Trent Reznor is one focused rock star

By Tony Hicks for Contra Costa Times on April 29, 2005

Even -- still -- wrapped in an angry fog of intense and dark dread, some things' inability to change just makes a rock fan feel warm inside.

There were more than a couple times Nine Inch Nails propelled one back to 1994 Wednesday at the Warfield in San Francisco. Not that Trent Reznor is interested in being a retro act at such a relatively young age. The point is that, after more than a half-decade of tangling with professional disappointment and personal demons, Reznor has again channeled his emotions into a powerful stage aura and, hopefully, a potent new album "With Teeth," which comes out Tuesday.

The brain trust and only permanent member of Nine Inch Nails, Reznor does what he does on stage without going through anyone's motions. He's still like a leashed animal, screaming when it suits him, slamming things, snapping his head and posturing while the veins practically pop from his throat -- all the while inspiring and demanding the same from his band. At times, when it's more appropriate, all he has to do is stand alone playing mournful piano, taking the crowd with him emotionally.

Reznor still gives an audience his undivided, emotional attention, heightened by just the right amount of dark purple or blue spotlights, with up-lighting from the stage front, giving the band a horror-flick feel. Whether one subscribes to the legend of Reznor as a dark musical genius, his focus still makes Nine Inch Nails something special live. While there was some sampling of new material, clearly the best efforts from both band and crowd went into older material.

By second song, the rapid-fire "You Know What You Are?" the band was in its full, chugging industrial glory. Even only after a handful of shows on this tour, the band is pretty seamless, both musically and on stage, where ex-Icarus Line guitarist Aaron North and Marilyn Manson bassist Jeordie White (a k a Twiggy Ramirez) are perfect, snarling, dyed-black stringy-haired sidemen for Reznor. They can back off, allowing Reznor some brief, sweet vocal lines on a song like "March of the Pigs," then come back beautifully to instigate loud chaos. Loud chaos.

NIN is still one of the loudest bands on the planet, a fact that gets lost in Reznor's ability to make everything sound as clear as its supposed to on stage. Most bands trying for that much power would get lost in volume alone. Somehow, it's almost like the volume at a NIN show comes from the music itself.

This band is so many dichotomies, from being superbly technically advanced while delivering music on such a primitive level. Reznor can whisper to the crowd while leaning on the mic, then lead his band to high, nasty drama in mere seconds. While singing so softly on "Piggy," he glared at the crowd like a serial killer who knew something they didn't.

NIN identifies with the passion of great punk or metal but possesses a bottom-line groove rarely found in any act identifying itself as industrial. On "Burn," drummer Jerome Dillon was simply relentless, never ceasing while huge waves of chords crashed and disappeared around him.

They manage to make all these things clear in one show.

NIN's ability to fly up and down mood-soaked musical peaks and valleys almost gets to be commonplace halfway through the show. Its excellence nearly works against it during prolonged periods in one mid-tempo or slow groove. One comes to expect more musical movement, unless they're such a fan that they can wrap themselves into anything Reznor does (and there were plenty of those at the Warfield Wednesday).Then one can really enjoy a song like "Reptile," aptly named because its stubborn, mid-tempo chunk felt like a giant lizard stomping through a city, calmly and methodically crushing everything in sight. The band projected that power like a physical thing into the crowd.

There wasn't much banter from Reznor, though after a particular intense song ending that had him jerking around and slamming his mic to the ground, he returned to stage front, saying "Whoops. I forgot how much fun it is to break (expletive)." North got into the act at the end of "Wish," when he stood on his head at one point, rolled back, jumped on the amps, and started flailing about like he had no control over his own body.

Which was a nice set-up for the superb "Hurt," a song that Reznor has said is no longer his, thanks to the powerful cover from Johnny Cash. It was his Wednesday, a patient, focused and powerful version mostly featuring just Reznor behind a keyboard. When the band came back, it was like seeing a movie suddenly go 3-D.

The heavy vibe set up the new single "The Hand That Feeds" which, while retaining some of the best qualities of typical NIN, also came off a bit more uptempo. It led right into the rocking "Star(expletive) Inc.," which slowed down into a quiet version of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain," before coming back. They went back to 1989's debut record for the closest thing NIN has for an anthem "Head Like a Hole." The tour has Reznor back to where he wants to be. All he needs know is the new record to live up to it all.

Looking good, Trent

It's been five years since Nine Inch Nail's last studio album, during which frontman Trent Reznor has been through rehab and battled a variety of personal demons. Here are five signs from Wednesday's show at the Warfield that Reznor is healthy again and has Nine Inch Nails back on track.

1. Guns. We're not talking the ones with triggers. Reznor looks like he's taking out that famous angst on the barbells instead of the bottle.

2. Breaking stuff on stage without falling over.

3. No forgotten lyrics. He also clearly knew what city he was playing in

4. When he swatted bottles off amps into the crowd, they were full of mineral water. Well, at least they looked clear.

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