Still Ruling His Empire of Dirt and Pain

By JON PARELES for The New York Times on November 5, 2005

Of course Trent Reznor wore black when Nine Inch Nails played Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. Since the band's debut album in 1989, on which Mr. Reznor played nearly all the instruments, he has been rock's voice of rage, bitterness and inconsolable despair, lashing out both at the world that betrays him and at his own malignant soul. While his lyrics are blunt - "After everything I've done, I hate myself for what I've become" - his music has been a fusion of punk impact, electronic textures, dance-music propulsion and enough melodic interludes to make the rest seem more brutal.

Mr. Reznor, 40, has been at it a long time: long enough for many other rock acts to trade their youthful ferocity for self-parody. He took six years between Nine Inch Nails albums: "The Fragile," released in 1999, and "With Teeth" (both on Nothing/Interscope), released this year. After the "Fragile" tour, he disappeared from public view, and on Thursday night he said onstage that he had thought he would never perform again. But the concert had the primal intensity of arena-rock as catharsis.

Most of the songs on "With Teeth" revisit Mr. Reznor's longtime obsessions while cranking up the beat, with booming drums and saw-toothed guitars. The music sounds as if it's made to shake arenas, and on Thursday night, it was even more baleful. Ruthless drumming from Alex Carapetis announced and paced the songs; Aaron North used his guitar for blasts of distortion or piercing, wah-wah leads, sometimes swinging it all around him to set off feedback. Mr. Reznor was often a shadowy figure, swathed in smoke or silhouetted with backlighting, but his voice was vivid and accusatory.

Newer songs like "The Collector," with its shifty, odd-meter beat and splinters of piano from Alessandro Cortini on keyboards, shared the alienated intensity of older songs like "Wish" and "Head Like a Hole." Quieter, Beatles-tinged existential reflections like "Right Where It Belongs" and "Beside You in Time," and a sparse, haggard version of "Hurt" offered little comfort between the blasts of fury turned inward and outward, as in "The Hand that Feeds." All the band could do for an appropriate finale was smash some equipment.

Queens of the Stone Age, who shared the bill, kept the strobe lights flickering almost continually through a smart hard rock set with experimental fringes. Most of the time, the band sets hefty but streamlined power chords and steady drones behind John Homme's sustained, long-lined vocal melodies.

Queens of the Stone Age reach back to Led Zeppelin and the progressive-rock side of Cream, and the band knows how to bear down on one chord and one beat until repetition becomes incantation. Every now and then, a solo would touch on ragas or the blues. But the band doesn't try to recreate late-1960's rock; it uses not only psychedelia but also the focused Minimalist strategies of bands like Sonic Youth, and in songs like "Regular John," the drone carried the music toward unexpected frontiers.

Death From Above 1979, a two-man Canadian band that opened the show, also had its Led Zeppelin side. Jesse Keeler on bass played riffs so distorted that they sounded like power chords, while the drummer, Sebastien Grainger, wailed like something between Robert Plant and late-70's no-wave singers like Richard Hell and James Chance. The songs had the exuberance of a band bashing away not in an arena, but in a basement.

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