NINE INCH NAILS HAUNTINGLY BEAUTIFUL MUSIC
Originally published in Gannett News on September 1, 1994
Nine Inch Nails must be what hell sounds like. Theirs is a huge sound, the industrial hiss of steam and the echo of huge weights falling to an unyielding floor. It is unlistenable in any traditional sense of music. Onstage, the shadowy figures who are Nine Inch Nails labor like the tortured souls in the deepest circle of Dante's Inferno. They are creating something horrible, notes of fear and dread. The impresario of this dark theater, Trent Reznor, is doubled over in agony, his hands pressed to the sides of his head as though he's being tormented by painful radio transmissions from another world. And then comes the counterpoint to this cacophony: a strangely haunting melody creeping through this malevolent cavern. The music is both beastly and beautiful. Nine Inch Nails, which just opened a three-month tour with a sold-out show at Rochester's Auditorium Center, was perhaps the most unexpected success of Woodstock '94. In a clash as odd as NIN's own contrast of harsh noise and wistful melody, the band followed the aging, spirit-of-Woodstock harmonies of Crosby, Stills and Nash with a breathtaking demonstration of the extreme new direction of today's music. After that extraordinary show, Nine Inch Nails is big, as big as its sound. Big enough to turn down an appearance on David Letterman's show. Fortuitous timing has also placed Reznor's moody stare on the cover of the current "Rolling Stone" and "Option" magazines. And Reznor produced the soundtrack for Oliver Stone's new film "Natural Born Killers"; the album, released this week, includes three NIN songs. "Our stage show for this tour is ... well, I don't know if I want to use the word theatrical, but it's high-impact, visually exciting," says Nine Inch Nails drummer Chris Vrenna. . "It's creepy, all wood, it creates a real mood. It's an intense, in-your-face light show." Actually, theatrical is the perfect word for Nine Inch Nails. "Trent's feeling is, when you go to a show, you want to see things bigger than life." If their show is indeed bigger than life, a hefty electric bill is only part of the reason. Reznor, who likes gory horror films, writes words and music that bring to mind the quaintly futuristic world of Fritz Lang's film "Metropolis" a world in which workers are fed to technology like meat pumped through a sausage grinder. These images are best viewed from a emotional distance, but emotional distance is a commodity Reznor seems to have readily at hand: Last year he rented and recorded music in the Southern California house where five people were slaughtered by the Charles Manson gang 25 years ago. (The tour's opening band, by the way, is named Marilyn Manson, a reference to the pop-culture status of a movie idol and a killer.) Reznor may also have drawn these images from the turn-of-the-century warehouses and broken-window factories he must have glimpsed while growing up in a small Pennsylvania farm town. He's likely to have seen this same dark, industrial hell in the mid-'80s, after moving to Cleveland to work in a record store and clean toilets in a recording studio. He would use the studio equipment late at night, after all the lousy rock bands had gone home. Reznor became Nine Inch Nails in 1988, and a year later released "Pretty Hate Machine," a one-man production that crowbarred a hole in the dance-club music scene for its industrial-disco sound. It wasn't music that could be danced to, but it had the right attitude. An eight-song EP followed in 1992, Broken, then this year's album "The Downward Spiral." The band's vivid imagery lends itself well to video. But given Reznor's interest in graphic violence, the band's videos sometimes seem to work against selling the music. " `Happiness in Slavery' was a quasi-dance hit off the Broken EP," says Vrenna, "but it was a very graphic video. It had male nudity for one thing, and a man in a torture chair getting torn apart. No one would play it. It became kind of an underground thing - you could only see it in certain dance clubs." Nine Inch Nails seemed an unlikely choice for Woodstock '94. "I think they were looking for hip bands, not so much alternative, but bands of our type," says Vrenna. "We were very leery of the whole thing, it was getting a lot of negative press. It was way out of character for us to be appearing at that kind of event. ... "Then we saw the lineup, and it was Crosby, Stills and Nash, us and Metallica, and we said, `That's wrong.' Until we got there, and the crowd was great. You had Crosby, Stills and Nash, who everybody has known for over 20 years, and after us Metallica, the biggest metal band in 20 years. So that was really a good experience."
Transcribed by Keith Duemling