Reznor back with nails sharpened

By Claudia Perry for The Star-Ledger (NJ) on May 17, 2005

NEW YORK -- In the world of rock, being a shy control freak is a rarity. But Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is just that, and the first of two sold-out shows Sunday night at Hammerstein Ballroom showed the man at his laconic best.

Nine Inch Nails released "With Teeth," its first album of new material in six years, on May 3. Reznor battled writer's block, hid out, worked out, got sober and is back on the road with a slightly larger band. Add to that a delicious stage set with neon bars, tiny clusters of TV monitors, and "Matrix"-like data bits appearing and flashing at various intervals. Top with powerful spotlights and lights that were turned on the audience to complete the picture of a human hard drive overwriting itself again and again.

However, technology has its drawbacks. Sometime at the end of the song after "Terrible Lie," the bass went out. The stage was plunged into darkness for about 10 minutes while roadies with flashlights sussed out the problem -- a plug kicked loose. The show quickly resumed, and Reznor said, "There are 10 (expletives) who will not have jobs after this show." Control freak? Perish the thought.

Anyway, the show resumed its sound and fury with little chat and even less relief. Even when Reznor tackled the powerful ballad, "Hurt," the energy didn't dip. Reznor's newest band members, guitarist Aaron North and keyboard whiz Alessandro Cortini, acquitted themselves with honor. Cortini cooked up a stew of background samples, as well as taking the lead on tunes like "Starfuckers, Inc." and "Something I Can Never Have."

By the time the 20-song set slammed to a close with "Head Like a Hole," Reznor and company were drenched with sweat, and the audience was hoarse and exhilarated. There was no encore, with good reason. The punishing power of "Hole" is hard to top.

"The Hand That Feeds," the single from "With Teeth," was dropped into the middle of the 75-minute set. It's a little lighter than some of Reznor's previous work, but in no way upbeat.

Frankly, where Reznor truly caught lightning in a beer bottle is the song "Closer." Some industrial rock, including bands like Filter and Stabbing Westward, hasn't aged gracefully. "Closer," which is 11 years old, still throbs with power. Its signature line, which cannot be printed in just about any newspaper in the world, is one of the rawest expressions of animal need ever digitized. The song still stuns after all this time.

The time off has served Reznor and company well. There are very few live rock shows that can top Nine Inch Nails when everything is plugged in and running at full throttle. The show Sunday had all the allure of a wrecked Ferrari by the highway. You have to slow down, look and try to figure out what happened. Nine Inch Nails makes its fans straddle the line between keen observers and obsessed voyeurs. In short, you lose control.

Openers the Dresden Dolls divided the house. For every shout of the traditional, mildly profane kiss-off delivered to opening acts everywhere, there were scattered groups of fans applauding the drum and keyboard duo's every move. Besides playing cabaret-like originals like "Coin Operated Boy" and "Bad Day," the band offered covers of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" and Radiohead's "Karma Police." Keyboard player Amanda Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione are onto something. Exactly what it is may take more time than a 30-minute set to figure out.

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