Nails Lose Their Point

By Martin Jones for The Australian on August 19, 2005

Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne, August 17. Hordern Pavilion, Sydney, tonight (sold out) and tomorrow. Bookings: (02) 9266 4800. Brisbane Entertainment Centre, Monday. Bookings: 131 931.

NO one's face was smashed into a keyboard. There was almost no chance of witnessing an on-stage mental breakdown. A couple of guitars were obligatorily flung off stage, but that was about it. This was the new, sober, buzz-cut Trent Reznor, complete with healthy body, looking more like Anthony LaPaglia than the serpentine prince of the goths.

The clean and sane Reznor just didn't sell the music like he used to. Without that wildly dangerous element that made Nine Inch Nails so compelling - and saw them smash an entire stage set (including a couple of band members) to shards at Melbourne's 1996 Summersault Festival - Reznor's dark, desperate threats were less intimidating. Why, he almost seemed embarrassed to sing Closer's infamous lines: "I want to f--- you like an animal."

Should Nine Inch Nails have allowed some of its dark past to drop off in favour of the more melodic, even danceable elements to be found on the new album With Teeth? The gigantic version of The Hand That Feeds - part disco-pop, part crushing crunch - was a powerful case for the affirmative. But deprived of the Nine Inch Nails' classics, the trench-coated gothic army of fans would have thrown hissy-fits.

So Reznor and his four Nine Inch Nails mates acknowledged their faithful, coughing up two dozen songs aided by blinding strobes, menacing spots and a colourful wall of LED sound-meter-inspired illumination.

Nine Inch Nails are best known for their brutal, buzzing, grinding industrial sound and Reptile conjured the noise of 200,000 marching robot killers. But Reznor is capable of writing and singing a delicate tune. Burn affectingly contrasted a feathery chorus with swarms of giant locust-like guitars, and in Hurt a lone Reznor whimpered "I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel" over a naked piano phrase.

In performance, Nine Inch Nails highlighted their challenging juxtaposition of cold mechanical might and human frailty and emotion, custom-made for a Terminator soundtrack. On CD, Reznor's humanity is distant, ghostly and desperate, his voice trembling as if through a weak radio transmission against the electronic authority of the instrumentation.

While the fragile Reznor of yore appeared genuinely overwhelmed and desperate, his now robust face somehow dilutes the essence of Nine Inch Nails' music. Though, as the set detonated to conclusion with the stomping Starf---ers Inc and Head Like a Hole, I bet any of the trench-coat army would have slapped me for saying so.

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