Almost 20 years on, nothing in Trent Reznor’s illustrious discography has matched the bleak unity of purpose achieved on Nine Inch Nails’ tortured 1994 breakthrough
The Downward Spiral. Significantly influenced by Reznor’s struggles with drugs, alcohol, and grief, the album was an uncompromising document of mental collapse, a concept record which gathered industrial rock, techno, and lashings of real pain into a story of a broken man driven to eventual suicide. Long since rehabilitated, married to new bandmate Mariqueen Maandig and in possession of an Oscar for his part in the score to The Social Network, today Reznor finds himself in a very different place. His recent project How to Destroy Angels just released a new EP, Omen, the sequel to a self-titled debut which met with a fairly muted response due to its similarly to NIN. His main project, by contrast, has been essentially offline since 2009, and Reznor shows few signs of wanting to scratch again at the wound opened by The Downward Spiral.
However, there is another album Reznor’s
magnum opus shares a striking bond but which, years later, has still not received the attention it deserves. Manic Street Preachers’ similarly grueling third LP The Holy Bible was released four months later and channeled the troubled genius of lyricist Richey Edwards into a searing, ruthless record Melody Maker called “the sound of a group in extremis [. . .] hurtling towards a private armageddon”. What might have been more of the Manics’ Guns ‘N Roses-influenced glam rock came out as wiry, lacerating confrontation with prostitution, self-hate, capital punishment, and the Holocaust. Like The Downward Spiral, the album became a creative high point its makers have not been able to equal; like Trent Reznor, the Manics find themselves in a very different situation today, not least due to Edwards’ disappearance in 1995.
Although recorded thousands of miles apart by artists with very different backgrounds,
The Downward Spiral and The Holy Bible sound today like two sides of the same black coin. Grappling with harrowing issues and challenging sounds that set them well outside the parameters of conventional radio play or traditional promotion, both albums went on to significant success. Fascinatingly, these unflinching explorations of the very worst of the human condition are united by their curious ability to leave the listener with a sense of a weight lifted, of life affirmed. By demonstrating how bad things can get, these albums can be a kind of vicarious exercise in self-purification that, torturous as they are, leave the listener with an altered perspective on life. Here are five dark parallels between two LPs which, to quote a soundbite from J.G. Ballard sampled in The Holy Bible, “rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror.”
1. The Recording Sessions
Or: how the unusual and pressured locations and circumstances in which both albums were made contributed to their harrowing effects.
Built in 1942 and subsequently owned by a succession of celebrities, the French-style house at 10050 Cielo Drive in Beverley Hills, California was purchased by Trent Reznor and partly converted into the recording studio where parts of the 1992
Broken EP as well as The Downward Spiral were made. What Reznor claimed to have not known at the time was that the house was the site of the infamous Manson Family killings in August 1969, when actress Sharon Tate and several others were murdered by associates of Charles Manson. Nevertheless, Reznor went on to name his new studio “Le Pig”, apparently a reference to the writing left on the house’s door by the killers in Tate’s blood. Later, Reznor “went home and cried” after a chance meeting with Tate’s sister brought home to him the reality of what had happened in the house. While Spiral went on to be mastered at Record Plant Studios, Reznor moved out of 10050 Cielo Drive, feeling that there was “too much history” there for him to handle. The property was demolished shortly afterward.
By contrast, Manic Street Preachers were given the chance to record their third album in luxurious surroundings. After the relatively good commercial performance of their previous LP, 1993’s
Gold Against the Soul, Epic Records suggested that the band record a follow-up in Barbados. Unwilling to participate in what guitarist James Dean Bradfield described as “all that decadent rockstar rubbish”, the group instead chose to record in their native Wales, specifically at Sound Space Studios in Cardiff. Small and inexpensive, the studio was located in the city’s red-light district ” appropriate, given the themes of opening track “Yes”, which sampled a documentary on New York prostitutes made the previous year. Sessions were conducted in such isolation that engineer Alex Silva was the only person outside the band to be present for the entire four-week period — even the band’s management were excluded. Recalling the sessions years later, Silva described them as so intense that they caused the breakup of his relationship. The band also drank heavily throughout, echoing Reznor’s own struggles with alcohol.
2. The Musical Context
Or: how their respective 1994 albums forever changed the way the world saw both Nine Inch Nails and Manic Street Preachers.
Before Nine Inch Nails existed, Trent Reznor played keyboards in a number of 1980s New Wave and synthpop bands in Cleveland, Ohio. The first NIN album, 1989’s
Pretty Hate Machine, carried significant evidence of this backdrop, right down to sampling Prince (original copies also contained a sample from the film Midnight Express, another work which is every bit as harrowing and oddly life-affirming as Spiral and Bible). Although “Head Like a Hole” went on to become a consistent NIN live favourite, it was The Downward Spiral which arguably cemented Nine Inch Nails as a coherent, distinct project. Eschewing any synthpop elements in favour of pummelling electronics and metal influences, the album was the hard-hitting coming-out party of the most successful industrial rock project in history.
Manic Street Preachers’ first two albums
Generation Terrorists and Gold Against the Soul were inspired to equal extents by the unlikely combination of the Clash and Guns ‘N Roses. Brash, unsubtle and packed with bludgeoning dinosaur riffs, the records had their share of dark and angry themes but offered little hint of the fully-fledged plunge into the chasm that The Holy Bible would represent. What little warning they gave was in “Comfort Comes”, an isolated song on the Life Becoming a Landslide EP which premiered the nihilistic lyrics, ice-cold guitar work and drumming of militaristic efficiency for which THB would become known. Richey Edwards’ 1995 disappearance meant that the Manics could never enact his future vision for the band — he envisioned their next record as “Pantera meets Nine Inch Nails meets [Primal Scream’s] Screamadelica” — but with the radio-friendly Everything Must Go they became one of the UK’s foremost rock acts in 1996.
3. The Themes
Or: how both albums dealt not only in mean-sounding music, but also in intelligent but disturbing big ideas.
As the Manics would say on their record, “Self-disgust is self-obsession, honey”. On
The Downward Spiral, Reznor is undergoing a thoroughly self-absorbed breakdown, with each song dealing with subjects like sex, violence, corruption and death as facets of his own personal hell. In contrast with the “you” of so many conventional love-themed rock records, Spiral’s dominant pronoun is surely “I”. In fact, the album sounds as much like a twisted ego-trip as it does a mental collapse, with other people becoming increasingly like throwaway playthings to Reznor’s misanthropic character. When he isn’t raging, the grinding intensity of the music continues the sense of irretrievable descent into madness. But as unrelentingly apocalyptic as the record can seem, moments of potential rejuvenation can be found (or at least grasped at) in the quieter moments of “Piggy” and “Hurt”.
In addition to a focus on the very personal — demonstrated best by the alternately boastful and self-hating “Faster” —
The Holy Bible is more concerned with the wider world. Frequently criticised for its misplaced apostrophe, “ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart” is an otherwise perfectly crazed treatise on United States foreign policy, racism and the assassination of JFK, while “Of Walking Abortion” is inspired by extremist feminist Valerie Solanas, who both shot Andy Warhol and advocated the elimination of men from society. Big themes and historical figures loom large on an album which ascribes the blame for man’s greatest crimes on all of us and claims that Hitler is “reprised in the worm of your soul”. As memorable as Melody Maker‘s quote remains, the Armageddon depicted in The Holy Bible isn’t really private — we’re all invited. All this is all the more affecting given that it is recorded using a pretty conventional rock band setup. Without the electronics and studio trickery of Nine Inch Nails, the Manics make Nicky Wire’s bass on the fearsome, frightening “Archives of Pain” sound as profoundly evil as the serial killers listed in the song’s warped chorus. Again, there are moments of levity, especially in the black humour of “Revol” and “P.C.P.” and in the broken, apologetic and unforgettable “This Is Yesterday”.
4. The Album Art
Or: how an approach to artwork that was consistent with the music helped show that neither of these records were the new Madonna LP.
Reznor’s concept for
The Downward Spiral concerned the gradual breakdown of a man, but specifically it dealt with the shedding of his various psychological “layers”. Wound is the title of the mixed media artwork created by Yorkshire artist Russell Mills which became the album’s cover. Made of “plaster, acrylics, oils, rusted metals, insects, moths, [Mills’] blood, wax, varnishes, and surgical bandaging on a wooden panel”, the work reflected the dark images and decaying mental state of Reznor’s scarred character. Like a lot of troubled individuals, though, the image looks innocuous enough on first glance — it is knowing the details that gives the cover its real power to shock, making it a far cry from the crass, blood-spattered artwork favoured by many metal bands dealing in similar themes.
Manic Street Preachers had long been interested in using outré artwork as albums covers. In 1992, they had tried and failed to secure Andres Serrano’s infamous photograph
Immersion (Piss Christ) for the cover of Generation Terrorists. For The Holy Bible, the band chose a triptych painting by acclaimed British painter Jenny Saville. Following a phone conversation with Richey Edwards in which he described every song on the album, Saville allowed the band use of Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face) for free. Depicting an obese woman, the artwork stands in bleak contrast with the song “4st 7lbs”, titled after the ostensible minimum survivable weight for an anorexic. The Manics went on to use another Saville painting, Stare, for the cover of their 2009 album Journal for Plague Lovers – the belief that it depicted a child that had been beaten up caused British supermarkets to stock the record in a plain case.
5. The Impact
Or: how despite the gulf between their respective commercial performances, both records went on to be recognised among the key albums of the 1990s.
Released on March 8th, 1994,
The Downward Spiral went on to sell four million copies in the United States alone, giving it four times Platinum status; globally, the album has shifted in excess of five million copies. In delving into an almost unmitigated hellish musical and thematic nightmare, Trent Reznor and his collaborators had created a huge commercial hit — as Martin C. Strong’s Great Rock Discography put it, Reznor’s “tormented musings obviously struck a chord with the American populace”. In addition to opening the way for Nine Inch Nails to become a commercial powerhouse throughout the decade and beyond, the album was a hit with critics, too: according to Acclaimed Music, it is fifth most acclaimed LP of 1994. “Hurt” went on to be covered by Johnny Cash in 2002, who apparently thought of it as the best “anti-drug song” he had ever heard (for his part, Reznor became a huge fan of Cash’s version).
The commercial performance of
The Holy Bible left more to be desired. Initial signs were good, not least when enduring Manics supporters the NME printed the album’s complete lyrics in the week of its release in August 1994. On the UK charts, the album briefly reached a respectable number six position, but internationally the record essentially tanked. The band’s efforts efforts to build up US publicity over the longer term were devastated after Edwards’ disappearance, which occurred on the eve of a scheduled promotional visit to the States in 1995. However, the album is ranked the 22nd most critically acclaimed of 1994, and in 2005 was the winner of Newsnight‘s viewer poll for favourite album, beating Radiohead’s OK Computer into second place. Like The Downward Spiral, the Bible found much less impact outside the country of its making — in fact for many years, the album was only available in the US as an import. Perhaps, in retrospect, being hit with both The Downward Spiral and The Holy Bible at the same time would have been too much for some.