A Metal Powerhouse, Screaming Farewell for Now

Trent Reznor enlisted a strong conceptual hook, running straight through the band’s breakthrough second album, “The Downward Spiral, on Sunday at Webster Hall.

By Nate Chinen for New York Times on August 25, 2009

“I take you where you want to go!” Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails howled on Sunday night at Webster Hall. “I give you all you need to know!” The first of many dark avowals, it set off the first of many waves of cathartic reaction. Mr. Reznor may have been singing in the guise of a ruinous urge — “And I control you” was his ominous refrain — but as far as this crowd went, he was also living up to a potent and familiar ideal.

Nine Inch Nails released its first album, “Pretty Hate Machine,” 20 years ago, establishing a pattern of aggressive distortion and dystopian furor that would endure through more than a half-dozen subsequent releases. Along the way Mr. Reznor has spun myriad variations on his starkly propulsive sound, an alloy of hard rock, electronic dance music and industrial metal. His studio output has been prolific in recent years, as has his touring schedule.

But he has decided to put the band on indefinite hiatus: Sunday was the second date on the Wave Goodbye Tour, which runs until Labor Day. As further bounty for those who spent or lucked their way into tickets, he enlisted a strong conceptual hook, running straight through the band’s breakthrough second album, “The Downward Spiral,” from 1994. Those lines about control were from “Mr. Self Destruct,” the album’s suicide-haunted overture, and they set the tone for the show.

“The Downward Spiral,” which has sold more than four million copies, uncannily encompasses just about every grand or craven theme in Nine Inch Nails orthodoxy. Along with “Mr. Self Destruct” and the title track, which offer two views on the same mortal act, there’s “Hurt,” a desolate ballad of addiction and isolation.

Then there are anthems laced with other toxins, from itchy paranoia (“The Becoming”) to tortured sexual aggression (“Closer”) to defiant nihilism (“Heresy”). “Now, doesn’t that make you feel better?” Mr. Reznor sang soothingly during a lull in “March of the Pigs,” and the narcotic glow of his tone was facetious, even vicious.

Having honed many of these songs to a bladelike edge over the years, he made the most of stagecraft here, lunging into his crouches like an action-figure version of a frontman. His bluntly effective touring cohort — the guitarist Robin Finck, the bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen and the drummer Ilan Rubin — gave him all the power he could use, surging and thrashing with deceptive unrestraint. When he sang the phrase “Nothing can stop me now,” in “Piggy” and again in “Ruiner,” he and the band sold it with conviction.

But Mr. Reznor’s smartest strategy has always been to make the alienated feel a bolt of solidarity. So there was a more meaningful catharsis in the chorus of “I Do Not Want This,” which began with a thrice-repeated admonishment: “Don’t you tell me how I feel.” He screamed as he reached the kicker: “You don’t know just how I feel!”

He filled the show’s second half with songs older and newer than “The Downward Spiral,” including a vehement closer, “Head Like a Hole.” That song is a punishing indictment of greed, and Mr. Reznor stepped back from the microphone, arms raised, to let the crowd sing its most chilling refrain: “Bow down before the one you serve/You’re going to get what you deserve.”

Nine Inch Nails will perform on Tuesday and Wednesday at Terminal 5, 610 West 56th Street, terminal5nyc.com (sold out).
For more tour information, nin.com.

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