashed its Pretty Hate Machine in 1989. Tuesday at the Arrowhead Pond, the leather and vinyl bondage fashions on some of the faithful looked positively quaint.

Yet the fire that fuels Reznor hasn't waned, judging from his band's surprisingly powerful, razor-sharp set -- from the crackle of microphone meeting stage to the stripped-down instrumentation that allowed his vocals to be the centerpiece.

It's all about self-loathing and despair, the futile but -- ah, hope! -- never-ending search for truth and love. Perhaps a limiting premise, but to Reznor there are are a thousand shades of black.

Unlike the current crop of rabble-rousing rockers, who encourage little more than petty vandalism from fans, Nine Inch Nails continues to challenge its audience. (It's unlikely you'll see Limp Bizkit attempt moody instrumental passages a few years hence, much less make them riveting.) NIN has released only two full studio albums since its debut, but both -- 1994's The Downward Spiral and last year's The Fragile -- have been artistic double-disc sets.

Reznor's thrashing and microphone-banging tantrums are part of the show, but his gratitude was genuine during the encore. "I sincerely, me and the band, thank you for being there for us," he told the sold-out crowd." . . . "You go away for a long time, and I didn't know you guys would be here. And it means the world to me."

The concert was thoughtfully staged, from the effectively dramatic lighting and a trio of flat video screens to the flow of the set list. Older material acted as bookends to new songs.

The start was vintage NIN, Reznor and his band raging through a crisp Terrible Lie and Sin (both from Pretty Hate Machine). Then they chewed up March of the Pigs (Reznor, arms outstretched, pondering during the acoustic piano break, "doesn't it make you feel better?" before the band hammered back in) and the slower, seductive Piggy.

The transition started when Reznor played keyboard, programmed to sound like grand piano, on the gently percolating The Frail.

A mesmerizing suite from the new album was a minor triumph. Supplemented with gorgeous visuals (a pool of water photographed with shifting lights, a field of flowers) on the vertical-strip screens, it began with Tori Amos-style piano, its reverie interrupted by drums. A digital string section surfaced on the gorgeous The Great Below, and The Mark Has Been Made had a slightly psychedelic edge and echoed vocal effects.

The transition back to unbridled rage was also well-done, with the loping Wish and supercharged trance of Complication coming before Reznor resumed his full-on rants with Suck, the industrial nattering of Closer ("my whole existence is flawed/you get me closer to God") and the chant-along favorite Head Like a Hole, the emphasis shifted from electronics to snarling guitar, to close the show.

His gracious words to the crowd were underscored by the songs that followed. The Day the World Went Away and Even Deeper show he'd long pondered whether there was still a place for NIN.

Reassured, he went back on the attack with the deliciously venomous Starsuckers, Inc. (the title of the cleaned-up version, anyway), highlighting the lyric borrowed from Carly Simon's You're So Vain -- "I bet you think this song is about you, don't you, don't you?" he wailed.

Instead of ending on a sour note, Reznor returned to his own wounds with a broken whisper on Hurt.

Opening act A Perfect Circle, featuring bewigged Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan, have generated much interest in the alt/art-rock circle. The outfit has the same sort of weighty feeling as Tool. But instead of metal they employ an eclectic, intriguing array of influences, from New Age-like, Middle-Eastern sounds to drum 'n' bass, sounding on one song like the Cocteau Twins and the Moody Blues on another. A Perfect Circle won't overshadow Tool, but it's far more than just a throw-away side project.

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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