Various Artists: The Broken Machine: A Tribute to Nine Inch Nails
Vitamin Records is in the business of making tribute albums. The Vitamin catalogue features both the kooky (like the lounge music tributes Joyful Noise: The Lounge Tribute to Ani Difranco and The Cocktail Tribute to Nirvana) and the more serious (Cracking the Code: Tribute to Kraftwerk). Nine Inch Nails (NIN) rates two Vitamin tributes: Radiant Decay: A Tribute to Nine Inch Nails and The Broken Machine: A Tribute to Nine Inch Nails. While Radiant Decay is packaged as a remix CD, The Broken Machine features mostly underground techno, goth, death metal, and industrial bands performing their favorite NIN tunes.
Since the release of Pretty Hate Machine in 1989, NIN have been influencing artists along a musical spectrum that includes styles as diverse as the ethereal pop of Tori Amos and the apocalyptic sounds of Marilyn Manson. In fact, there have been three NIN tribute CDs within the last three years: Radiant Decay (Vitamin Records, 2000), A Tribute to Nine Inch Nails: Closer to the Spiral (Angelstar/Zoomica Music, 2001), and The Broken Machine (Vitamin Records, 2001). Although some critics have written off Trent Reznor (the creative force behind NIN) as a gimmicky, angst-ridden poseur, NIN's music has steadily crept its way into popular-culture consciousness.
While the general consensus among hardcore NIN fans seems to be that The Broken Machine is worth purchasing (as is anything related to Trent Reznor), many also judge the CD to be an overall disappointment because most of the songs don't sound like the originals. The closer a song comes to a note-by-note duplication of the original, these fans argue, the better the song. Any deviations from the original -- the addition of different instruments, a change in vocal phrasing, a reinterpretation of a song's introduction -- automatically relegate the song to being musically inferior to more "authentic" renderings. As Kiran Aditham writes in a review of The Broken Machine, advice to the more casual NIN fan has generally been to "save money and listen to the original recordings" (Ink19, October 2001).
However, the point of a good tribute CD is to present reinterpretations of songs by other artists. NIN's impact on the worlds of goth, industrial, techno, heavy metal, and pop is far-reaching, and songs that sound just like the originals wouldn't do justice to NIN's influence. The bands on The Broken Machine add their own touches to the songs, making them their own, while paying tribute to NIN. Although some of the songs on The Broken Machine are hard on the ears -- some of them I find downright impossible to listen for any sustained period of time -- the CD is a pretty good tribute to one of the most innovative and influential bands of the last decade.
The Broken Machine does a good job of presenting listeners with a variety of NIN material that spans the band's career. In addition to including songs previously released on exclusively NIN recordings (Pretty Hate Machine through The Fragile are represented here), the CD also recognizes NIN's contribution to movie soundtracks. For example, The Broken Machine includes Anachromatic's version of "Burn", a song that originally appeared on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers.
Most of the bands contributing to the CD are likely to be new to most listeners. Aside from giving unknown bands some exposure, the CD's inclusion of mostly underground bands also illustrates that while NIN has certainly garnished a lot of mainstream success, the band continues to influence and inspire music outside of the mainstream. Most of the bands on The Broken Machine will probably never achieve much radio airplay, have their videos played on MTV, or sell millions of records like NIN.
On one level, it's ironic that NIN's music has achieved such multi-platinum status. As someone who has portrayed himself as such an outsider, Reznor's dark music seems to have resonated with a lot of people. Bile performs "Happiness in Slavery", the song containing the lines for which the CD is named: "Stick my hand through the cage of endless routine / Just some flesh caught in this broken machine". Do the millions of people who have purchased NIN's CDs identify with Reznor's view of society as a monotonous machine devouring its citizens? More than likely, the millions of fans are attracted to Reznor's angst-ridden charisma, the danceable quality of many NIN songs, and NIN's ability to showcase the bizarre, the extreme, and the taboo. Most of the millions who have purchased NIN's CDs or bought a ticket to see NIN in concert would probably not appreciate the edginess and noise of the bands on The Broken Machine. Indeed, these bands' underground status foregrounds the marginalized narratives presented in most of the songs.
Musically, there are some pleasant surprises here. In "Starfuckers, Inc." and "Into the Void/The Day the World Went Away", Wormhole builds on the electronic and industrial noises of NIN, producing richly textured cyber-orchestrations. Nocturne's version of "Kinda I Want To" rocks and is best played loud ("I know it's not the right thing / And I know it's not the good thing / But kinda I want to" -- certainly, the allure of the dark side is present throughout NIN's oeuvre). Nocturne's danceable rendition of this song reminds us of how seductive the idea of walking on the wild side can be. Transient's version of "Big Man With a Gun" retains its satirical bite, attesting to the relevance of Reznor's social commentary: "I am a big man / (Yes I am) / And I have a big gun. / Got me a big old dick and I / I like to have fun"!
However, every track on the CD isn't so appealing. Clocking in at just over eight minutes, Anno Daemonicus's version of "Reptile" is way over the top. The band takes this song way too seriously. Imagine a lower-voiced Jim Morrison (an exaggerated version of the Lizard King himself), and combine it with a growling, creature-feature voice from a B-movie. Put all of this on top of a slow, plodding, death-metal, grinding background, and you have this song: "She spreads herself wide open to let the insects in / She leaves a trail of honey to show me where she's been / She has the blood of reptile just underneath her skin / Seeds from a thousand others drip down from within / Oh my beautiful liar / Oh my precious whore / My disease my infection". It's all, well, just a bit too much. This is the only song on the CD that you can't dance to, and it's the only song on the CD that didn't grow on me after listening to it a few times.
The Broken Machine will not be the last of the tributes to NIN. The band's most recent release earlier this year, the much anticipated live CD And All That Could Have Been, surely will bring the band even more popularity, just as NIN's musical innovations and subversive subject matter will continue to occupy the attentions of underground artists.