Trent Reznor's Influence

Originally published in Seattle Times on May 1, 1998

Influence is a funny thing. Celine Dion may be the most listened-to voice in the world right now, but her music has had almost no effect on the prevailing tides in popular music. Nine Inch Nails, by contrast, remains essentially a cult act, yet its work has shaped and inspired the sound of countless rock acts, from Marilyn Manson to Filter.

How has NIN - or its mastermind, Trent Reznor - come to exert such influence? No doubt some of it has to do with his lyrics, for his evocation of alienation, anger and self-loathing has an obvious and immediate appeal for angst-ridden adolescents (and adults). Reznor's greatest genius, however, is musical. Unlike a lot of rock songwriters, Reznor understands the importance of pacing and structure in his music, and as such packs enough drama and dynamism into his work to make each single feel as expansive as a symphony.

Naturally, Reznor's approach has drawn its share of imitators, but most grasp only the most general outlines of his sound. Take, for example, the Voyeurs' album "Two" (Nothing/Interscope).

Although Reznor is given "executive producer" credit for the disc, the project is largely the work of former Judas Priest front man Rob Halford. Not that it sounds much like Halford's earlier work; apart from some distortion-fattened guitar, there's nothing the least bit metal about the music. Instead, its thrumming synths and mechanized beats owe more to the light industrial sound of NIN's first album, "Pretty Hate Machine."

That strategy works well enough when the arrangements balance relentless propulsion against sudden shifts in volume and intensity, a device that enlivens the likes of "Leave Me Alone" and "I Am a Pig." But as much as Reznor's sonic strategies may color the shape and feel of these tracks, the music itself belongs to Halford and co-writers John Lowery and Bob Marlette. And because that team lacks Reznor's melodic imagination, songs like "Hey Sha La" and "If" seem simplistic when compared with the average NIN tune.

Stabbing Westward, by contrast, has no trouble coming up with interesting and involved melodies. In fact, the writing on "Darkest Days" (Columbia) can be downright exhilarating. From the tightly structured soundstorm of "Everything I Touch" to the slow-building intensity of "Desperate Now," the album is almost an aural amusement park, offering thrill after thrill for daring listeners.

It isn't just that the band knows how to put a song through its paces. As much as "Drugstore" or "Haunting Me" benefit from the careful manipulation of texture and dynamics, what ultimately makes these tunes kick are the hooks, which are varied and strong enough to sustain a half-dozen singles. On a strictly melodic level, "Darkest Days" is delightfully addictive.

Where the group runs into trouble is on the lyrical front. Although writers Christopher Hall and Andy Kubiszewski are not afraid of staring into the abyss, they have yet to figure how to make that view compelling. It's one thing, after all, to be lonely and miserable, quite another to pull poetry from the experience. And until Stabbing Westward can find words that match the majesty of its music, it will continue to be seen as just another NIN imitator.

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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