NIN Return With Vengeance

Nine Inch Nails "With Teeth"

By David Hyland for NBC13 Entertainment on July 14, 2005

It's a rock 'n' roll adage: you get clean and you get boring.

It explains the creative lobotimazation of dozens of groups -- from Aerosmith to Jane's Addiction. On one album, their music spits fire and their lyrics are provocative. After one stint in rehab, their next record (and succeeding efforts) steer a more moderate course, playing it musically safe and spouting self-help messages.

Once an artist seeks to quell the neurosis that's driving them to substance abuse, most inexplicably rob their music of much of its energy and daring. It's a cruel side effect of getting healthy -- sad and twisted but all too often.

Given this, it seems impossible that "With Teeth" could be as great as it is. Flushing the bad habits that fogged every Nine Inch Nails' successive release since "The Downward Spiral," band brainiac Trent Reznor is now demonstrating a musical focus and intensity unseen since the band's early-to-mid-'90s glory days. His healthier lifestyle inexplicably hasn't tamed his skills nor his predilection for darke themes. No AA-speak here.

This record should vault Reznor into the rankings as one of the premier producers of his generation. Reznor is still a meat-and-potatoes-type lyricist -- his lyrics are dominated by rants of self-loathing and romantic angsting -- his ability to construct unqiue yet infectious rhythm competes with hip-hop's top tier.

And this is what Reznor is: a rap-style beatmaker dressed like a vampire. (Someone -- Ministry's Al Jourgensen perhaps -- was quoted as saying that industrial music is just disco played through a crappy speaker. In Reznor's case, this is an apt description.

(The fact that Reznor hasn't been tapped more often to be a producer is truly surprising. With the exception of Marilyn Manson's early records, Reznor's production resume is mostly limited to remixing the occasional single. Ex-Rage Against The Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha reportedly spent time a couple of years cutting tracks with Reznor for his own solo debut, but the results of their collaboration appear to be locked in the same vault where Axl Rose is keeping the new Guns 'N' Roses' disc).

Excluding the album's final two piano-based tracks, "With Teeth" is a cache of heart-pumping grooves. As in hip-hop, the music isn't defined by the melody but by the beat. Corrosive guitar licks and evil-sounding keyboard lines support the musical vision and jack up the tension.

As has been much reported, Reznor got some all-star help in his beatmaking this time out in the form of Foo Fighters leader Dave Grohl, who returned to the drum kit for the first time since his brief membership in Queens of the Stone Age a couple of years ago. Unlike his time with Queens, Grohl's drumming on "With Teeth" threatens to steal the show.

Grohl's spotlight moment is "The Collector," where he piledrives the rhythm, but also creates a thud with his bass drum so powerful that propels the song forward. If there was ever any doubt that Grohl is the man to fill John Bohman's drum stool in a Zeppelin reunion, here's the proof. Reznor's vocals -- sometimes a muttered mantra, other times a yell -- conform along with some shrill guitar fragments around the thrust of Grohl's kitwork.

Beyond harnessing Grohl for the album, Reznor's other smart move was to focus on creating direct and compelling songs. While he still employs unusual sounds as pieces of the musical puzzle (like the whirling sound of a blender on "Sunspots"), these tracks are thin on the tedious musical tangents that were so rife on recent Nine Inch Nails discs. Instead, each song moves with purpose and builds to a climax before concluding.

And although all the songs have a common, discernable structure, there's plenty of variety here. The pretty, piano-based "All The Love In The World" before the drum machine kicks it into high gear and Reznor's jealous rants overflow into a sonic interpretation of multiple personality disorder via a stack of layered vocals. "Only" fuses elements of funk and '80s new wave that come together to make a darksider version of the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive." The frenetic "Getting Smaller" is the record's most furious moment, snarling guitars create a whirlpool of sound that's claustrophobic and mirrors the paranoia of the lyrics.

Paranoia is something that Reznor can now wipe off his radar. "With Teeth" reestablishes that Nine Inch Nails is no longer a band treading on past accomplishments, but still a vital entity.

The record also makes the implicit suggestion that they should consider putting Reznor's face on "Don't Do Drugs" posters. They could place them in concert halls and recording studios around the country with the slogan: "Get Clean And You'll Record Your Best Album In 10 Years." Of course, that's only if you don't start quoting AA in your songs.

View the NIN Hotline article index