Nine Inch Nails gives rock performance in truest sense

By Jim Abbott for Orlando Sentinel on October 26, 2005

If Trent Reznor has kicked his demons, he can still summon them when required.

Nine Inch Nails has always been about angst, anger and misery, and those emotions ran rampant in a 90-minute set on Tuesday at TD Waterhouse Centre. Sometimes, Reznor's self-loathing -- the guy is 40, after all -- bordered on excessively one-dimensional, but the show's striking production and the band's incendiary energy ultimately ruled the day.

This was a rock show in the truest sense: an assault on the eyes and the ears that was mesmerizing on multiple levels.

Reznor has described the show's visual approach as theatrical, which is a stretch. However, his use of light and shadows did wring all the possibilities out of a remarkably minimalist stage design.

The band delivered the pulsating beat of the opening "Love Is Not Enough" from behind a full-length, sheer white curtain that revealed the musicians as shadowy silhouettes. A few rows of blinking vertical lights flashed randomly to create the moody effect of a thunderstorm, a fitting meteorological metaphor for NIN.

The curtain was lifted for "You Know What You Are?," another bombastic number from the new With Teeth, but the musicians were shrouded in smoke and showered by flashing blue spotlights.

Not that the band needed the assistance of special effects. Guitarist Aaron North was a kinetic presence all night, and the rhythm section of bassist Jeordie White and new drummer Alex Carapetis provided the muscular backbone for Reznor's rants. Keyboardist Alessandro Cortini's contributions were more subtle, but the sound mix was more favorable for NIN than it was for opening acts Death From Above 1979 and Queens of the Stone Age.

Neither opening band managed to command the interest of the crowd that didn't come close to filling the arena's upper bowl. Queens of the Stone Age, in particular, seemed uncharacteristically weak compared with past shows in town.

Speaking of muscle, Reznor looked mighty buff, an astounding transition from his appearance in the old Lollapalooza days. He was a captivating presence, especially when he reached back for familiar anthems such as The Downward Spiral's "March of the Pigs," with its ironic: "Now doesn't that make you feel better?"

At such moments, the power of the music was enough, but Reznor did offer some stylish touches to augment the new "Right Where It Belongs." The song was accompanied by alternately strange and violent images on the white screen in front of the stage: Crawling insects, wounded war victims and President Bush dancing with the First Lady.

Behind the images, Reznor was visible, standing alone singing in the darkness. What did it all mean? Who knows?

For all the industrial-strength power, another of the evening's most compelling moments was one of its most understated: Reznor alone at a keyboard performing "Hurt," the heart-wrenching ballad that the ailing Johnny Cash adopted as his own.

Reznor followed that interlude with a raucous finale, culminating with the anthemic fury of "Head Like a Hole." Flinging his guitar into the air, Reznor showed that he can still harness his anger in a most creative way.

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