Metal Hammer : The Fragile

By Dan Silver for Metal Hammer on October 1, 1999

"I'm half-way through listening to "The Fragile" and I'm losing it. The Psycho-esque strings of "The Great Below" are still echoing round my ravaged mind and I'm breaking into beads of sweat, twitching nervously and constantly looking over my shoulder. Welcome to Trent Reznor's nightmare. Such are the infernal machinations of the music business that by the time you read this review you'll doubtless already own "The Fragile" and be some way into the process of flogging it to death. I, however, have heard it once in the eerily sterile confines of a record company office while nursing one of the largest hangovers ever to afflict mortal man. You get the feeling, though, that these are the circumstances of which Trent would approve. Two and a half years in the making, it's 23 tracks consuming two CDs and over an hour and a half of your time, "The Fragile" is an intense labour of hate and decidedly uneasy listening,the result of a sustained bout of fear and self-loathing in New Orleans. Or rather half of it is. That this writhing behemoth of a record is a colossal artistic achievement is beyond doubt, but as a listener you can't help but wish alternative music's genuinely deranged enfant terrible had brought in some outside ears to temper his seemingly unstemmable flow of ideas and invention.

The first disc is phenomenal, a mesmerising tour de force in which Reznor remorselessly crushes your expectations with a stack-heeled boot and a demonic grin. It's so impenetrably dense and unfathomably textured that in the welcome moments of sonic respite your head is spinning in an attempt to merely take in what has gone before. Constantly evolving epics such as first single "We're In This Together" and "No, You Don't" are the aural equivalent of trepaning, driving tungsten drill bits through the centre of your skull, creating the breach for the likes of the haunting title track and ethereal "La Mer" to infiltrate, leading you unsteadily to a higher level of enlightenment. This is angst as high art, misanthropy made musical marvel, and the message is deafenly clear: Marilyn Manson, Fear Factory, Orgy and the like, pack up your toys 'cause daddy's home. Reznor succeeds in creating an immersive smorgasbord that not only demands but forces total submission; it is more than the sum of it's considerable parts and possibly surpasses it's inspirations.

And then he appears to lose it. The second half of the album stomps around aimlessly on "Pretty Hate Machine" synth squelches and squeaky beats, lacking much of the sang froid and grand atmospherics that have gone before; and sounds so much like a regression for it. If the first CD was akin to being transported into the nightmarish technological future of The Matrix then, comparatively, the concluding half is The Phantom Menace's dayglo Fisher Price hamfest. Most immediately promising number "Starfuckers, Inc." is merely Trent out Manson-ing his former protege in his sleep, while only closer "Ripe (With Decay)" comes close to reaching the heights of the earlier material.

Ultimately, you can't help but be impressed- The Fragile" is without a doubt one of the releases of the decade. But at half the length it could have been the one. (8 out of 10)

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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