Whisper or scream, Nine Inch Nails in top form

By Gemma Tarlach for Milwaukee Journal Sentinal on February 11, 2006

More than once in his near 20-year career as the mastermind of Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor seemed poised to slip into obscurity or, worse yet, on the verge of becoming another sad rock clichรฉ of a talent lost too early to substance abuse.

Fortunately, "Mr. Self Destruct," the opener of NIN's near two-hour set Saturday night at a sold-out Eagles Ballroom, remains just a song, rather than Reznor's epitaph.

The 40-year-old singer and multi-instrumentalist was in top form musically as well as physically, lending credence to his recent public comments about a newfound commitment to health.

Saturday's show was the second date of NIN's spring tour, and the performance was what you'd expect from a perfectionist who takes about half a decade to craft each album - confident, passionate and driven.

Whether you think of Reznor as industrial music's biggest (and arguably only) superstar, or as the man who killed the genre by taking it out of the underground and into the Top 40, as some purists argue, the fact of the matter is that Reznor knows how to command a crowd better than most of his peers.

Saturday's set stretched the length and breadth of NIN's catalog, from "Every Day Is Exactly the Same" and "The Hand That Feeds," both from 2005's "With Teeth," to the explosive final encore "Head Like a Hole," from 1989's "Pretty Hate Machine."

Reznor's greatest strength as both songwriter and musician - and certainly as bandleader - is creating order out of chaos, a task he made easier on himself by assembling an exceptional touring band. On songs performed Saturday, such as "Sin," "Please" and "Closer," Reznor and band fused together pummeling martial rhythms, sludge-soaked guitar and anger alternately shrieked and whispered with a perfection that put many of his lesser imitators to shame.

Something else that distinguishes Reznor from the countless bands trying to follow in his footsteps: a gift for melody and the fearlessness to make beautiful, even delicate music, as he did seated alone at the keyboards for "Hurt."

Reznor, never the chattiest rock star, kept his stage banter limited to the occasional "thank you" until interrupting "Star(expletive), Inc." with a political plea. The musician, who lived in New Orleans for more than a decade before recently relocating to Los Angeles - and has been involved with various post-Katrina charities - urged fans to vote U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) out of office, saying the congressman refused to support a bill aimed at aiding victims of the hurricane.

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