From 1989 to 1999, the first decade of Nine Inch Nails’ intermittently stormy existence, Trent Reznor - the group’s volatile visionary and sometimes sole member - managed to issue just three albums.
Two of them, “Pretty Hate Machine” (1989) and “The Downward Spiral” (1994), were tumultuous landmarks, the latter a much-mimicked masterpiece of viciousness, raw eroticism and breathtaking noise that the fiendish auteur, for all his maverick brilliance of late, has never quite matched. The third full-length work, “The Fragile” (1999), was his attempt to out-Bowie “Low”; a flawed and bloated double-disc opus, it was ultimately undervalued by everyone but sycophants at Spin.
Trent Reznor reaches another peak
He operated at a snail’s pace - to his early essential discography add an EP or two (like “Broken”) and maybe a notable single, like “The Perfect Drug” - and in all that first decade was a gloomy, violent, drug-addled period for the king of pain. No surprise, then, that it came to define both him and his music.
Until recently, that is.
In the three years since forcefully forging out of prolonged silence with 2005’s aptly titled “With Teeth,” Reznor has reinvented himself as a prolific industry revolutionary while simultaneously refocusing his anguished art - shifting it from intense self-loathing as a means of personal catharsis to stinging attacks on the ways of the world, or at least America, its leaders and corporations.
His creativity now operates on overdrive. In less time than it took him to go from debut to follow-up he has put out four albums, including 2007’s grittier, outspoken “Year Zero” and this year’s double-whammy of label-bypassing, initially free offerings – the alternately hypnotic and impenetrable instrumental smorgasbord “Ghosts I-IV” (his own “Metal Machine Music”) and “The Slip,” a fiercer, briefer assortment that extends and in some sense culminates the ideas set forth by its recent predecessors.
Since ‘05 we’ve known why Reznor has been back with a vengeance: He’s sober, rehabilitated, the ruler of his emotions no longer ruled by them - a man with a mission. But what we haven’t been able to properly gauge – despite much hyperbole, some of it my own, that “With Teeth” instantly elevated him to a new apex – is just what it has done for his live performances.
I’ve been quick to declare each Nine Inch Nails show greater than the last since Reznor’s stunning return at the sixth Coachella festival. The Hollywood Bowl gig later in ‘05 was “the ultimate NIN,” though I insisted he was even better at his ‘06 appearance in Irvine with Bauhaus. So I’m aware how dubious it can seem to suggest that the guy is now at the peak of his powers.
Yet Saturday night’s superbly arranged, epic-long spectacle at the Forum was as close to a complete fusion of everything Reznor has ever presented as he’s ever pulled off.
For starters, he has finally mastered pacing. When he tried dynamic tempo shifts while touring behind “The Fragile,” the instrumental breaks often bogged things down, their static visual components never captivating enough to overcome lags. Here, the performance was smartly segmented - a lot of “Slip” stuff and robust versions of “March of the Pigs” and “Closer” to grab your attention, followed by a heavily electro portion (highlighted by the acid-blot explosions of “Vessel”), then a not-dull portion of “Ghosts,” with the roar of “Wish” and “Terrible Lie” and “Survivalism” to yank anyone out of a meditative stupor.
Reznor has never concocted such an enveloping visual array. Well, that’s not entirely true - his “With Teeth” shows literally enveloped him in a curtain of lights, a trick he repeated here by occasionally hiding behind giant screens. Yet whereas such staging could turn to clutter before, now it has been refined, its purpose sharpened. The “Ghosts” passages were impressionistic, naturally, but note the way Reznor would appear and disappear amid the TV fuzz filling our view during the indicting “Only,” or how the Big Brother undercurrents of “Survivalism” were enhanced by a series of security cam feeds.
Best twist of all, though, was a wicked morphing toward the end of “The Hand That Feeds.” After George W. Bush’s vacantly smiling mug was tossed up as the first chorus began, the picture slowly transformed into that of Republican presidential nominee John McCain while Reznor hollered out, “Will you bite the hand that feeds? Will you stay down on your knees?” Here, too, was fusion - old, easy dispassion now replaced by more proactive aggression.
Even in little ways a longtime fan might have noticed how Reznor has melded his past with his present – how he has returned to hurtling instruments across the stage, say, throwing microphone stands to the floor yet without making such overt fury into a one-trick bore as he did years ago. It helps, of course, to interact with the best NIN lineup he’s ever employed, including drummer Josh Freese, guitarist Robin Finck, keyboardist Alessandro Cortini and former Beck bassist Justin Meldal-Johnson - all of whom are capable of conjuring the usual NIN chaos but who’d rather let their chops impress.
Still, it’s Reznor himself who continues to surprise; at 43, not only is he at the top of his game, he’s one of few genuine artists actually reshaping how the music-biz game is being played. Enough celebrating of his earlier bleaker days, I say, enticing though they will always remain to the angst-ridden. What Reznor is creating now, in and out of the studio, away from the stifling star-maker machinery - all of that may prove to be a far more important and lasting contribution.