Between the Grooves: 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's concise, focused, and arguably the pinnacle of Nine Inch Nails' discography.

Nine Inch Nails
Nothing / TVT / Interscope
22 September 1992

Trent Reznor: industrial auteur, Generation X icon, Grammy Award winner, lavishly-praised film composer. 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 number seven, 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.


Heavy Metal Guitarist by The Digital Artist (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

1. “Pinion” (instrumental)

Even working within the constraints of the EP format’s short runtime, Trent Reznor takes pains to open Broken with a sense of occasion. The first track is “Pinion”, a scant one minute and three seconds of an ascending guitar pattern gradually increasing in volume. When described that way, it doesn’t sound very exciting. That’s because “Pinion” is meant to be listened to, preferably with headphones on to appreciate the ambient noises that are also percolating in the background, slowly building up body and dread. The guitars are heavily processed and most likely sampled. Note the disjointed quality of the chords, which is audible evidence of digital cut-and-pasting.

Knowing Reznor, the stilted and artificial quality of the guitar pattern is deliberate. “Pinion” is a mood-setter, and what it is setting up is squirming, uncomfortable tension. “Pinion” also plays a cruelly clever volume trick. It starts stupidly quiet and increases in loudness both gradually and in great fits, which surely vexes any listeners trying to settle on a comfortable setting on the volume knob throughout its duration. In the track’s final seconds, the guitars attain peak loudness, with all other previously present sounds silenced by the magnitude of their presence. Though nothing harmonically has changed, the dynamic contrast is startling; if Broken hadn’t garner your attention in the preceding minute, it has now.

2. “Wish”

As suddenly as the flick of a switch, “Pinion” cuts out, and the volume shrinks back down, and the former’s guitar motif is seamlessly replaced with a stop-start mechanical hum and drum pattern with a noticeably high BPM number. It’s time for “Wish”, one of the EP’s singles, as well as one of its standouts. Even divorced from “Pinion”, “Wish” takes pent-up tension and vents it in searing micro-outbursts with machine-like precision. It’s fitting that its music video features Reznor and his backing band being swarmed by an unruly mob of humanity barely contained by metal bars.

Reznor could have made “Wish” into an all-out assault (certainly, its most aggressive moments are so forceful they are almost physically absorbed), but instead, he used his skills as an arranger to thread interesting details and clever touches throughout. The music drops out for a beat at key moments when Reznor wants to emphasize something (such as a transition or a particular obscenity), instruments come and go when needed for texture (note Martin Atkins’ live drums in the second verse). The song shifts into half-time for part of its choruses to lend the sections’ crushing heaviness extra wallop.

“This is the first day / Of my last days.” Trent Reznor’s first words on Broken are immediately answered by a fit of loud, gurgling guitars. If Nine Inch Nails fans back in 1992 had not had a chance to see the act live yet, they were in for a rude surprise if they were expecting a retread of Pretty Hate Machine‘s synth-dominated approach. The label “alternative metal” was only beginning to be thrown around back then, but the thrashing power chord riffs and pummeling drums of “Wish” placed it comfortably under that heading. Reznor utters only his first couplet with any sense of restraint; from then on, he screams his self-flagellating lyrics with all the bile he can muster.

Surely, “Wish” is one of the virulent expressions of guilt and self-loathing ever to be committed to tape. “I put my faith in God / And my trust in you / Now there’s nothing more fucked up I can do”, “I’m the one without a soul / I’m the one with this big fucking hole”, “You know me, I hate everyone” — If you couldn’t tell, Trent is a tad upset at letting someone down. Looking at the lyrics to “Wish” (or most any Nine Inch Nails song, it must be said), it might be tempting to view Reznor’s words as overwrought adolescent angst. Yet placed within the context of the music, they take on an undeniable power; nothing else could hold its own amongst the onslaught he has constructed. The song concludes with his screaming being overwhelmed by additional layers of raging guitars, which then abruptly cut out; all that remains in their wake is static-y ambience for the track’s final seconds.

“Wish” is ugly, brutal, confessional, and confrontational — and it’s brilliant at it. The song earned Reznor his first Grammy Award in 1993 for Best Metal Performance. Though Reznor has been dismissive about the accolade — judging by some remarks, he considers the choice of category he was honored in idiotic — it’s actually well-earned. “Wish” inaugurated Nine Inch Nails’ recorded debut as a full-on, heavy-and-hard rock outfit with unnerving intensity and potency. After hearing “Wish”, a generation of hard rockers (fans and musicians alike) still coming to grips with grunge’s ascendancy immediately saw the light and knew that the ante has just been raised.

3. “Last”

The drifting ambiance that fills out the closing seconds of “Wish” is a brief respite before the Broken EP continues with its rage-fuelled march with “Last”. Take heed and prepare yourself before pressing the “Play” button: “Last” is loud. A seemingly impossibly huge wall of guitars slams against the ears when the song starts and the onslaught scarcely relents until the track finishes.

Unlike the steady, speedy pulse of “Wish”, “Last” is a lumbering leviathan. Its thick, chugging riffage and its comparatively more organic gait (funny considering “Wish” used a human drummer and “Last” doesn’t) make it the most overtly heavy metal-sounding track on the record, spiritually closer to Black Sabbath than to Skinny Puppy. Given Trent Reznor’s experiences touring with an aggressive backing band in the years prior, it’s a logical realization of that aesthetic in studio form.

Given the rise of loud guitar bands indebted to the doom-and-dread aspect of metal’s legacy in the years between Pretty Hate Machine and Broken, it was fortuitously canny. One especially laudable instance of the song’s metallic flavor is the short lead guitar line that appears after the first chorus’s end. It’s a tastefully restrained part that nevertheless commands attention; in the context of “Last’s” dense roar, it comes across as the herald of the end of days.

The entire song has an apocalyptic air about it. Only three songs into Broken, “Last” is already trying to tear everything down and burn the remains. “Gave up trying to figure it out / My head got lost along the way” are the very first lines Trent Reznor sings, and his words from then on continue to drip with failure and resentment. Yet even as Reznor attempts to write off any glimmers of salvation (“Fresh blood through tired skin / New sweat to drown me in / Dress up this rotten carcass just to make it look alive,” he snidely remarks in the second verse), the choruses (“Come come come on / You gotta fix me up”) find him betraying himself in feeble, desperate calls for help.

Ultimately the only relief to be found in “Last” is in debauchery and masochistic punishment, with any hope of a future sacrificed to the certainty of the present moment. “This isn’t meant to last / This for right now,” Reznor sings in the song’s later stages, the last words stressed more as a means to impress some order on a chaotic world that has let him down (and vice versa) than as a statement of fact.

4. “Help Me I Am in Hell” (instrumental)

Following “Last” comes another short instrumental track. In this case, it’s “Help Me I Am in Hell”, which falls just under the two-minute mark. While “Wish” and “Last” arm themselves with anger and volume, this track opts to unnerve with the atmosphere. Its most prominent element is a clipped guitar motif slowly played in a palm-muted fashion. The effect it creates is that of an understated dread crawling insect-like into the listener’s presence (a similar sensibility is conveyed by its unsettling music video).

Like “Pinion”, there is plenty of textural ear candy percolating in the background. Listen to “Help Me I Am in Hell” a few times with headphones on to truly appreciate the details composer/instrumentalist/producer Reznor plays around with in this short span. At this point, it’s worthwhile to point out that the CD case includes the helpful note “not for use with mono devices”. Unlike “Pinion”, no final release is afforded. That task is left to the next track on Broken, the punishing (and Grammy-winning, after a fashion) “Happiness in Slavery”.

5. “Happiness in Slavery”

“Slave screams!” As with “Last”, the fifth (officially listed) track on Broken goes straight for the jugular. A dense cacophony of earth-shuddering rhythms, scything guitar and keyboards, and savage screams, “Happiness in Slavery” is tied with “Wish” for the title of the EP’s standout song and is probably its most recognizable.

Of all the tracks from Broken, “Happiness in Slavery” is the one most directly descended from the first Nine Inch Nails album, Pretty Hate Machine. Discount the aggro guitars (harsher and turned up way louder than they ever would have been on Pretty Hate Machine), and this sadomasochist industrial dance number would fit comfortably against like-minded peers from that record, “Terrible Lie” and “Sin”. Yet comparing those cuts clarifies how much NIN’s Trent Reznor had evolved as a musician between 1989 and 1992. As great as those tracks are, they sound like warm-ups compared to the fully-realized vision of this number, where the ante has been upped considerably.

For those who want to place Nine Inch Nails in the lurid lineage of shock-rock, “Happiness in Slavery” makes the case all on its own. NIN certainly never shied from pushing the buttons of America’s stodgier sectors, not to mention the direct link from the band to Marilyn Manson. Yet whether they are titillating or off-putting to listeners, the song’s overbearing attack and taboo-tweaking lyrical matter (and even its danceable nature) are not why the track warrants attention.

Rather, it is deserving of praise and recognition because it summarizes Trent Reznor’s capabilities as a producer up to that point. While co-producer Flood pitches in on the EP’s other proper songs, “Happiness in Slavery” is Reznor’s showcase alone. Reznor gathers up all the tricks he has amassed in his career so far — transgressive first-wave industrial confrontationalism, second-wave industrial dancefloor inclinations, and insistent riffs, cutting-edge musical textures, self-loathing lyrics, a knack for hooks — and arranges them meticulously to assemble his mechanical monster of a song.

The main rhythm of “Happiness in Slavery” is enough to shock the system. The hits of the drum pattern backbeat are akin to contained explosions, with nuances in texture separating them into the roles normally assigned to the bass drum and snare on a drum kit. Reznor’s alternating cries of “Slave screams!” and his static-shrouded callback lines blend in with the rhythm to form an impregnable gestalt of noise. Come the pre-choruses, a snarling bass pattern intrudes. The bassline acts as a way to balance our and subvert (pervert, even) the honeyed melodicism with which Reznor sings, “Don’t open your eyes / You won’t like what you see / The devils of truth steal the souls of the free.”

A similar contrast occurs in the choruses, where mega-heavy guitars churn alongside a whiny synth melody and Reznor’s half-exhausted/half-relieved utterances of the song’s title. The second verse isn’t a mere reprise of the first; rather, spiraling guitar riffs coupled with his increasingly desperate screams convey the sensation that Reznor has cranked up the power on his musical torture machine to an alarming level.

The song’s extended bridge section acts as a demonstration of various percussive textures. Keyboards, drum patterns, even Reznor’s voice — they all become pumping pistons tasked with crushing all resistance. Whether intentional or not, a precedent is audible in the metal-clanging bridge to Depeche Mode’s “Master and Servant”, a song which shares similar lyrical fascinations. Following the briefest of relieving pauses, that gnarly bassline and mocking feedback snap the song back to attention for a wordless final pre-chorus. By this late stage, the song essentially succumbs to its chorus, which it wallows in for over a minute until bit by bit individual elements are removed, leaving an isolated and dehumanized Reznor to whisper, “It controls you.”

Though Broken hit the Billboard Top 10, radio wasn’t quite ready for “Happiness in Slavery”. Music television certainly wasn’t — MTV understandably banned the song’s graphic video, which depicts a man being dismembered by a torture machine. Said unavailable video was included in the 1993 Broken companion film — also never officially released due to graphic content. It’s perverse then that the band’s performance of the song at its legendary mud-soaked Woodstock ’94 set was what earned it its second Grammy Award in 1995.

At that point, The Downward Spiral had cemented Reznor as a marquee-level rock star. The similarly seedy (albeit less confrontational and more easily censored) “Closer” had dented radio and MTV, so while “Happiness in Slavery” was not (and will never be) everyone’s idea of a pleasant listen, the barriers to entry had been made a little less daunting. Still, all those middle-aged hippies at Woodstock ’94 must’ve wondered if the festival planners were playing some cruel joke on them as that song blared out from the stage.

6. “Gave Up”

“Gave Up” is the final listed track on Broken, and in that position, it’s well-placed to serve as an encapsulation of the brief EP’s themes. Though the record’s guitar-rock aggression can empower listeners, Broken is really about the loss of control and the frustration and self-reflection that can flourish in such circumstances. Trent Reznor’s well-publicized struggles with his label at the time, TVT, are his obvious muses, yet his frustrations are never etched out in detail or specifics. Instead, Reznor opts for bruised proclamations that are succinct and memorable enough to enable them to be applied with universality.

Another theme Broken dwells upon is the relationship between man and machine. Given the prominence of both electronics and traditional instruments in Nine Inch Nails’ music, this duality has always been present to some extent in Reznor’s work, whether by implication or by overt acknowledgment. Broken skews towards the latter camp in a clever manner that takes advantage of the stylistic overall the EP heralded for the band. Broken is a fierce guitar rock record, the heaviest, hardest, most rockist music Reznor had made up to that point in his career.

Yet instead of overwhelming and obliterating the electronic elements (which NIN as a live band had proved it could do, during the first Lollapalooza tour and elsewhere in the late ’80s and early ’90s), Reznor casts himself in a defensive stance. He wields his newfound instrumental muscle as if it is the desperate last hope available to him that can keep the mechanical monstrosities at bay. The lines “Covered in hope and Vaseline / Still cannot fix this broken machine” are especially evocative and reinforce the idea of Broken as a heavy industry contraption with weight and rust to it instead of some sleek cutting edge studio concoction that would sound outdated a few short years later.

All through Broken, Reznor has strived for deliverance from the mechanized forces oppressing him, only to be continuously ground down and punished. On “Gave Up”, he fittingly succumbs fully. Gabbing like a goblin in the choruses, Reznor screeches, “Smashed up my everything / Smashed up all that was true / Gonna smash myself to pieces / I don’t know what else to do.” He sings as if he’s pleased to have his dreams crushed and his delusions shattered; as the previous track suggests, he has found happiness in slavery. Make no mistake, though: the lips singing those words are fixed into a cynical sneer.

Throughout his career, Reznor has affirmed himself as a consistently bullish and uncompromising artist. This is, after all, the man who defiantly declared on his first album, “I’d rather die than give you control!” He later told fans to steal Year Zero in the face of what he considered outrageous pricing. If anything, “Gave Up” and Broken are his examinations of what it is like to be forced to be in the thrall of an outside agency (again, TVT Records), and having undergone that experience, he can only look upon it with revulsion and self-loathing. “After everything I’ve done, I hate myself for what I’ve become.” If Broken is a document of Reznor being cowed, the situation would not last long. (Fittingly, a remix CD of this EP was later released under the title Fixed, and that record as well as his second full-length The Downward Spiral further aided Reznor on his journey to the top of the ’90s’ modern rock heap.)

Never has defeat sounded as energized as on “Gave Up”. Ever since I first heard Broken, the speedy clip at which the song moved always made me compare it to the similarly brisk tempo of “Wish”, and I have long considered both songs cut from the same cloth. Until recently, that comparison led me to unfairly look upon “Gave Up” as a retread upon familiar territory. What led me to reevaluate my opinion was watching an in-studio performance video of “Gave Up” from 1993. It’s a great rendition, where the song’s simmering intensity is carefully cultivated and maintained by Reznor and his assemblage of ne’er-do-wells. Among them, drummer Chris Vrenna reprising his phenomenal stickwork from the record, as well as a pre-stardom Marilyn Manson churning out rhythm guitar chords.

That video clip depicts Reznor and Nine Inch Nails at a pivotal juncture. To the average person in 1993, if they were aware of Nine Inch Nails at all, it was as a vaguely scary entity, one with an evocative name and logo that seemed to insidiously crop up in more and more places with each passing year. Clad in funereal black, paling around with a future Antichrist Superstar, and recording in the former mansion of Sharon Tate, the notorious site of the Charles Manson Family murders (Reznor has always asserted that he didn’t know about the house’s history when he started renting the premises), Reznor could have easily made the rest of his career about shock and schlock.

In short, he could’ve become what Marilyn Manson did, a cultural boogeyman/scapegoat whose headline-grabbing persona overshadowed his recording career. While the trappings mentioned above are all evident in the “Gave Up” clip, what is also evident is the diligence and craftsmanship of Reznor and his crew, as the performers’ furrowed dedication and the digital tracks carefully assembled on an array of computer screens attest. To this day, Reznor’s music continues to grapple with anger and transgression, and he will still trash his gear on stage if his mood sours. However, craft has always come first, and that is why as good as Broken is, it is really only an early stage of a brilliant creative streak for the musician.

7. “Physical”

Anger and frustration distilled into EP form, Broken certainly has no contenders for the title of the most direct Nine Inch Nails record. Yet the trim tracklist on the back cover doesn’t tell the whole story. Like Nirvana’s Nevermind, Broken is another early 1990s release that updates the oddball surprises that could be found on vinyl runout grooves for the CD age.

In the case of Broken, simply refrain from pressing the “stop” button once “Gave Up” concludes, and you’ll notice something odd: the CD player track numbers will increase second by second in complete silence. Once your media player reaches track 98, the first of two “hidden” cuts will emerge, a trudging cover of “Physical (You’re So)”.

“Physical (You’re So)” dates from the earliest incarnation of Adam and the Ants (then known as Adam and the Antz), before notorious manager Malcolm McLaren spun off three-fourths of the band to become Bow Wow Wow. What was the dark prince of industrial rock doing covering a song by New Romantic pop stars with a penchant for dressing like pirates? Though best known for triumphant hits “Stand and Deliver” and “Goody Two-Shoes”, the pre-schism Antz weren’t thematically far from Nine Inch Nails.

Like NIN’s Trent Reznor, singer Adam Ant possessed a smoldering charisma, and the band’s glammy stomp and kinky fascinations understandably drew devotees from among those who would form the initial nucleus of the goth subculture. Listening to the seductive, halting grind of the original “Physical (You’re So)”, it becomes evident how it could find a welcoming home in the Nine Inch Nails songbook. Reznor’s tip of the hat to these half-forgotten New Wave stars was a brave move at a time when alternative musicians seemed to be trawling for credibility points with their hip choices of cover material.

Aside from the industrial trappings and the noticeably beefier guitars, the main difference between these recordings is the tone of the vocals. The Antz version is seductively playful; Adam Ant is practically pouting as he sings and squeals into the microphone. In comparison, Trent Reznor sings with the tortured, laborious breaths of someone desperate for release. It’s an approach that ties the cover closer to the EP’s greater themes of control and self-hatred, as well as perpetuates the sinister vibe that’s been running through the record even in its quieter moments. It also makes the song function as a labored five-minute dirge. Whether that’s your cup of tea depends on how much of a comedown you need once the main content of Broken wraps up.

8. “Suck” (Pigface cover)

After nearly a half-hour of industrial intensity (as well as a fake ending), Nine Inch Nails’ Broken EP finally closes with a drastic reworking of “Suck”. Unlike Adam and the Ants’ “Physical (You’re So)”, it’s not quite accurate to call this take on the song a cover. NIN’s Trent Reznor recorded the original version of “Suck” with industrial collab Pigface for its 1991 album Gub.

The inclusion of “Suck” is a rather fitting conclusion to the EP. Due to contractual tangles with his label TVT in the early 1990s, Reznor cut back on his musical output; the Pigface collaboration was one of the few exceptions in the period leading up to the unveiling of Broken. Now freed from TVT’s grasp and already signed up with a new label (Broken is stamped with both TVT and Interscope logos), Reznor reasserts control over his career. In what could be interpreted as a final kiss-off to his old imprint, he brings a song he recorded during Nine Inch Nails’ release moratorium squarely into the outfit’s oeuvre.

Lyrics aside, the two versions of “Suck” are drastically different songs. Pigface’s version revives the British post-punk aesthetic with its tribal drums and its sparse-yet-prominent bassline. Dark and spacious, it presages Nine Inch Nails’ 1994 cover of Joy Division’s “Dead Souls”. In contrast to Gub producer Steve Albini’s no-frills recording approach, the version on Broken is funkier and more full-bodied. A heavily processed melody appears at the start and reoccurs later in the song. Dynamic shifts (in tandem with raging guitars, instruments completely absent from the earlier incarnation) are utilized to give it a proper chorus. While the original take could be mistaken for some early 1980s obscurity, Nine Inch Nails’ version bears its unmistakable imprint.

Taken in isolation, Broken earns distinction for being such a nasty little piece of work. It hits hard, stays focused, relents only enough to give listeners a chance to catch their breath, and never wears out its welcome. Within the greater picture of the Nine Inch Nails discography, Broken‘s stature becomes more pronounced. That is because, in addition to its quality (it’s easily the equal of several NIN LPs), it’s the sound of Trent Reznor being inspired by an unquenchable fury to come into his own as an artist. Pretty Hate Machine and the first Lollapalooza tour set up Nine Inch Nails as an intriguing cult act.

The snarling, uncompromising Broken gave notice to the mainstream that Nine Inch Nails were a force to be reckoned with. Perhaps more importantly, once Reznor got Broken out of his system, he strove to be more diverse and subtle on his subsequent effort. That record? His crowning achievement, 1994’s The Downward Spiral.