Nine Inch Nails Brixton Academy

Trent Reznor is back from the bowels of hell - and he's still not very scary

By Sam Taylor for Guardian Unlimited on December 5, 1999

Courtney Love, possibly the most acerbic rock critic in the world, described Trent Reznor as 'a farmboy staring into the abyss'. (She also said his band should have been called Three Inch Nails, but then she was always pretty bitchy about her former lovers.) It is true, though, that there is something incongruous about a man with the rugged good looks of Bruce Springsteen, brought up on a Pennsylvania cornfield by his grandparents, ending up on tour with Marilyn Manson, chewing lightbulbs and watching naked groupies excrete into bowls of cereal. But, hey, that's rock'n'roll.

The criticism implicit in Love's remark, though - that people with wholesome rural backgrounds do not have deep, dark feelings - is obviously rubbish. The music of Nine Inch Nails, a sort of techno-industrial-satanic- goth-rock, appeals above all to bored, unhappy white teenagers in middle America. The skin-deep wholesomeness of this America - the apple pies, prom queens and prayers to Jesus - is precisely what spawns such gruesomely expressed hatred and rage.

Marilyn Manson is now the infamous face of this massive subculture, but Trent Reznor is its godfather. It was Reznor whose 1994 album, The Downward Spiral (recorded in the house where Sharon Tate was killed) took techno-industrial-satanic-goth-rock into the mainstream. It was Reznor who discovered Marilyn Manson and produced his first two albums. It was Manson, however, who inspired Nine Inch Nails' latest album, The Fragile, by writing nasty things about Reznor in his autobiography. Their broken friendship, according to Reznor, 'fucked me up pretty badly'. In this dark showbiz parallel universe, Reznor is Dr Frankenstein and Marilyn Manson is his monster.

A year ago, Marilyn Manson played Brixton Academy as part of a world tour, and his performance was generally reviled as weak, unscary pantomime. Nine Inch Nails, touring for the first time in three years, bring an altogether more powerful, professional reputation as a live act - and last Monday night this reputation was justified with a show as long, sleek, heavy and dependable as a stretch limo manufactured by Volvo.

Lining up on stage looking like a hybrid of the E-Street Band and Bauhaus (sleeveless T-shirts, big biceps, pained facial expressions, murky lighting), it's hard to believe that this is the band described by Spin magazine as 'the most vital artists in music today'. Guitarist Robin Finck strikes the most clich�d poses this side of the Scorpions, while Charlie Clouser keeps freezing as though his keyboard has just electrocuted him.

And the audience are no better - all devil signs, studded lips, black leather jackets, Mohicans and NHS specs. (Come on lads, if you want to look menacing, invest in a pair of contact lenses.) Suddenly I realise why Reznor named himself after the river that runs through Nottinghamshire, the heavy metal capital of Europe.

Three years ago, the music was equally predictable: The Downward Spiral was full of thudding electronic rhythms and Reznor's raw howl. It was as single-minded and nihilistic as Nirvana's Nevermind, though with fewer pop hooks. The Fragile, by contrast, is a double CD with a ghostly atmosphere: the lyrics are full of self-loathing, and the music sounds on the verge of implosion, with detuned guitars, sustained piano notes and echoing drums. Where The Downward Spiral was state of the art, The Fragile resounds with earlier influences: Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Black Sabbath, even The Beatles ('The Day The World Went Away' sounds like 'Hey Jude' played inside a tumble drier).

This makes for a more varied musical experience, and in particular for a middle section that verges on ambient: a translucent curtain descends, and the band play filmic instrumentals as images of fish, birds, bloodcells and internal organs are projected on to it. For 10 minutes or so, it's like watching a BBC2 nature documentary.

For non-fans this is a relief, but the most exciting tracks are still the old screamers: the uncharacteristically sexy 'Closer' ('I want to fuck you like an animal') and the epically self-pitying 'Hurt', which is so good it could almost have fitted on the Afghan Whigs' Black Love or P.J. Harvey's Rid Of Me .

And that, ultimately, is the test that Nine Inch Nails fail: they want to be the darkest of the dark, the scariest of the scary, but there are actually quite a few bands who 'do' darkness, death, decay, evil and depression much better. They just don't happen to sell five million albums. The problem with Reznor isn't that he's a farmboy, but that his farm is too big and mechanised. Time to ditch the harvester and pick up your shovel, Trent. And you can start by burying the monster you created.

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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