The last time Nine Inch Nails played a show in Europe, Trent Reznor said, “This is our last show in Europe for… I don’t know, maybe ever.” It was a blistering night on 14 July 2018, in Madrid, and I cautiously called his bluff right there and then. It wasn’t the first time Reznor was saying goodbye to Nine Inch Nails; in 2014 he dismantled the celebrated band, only to come back louder and angrier than ever in 2016/17 with a trio of thematically and narratively brilliant EPs, followed by a massive global tour with more than 50 dates. When he reluctantly bid us farewell that night in Spain, I wrote he would probably come back soon enough, perhaps after another batch of side ventures and awards.
Thankfully, this is exactly how things turned out. Since 2018, Academy Award winner Reznor became a two-time Academy Award winner – this time for a jazz soundtrack to 2020’s Soul, a Pixar film directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers. On top of this win, he and Atticus Ross have received rave reviews for Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen limited series soundtrack, and had yet another Academy Award nomination for Original Score for David Fincher’s Mank (2020). He also produced pop singer Halsey’s widely acclaimed 2021 album, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power. Indeed, as one of the most prolific and nowadays diverse producers in the business, Reznor has come a long way from America’s Designated Grumbler.
Nevertheless, the worry and anger are still very much there and there is arguably no angrier band in the mainstream than Nine Inch Nails. After Brexit, the mayhem of the Trump administration, several horrific war escalations threatening to crash the global economy, and the pandemic, it was as clear as day that Reznor would not let his linchpin – or his absolutely justifiable rage – go. With no new material to promote, this summer his band returns live for a mere handful of gigs in the UK and France, followed by ten dates in the US in the fall; and boy, are we glad they are.
By any reasonable assessment, Nine Inch Nails’ shows resonate the most in large venues but it’s hardly a secret that Reznor loves to blur lines and be close to the audience. Manchester’s O2 Apollo, with a capacity of 3,500, proves to be an almost intimate space, allowing for a raw, even carnal performance. Though Nine Inch Nails hasn’t played the city in eight and the venue in 15 years, this seemingly odd choice for an industrial metal performance is a blessing for the initiated – we know things are about to get nasty.
The night begins with a compelling performance from supporting act Yves Tumor, whose darkly complex arrangements and vocals cannot really take off inside a theater. Beautifully claustrophobic as the space may be, its acoustic is weak, something only a band like Nine Inch Nails can bypass with the sheer force of sound. Close to 9:00 pm, the space is packed and the smell of beer and sweat stuffs the nostrils. The audience is predominantly middle-aged, dressed in 50 shades of grey, and ready to go berserk, apart from several hundred folks hastily squeezing their way to a cold pint.
At nine, a cloud of thick smoke obscures the entire (tiny) stage and Reznor emerges, launching straight into the vocals of “Somewhat Damaged” without the guitar and drum intro. People throw their drinks screaming and push toward the rail, ready to go wild to the deafening guitar grind that will follow exactly 50 seconds later. Nine Inch Nails fans are pros, and the atmosphere of both anguish and ecstasy will last through the night.
At 57, Reznor is a monstrously experienced and effective performer, commanding the crowds from start to finish with nothing but his delivery. Dressed, as always, in a simple black trousers-shirt combo and a leather vest, he sneers, shouts, and slithers through the smoke while Atticus Ross, Ilan Rubin, Robin Finck, and Alessandro Cortini produce a palisade of noise. The show these veterans bring is a well-established affair where we know what to expect, which is easily one of the best live bands on earth. If there is a defining quality of a live Nine Inch Nails show, it is assault: an assault on the sensed produced by the backdrop, the music, the effects, the singing, or the lyrics, but mostly a combination of all. People come to a Nine Inch Nails concert to shake their fists, scream and release energy, and Reznor & co. always deliver.
The main surprise of the night is the setlist. Never the one to settle for monotony, Reznor is notorious for changing the setlist night after night, with only a small number of hits performed over years. Tonight we are treated to an assortment of the most vicious songs off The Fragile, his dark 1999 masterpiece, written during the height of Reznor’s years of alienation and personal woes. “Somewhat Damaged” is followed immediately by “The Day the World Went Away”, a properly apocalyptic piece used to promote McG’s 2009 film, Terminator Salvation, and the fourth season of Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan’s Westworld. Nobody, however, is very concerned about the songs which will be played, and for two solid reasons: one, all of Reznor’s songs are intense and, two, all of them are good or excellent.
Over the course of one hour and 50 minutes, a total of 22 songs from ten releases are played, and a pattern emerges. Despite Nine Inch Nails’ music being deeply anxiety-ridden, tonight the vast majority of songs are the socially concerned ones, dealing with topics such as systemic societal failure, corrupt regimes, and a general sense of disappointment in one’s life and the world they inhabit. “Wish”, a 30-year-old fan favorite, is followed by “1,000,000”, an exquisite opener to 2008’s The Slip, detailing the thoughts of a man who “can’t feel anything at all”. Big singalongs ensue with “Sin”, “Something I Can Never Have”, and “Reptile”, but “Discipline” reverts the tone back to pure indignation. “Ahead of Ourselves” and “God Break Down the Door”, taken off Nine Inch Nails’ latest EP, 2018’s Bad Witch, come as a great reminder of Reznor’s growing anger and the edge that he never lost.
On the contrary, his most recent works are also (besides 1992’s Broken) his most aggressive, tackling the thoughts of an aging person who cannot come to terms with a society that’s falling apart left, right and center. It is rare seeing someone who’s been in the business for 33 years getting better with age, but the secret lies in the undisputed fact that Reznor loves what he does. His love of his work is evident at every step, from keeping his band alive despite many acclaimed projects to choosing small venues despite enormous popularity to create an intimate atmosphere.
Reznor’s love of Nine Inch Nails is, of course, directly proportional to his resentment toward the state of affairs in today’s America and the world (as I write these words, Roe vs. Wade has been overturned by the Supreme Court, a disastrous step back for the civilization). For this reason, we keep getting more of his spectacular, honest performances, so we can all come together to shout at the skies. The UK isn’t doing much better than the States at the moment; there are no mass shootings or a dystopian lack of healthcare as in the US, but there are the devastating consequences of Brexit and the pandemic, and the inflation rate at a 40-year high. I live in Germany and things aren’t great over there, either. Bilaterally speaking, we’re all screwed, not to mention incomprehensibly powerless.
This is where Reznor comes in, and we’re thankful. Toward the end of “God Break Down the Door”, he picks up a saxophone for a frantic outro. “That was a shit song!,” exclaims a blond woman in the front row. I guess not everyone is as thrilled as I am by every tune.
A very short anger management break comes with the lovely piano-based “La Mer”, but as soon as “The Frail”, another, and much more ominous, instrumental, begins, we know “The Wretched” is coming. The crushingly nihilistic song, which Reznor says he wrote at a low point in his life, elicits a teeth-grinding singalong to, “It didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to, it didn’t turn out quite the way that you wanted it!,” and lots of pent-up anger is released. Make no mistake, this catharsis is safe and ultimately very healthy.
With the seductive “Me, I’m Not” I am instantly reminded of a completely different aspect of Reznor’s performance and the sexiness found within so many of his works. But there is no room here for these remarks as the rage returns with a vengeance in “Survivalism”, one of Nine Inch Nail’s finest-written songs about a country gone mad. “I’ve got my propaganda, I’ve got revisionism, I’ve got my violence in high-def ultra-realism… All a part of this great nation, I’ve got my fist, I’ve got my plan, I’ve got survivalism!” we all scream and fist pump.
The high point of the show comes with “Every Day Is Exactly the Same”, a torturous ballad off 2005’s With Teeth. As Reznor squeezes, “I can’t remember how this got started, but I can tell you exactly how it will end,” through his gritted teeth, an immense singalong launches during the chorus. He stops singing, even the music stops, and the singalong continues until the very end. “Wow. That was beautiful. Thank you,” says Reznor, bowing to the crowd. “Burn”, “Gave Up” and “Head Like a Hole”, make a fiery (no pun intended) trio to end the main part of the concert. Nine Inch Nails’ photographer knows this is the final escalation point and runs into the crowd for some high-quality shots of fans convulsing with excitement.
The encore brings a couple of nice surprises. “Only”, a perfect pop tune and one of Nine Inch Nails’ preeminent radio-friendly songs brings many attendees of varied genders to dance. I’m all too happy to join them. This is the “sexy” part described earlier and a highly enjoyable erotic component of the whole experience. ”And All That Could Have Been” quickly offsets this, though; a quietly devastating ballad Reznor seldom performed over the past 20 years, It’s a sad but powerful near-ending to a supercharged show.
Of course, the performance ends with “Hurt”, a song lovingly covered by Johnny Cash. Nineteen years ago, Cash gave this iconic tune a new meaning, singing about the regrets toward the end of life, but it’s still Reznor whose original words still pack the biggest punch. It’s probably because, for us there and then, there is no proverbial end in sight -_ once we leave the venue, we will get to live for a long time with all the phenomena Reznor so vividly describes and despises. Doesn’t make the show any less great in any case.
Around 11:00 pm we leave the venue, only to realize that a massive, three-day rail strike is about to begin around the country and that we might not even be able to travel back. In our lifetime, the reality has never been as challenging as it is now, and we are thankful to Reznor for allowing us to process our woes in this exciting, cathartic, and ultimately very fun way.