Reznor's Thrilling Battlefield of the Mind

Originally published in LA Times on October 1, 1994

One of the great things about a Nine Inch Nails concert is that almost everyone in the audience will take a deep breath at some point--out of either exasperation or sheer excitement. Trent Reznor, the band's leader, will settle for no less.

The easily offended may not have made it past the opening act on Monday at the Universal Amphitheatre before wondering just what they had gotten themselves into.

Except for the novelty value of naming itself after a dead screen siren and one of the most notorious men of the century, Marilyn Manson is pretty much your old-fashioned, crude 'n' rude rock entry. Its T-shirts proclaim "Kill God . . . Kill Your Mom and Dad . . . Kill Yourself," and the group's lead singer walked around during one song with a fake penis dangling from his shorts.

Even those who dismissed Marilyn as silly kid stuff, however, may have squirmed during the next act--the Jim Rose Circus. This rock version of an old carnival sideshow was part of the 1992 Lollapalooza tour, and was then fascinating on a "How far will they go?" level. But on second and third viewing, the routines are tedious, even when a man swings a concrete block from a chain attached to his nipples.

All this foreplay may be Reznor's idea of pushing the boundaries of his young audience's experience, but it offers little warning of the intoxicating scope of his own talent. He is the most exciting blend of musicality, vision and theatrical instincts to hit the pop scene since Prince more than a decade ago.

Even before making an appearance Monday (the first of four nights at Universal), Reznor set the stage by having strobe lights flash behind the thin curtain, like the nighttime explosions you see in war movies and newsreels.

The image worked because the themes of Reznor's tenacious, guitar- and synthesizer-driven music focus on a battlefield of the mind, employing angry, violent lyrics to address issues of insecurity, self-destruction and doubt.

Wearing a black T-shirt and cut-offs, Reznor didn't just deliver the songs, he attacked them, knocking over equipment and even members of his four-piece band in a sometimes frightening effort to drain every lingering trace of emotion out of himself and the music.

As if to show that he doesn't need the spotlight to bring the songs to life, Reznor and the band played two songs while standing behind a screen, on which scenes of death and despair were shown.

Despite the dark, sometimes startling edges, Reznor's finely crafted songs are neither a celebration of nihilism nor aimless expressions of youthful Angst . Even the strongest among us cry out for something or someone to believe in during an age in which many have lost faith in everything from religion to the family. Whether leaping into the pit in front of the stage or howling the words with an intensity that was closer to screaming than merely singing, Reznor is a wonderfully intuitive performer who seems to be searching for new ways to touch the audience every minute he is on stage.

Nine Inch Nails' performance at Woodstock '94 was as spectacular as any of the legendary sets at the original Woodstock, and Monday's performance confirmed that it was no fluke. For all the antics of the opening acts, Reznor was the one at the Amphitheatre who ultimately did take your breath away--and he did it simply with talent.

* Nine Inch Nails appears Thursday and Friday at the Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, 8:15 p.m. . (818) 980-9421.

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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