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Nails pierce crowd, even if following has dulled

By Jeff Inman for Des Moines Register on February 17, 2006

A decade ago, Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor was a dark god.

The mere mention of Reznor's name had every kid with a black T-shirt collection and bad mascara lining up for a chance to revel in his pain. His caustic and cathartic records dominated the charts. His groundbreaking videos were mainstays on MTV. He was the melancholy king.

Now Reznor can’t even fill up half of Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. Nine Inch Nails’ concert Thursday night pulled in just 4,950 fans — a small tragedy befitting a guy who’s made a living by rolling around in his own angst.

Especially since Reznor put on a show that could have stunned millions. Clean and sober after a long battle with addiction, Reznor performed like the demon he always made himself out to be — thrashing about on stage, throwing mic stands, kicking equipment. He beat classic NIN songs like “Terrible Lie” and “Sin” until they bled distortion and rage, their computerized backbone of mechanical whirs and percolating beats severed by a massive blow of guitars.

New material, like "The Hand that Feeds" and "Every Day is Exactly the Same," both from last year's With Teeth, was just as massive and pulsating. With it, Reznor created little earthquakes that literally shook the building, all the while seeming to wonder if anyone could still hear what he was trying to say: "I think I used to have a voice, now I never make a sound."

Obviously, that’s not quite the case. When the group tore into NIN standards like “March of the Pigs” or the group’s notorious hit “Closer,” the audience screamed along. The floor turned into a sloshing mass of bodies moving in a series of flickers, hundreds of strobe lights flashed at unrelenting speed. The whole arena became a dome of tension, wrapped up in everything Reznor did, be it touching ballads soaked in self doubt or crushing industrial metal that sounded vaguely like hundreds of robots being tortured.

It didn’t even matter Reznor looked like a suburban dad ready for a play date, sporting jeans, a T-shirt and a close-shaved head. He knows true evil is always in the familiar.

That’s a lesson opener Moving Units is trying to take to heart — or at least that's what you’d think considering the way the quartet has copied Franz Ferdinand and Interpol with such loving detail.

The only problem is that the Los Angeles group forgot it isn’t just the twitchy new-wave rhythms and depressive lyrics that make those bands memorable. It’s the fact that they’re making daring music. Moving Units played like it’s jumping on a trend — and knew it.

Jeff Inman is a Des Moines-based freelance writer.

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