Music

Caught in the Machine: Nine Inch Nails' 'Broken'

Nine Inch Nails' 1992 EP is half an hour of visceral, undiluted anger delivered through muscular, caustic guitars and Trent Reznor's anguished screams. It is concise, focused, and arguably the pinnacle of Nine Inch Nails' discography.


Nine Inch Nails

Broken

Label: TVT
US Release Date: 1992-09-22
UK Release Date: 1992-09-29
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Trent Reznor: industrial auteur, Generation X icon, Grammy Award winner, lavishly-praised film composer, and, as of recent months, a first-year eligible entry on this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ballot. When Reznor was toiling late nights to piece together the first Nine Inch Nails album Pretty Hate Machine (1989), did he ever conceive that the angst-laden electronic/rock hybrid he was fashioning would immortalize him so? Whether he had or not, any dissection of a career that now spans a quarter of a century will surely confirm that the man has thoroughly earned it.

Through the popular music lens that typically views artists’ output in terms of albums and singles, Nine Inch Nails’ story starts with Pretty Hate Machine and them jumps five years later to The Downward Spiral (1994), Reznor’s ambitious magnum opus. Or to put it another way, the story moves from “Head Like a Hole” to “Closer” and “Hurt”, with little elaboration between. However, such a bare-bone narrative of the NIN story leaves out an essential chapter, one that’s easy for the uninformed skip over in the CD racks due to its slight six-item tracklist and therefore perceived inferior content-to-price value quotient.

Devout Reznor disciples know the truth. That orange square in question, the 1992 Broken EP, is an important -- indeed, pivotal -- entry in the Nine Inch Nails catalog. As a result of years on the road smarting at a bad record contract whilst building a fearsome live reputation by adding full rock band backing to Reznor’s one-man studio concoctions, Broken progressed beyond Pretty Hate Machine and its usage of electric guitar as a sparsely-applied texture to armor itself in layers of Marshall amplifiers and distortion. Whereas Pretty Hate Machine was a synthesizer-dominated industrial dance record that on occasion slipped under the alternative rock banner, Broken was a blisteringly loud rock revelation, with its brisk blast beats and aggressive riffing bringing it to the outskirts of heavy metal territory. Despite a few fleeting moments of respite, Reznor by his own admission constructed the EP to function as one sustained blast of earth-scorching anger, a function it impressively fulfills. When it was released in 1992, Broken topped out on the Billboard charts at an impressive No. 7, and would later earn a Grammy for the single “Wish”.

Broken was not only an important evolutionary step between those first two NIN LPs, by virtue of its quality and design it is the most concise, focused, and (it can be strongly argued) all-around best Nine Inch Nails record ever released. By additional virtue of those merits, it is also quite possibly the greatest recording ever issued in extended play form. That’s a bold statement regarding a half-ignored stepchild of a recording format that nevertheless has been host to classic material from artists as diverse as the Beatles, Black Flag, and Alice in Chains. Yet give Broken a listen (one uninterrupted session is the optimal experience) and as Reznor and his cacophony of guitars, drums, electronics, and screams claws desperately at your ears, try to take note of the artistry involved in creating such tormented sounds, and you might be swayed. Reznor and Nine Inch Nails are successful and revered because of the former’s talent as a composer and an arranger, his vision and capability as a producer and electronic gearhead, and the captivating allure of his anguished voice, the crucial humanizing element often howling in the middle of the brutal machine he has concocted. All these qualities are found on Broken, amped up, maxed out, and streamlined to perfection, yet nevertheless more nuanced than they appear. There is no wasted space on the record -- even the interstitial instrumental pieces and the 91 tracks of dead silence that obscure its two unlisted bonus cuts have their carefully considered purposes.

Like Broken itself, this Between the Grooves series examining the EP will speed by quickly. The first installment covering “Pinion” and “Wish” will follow tomorrow, and for the next few weeks leading until the end of the year Sound Affects will tackle the remainder the record song by bruising song, bonus tracks included. As much as Reznor relishes working on grand canvases, be they The Downward Spiral or the double-disc The Fragile or the Social Network film soundtrack with Atticus Ross, the bite-sized Broken may very well be the ultimate distillation of his virtues. Within the restrictive confines of the EP format, Reznor let loose in ruthless fashion, and in the process crafted the music that ultimately formed the foundation on which his reputation now resides.

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