Nine Inch Nails brings eloquence to the angst

By Neva Chonin for San Francisco Chronicle on April 29, 2005

Three songs into Nine Inch Nails' set Wednesday, Trent Reznor dropped the first hint that his much-vaunted industrial angst had taken a more philosophical turn. Wrapping up the vintage "Downward Spiral" song "March of the Pigs," he opened his arms in a gesture that could be read as either an embrace or a crucifixion, reciting the coda: "Doesn't it make you feel ..." He paused for effect, then, "... better?" Then Reznor grinned -- a huge, gleeful grin -- as the sold-out house detonated with cheers.

NIN's mercurial singer is feeling seriously better these days, after years of writer's block and alcoholism, and he's not shy about telling the world. The band's new "With Teeth" album, in stores Tuesday, retains all the furious attitude of classic NIN music from the '90s, but also conveys the maturity that comes from being a 39-year-old rock star who's survived the slings and arrows of his own excessively good fortune.

This doesn't mean Reznor's a born-again Pollyanna. As the Warfield show proved, he remains the malcontent whose eloquent angst shaped a decade's worth of industrial music and hard rock. He's just stopped letting his demons eat him alive.

Backed by a new four-piece lineup that included kinetic guitarist Aaron North and drummer Jerome Dillon, whose metronomic playing formed the core of the group, a buffed-up Reznor chose to sample his catalog rather than simply promote his latest release. Fan favorites dating from "Pretty Hate Machine" through "The Fragile" were juxtaposed with tracks from "With Teeth," and it was a good match. Recent songs introduced the crowd to the group's shift toward guitar-based rock; older songs were given a new, sweaty spontaneity.

With Reznor alternating between hanging off the microphone, playing guitar and even diving into the crowd (during "Piggy"), the 90-minute set's moods and tempos ranged from the frenetic death-rock of "You Know What You Are" to the industrial funk of "Suck" to the slow, introspective grind of "The Line Begins to Blur." As always hyper-erotic, "Closer" was infused with a swagger that toned down the menace and amplified the sex; a take-no-prisoners run through "Head Like a Hole" did justice to its eternally adolescent fury.

Highlights included a rendition of "Hurt" that bordered on majestic, with Reznor playing keyboards while most of the Warfield joined in a sing-along hewing eerily close to incantation. The anti-anthem "Wish" was a study in bedlam, and all the better for it: Where earlier performances emphasized its machinelike precision, this time the band turned the track into a chaotic guitar fandango.

"It's nice to be back," Reznor announced the start of "Reptile," another classic NIN track from the '90s. It was the polite thing to say, but it was also undoubtedly the truth. Unlike his voice-of-a-generation contemporary, Kurt Cobain, Reznor hasn't flared out like a supernova. Instead he's managed to endure with the tenacity of a stable, but fiery, planet. If he's grown up, age hasn't mellowed him. He can still voice an angry sorrow that's as universal as oxygen.

Reznor kvetches so we don't have to, and doesn't that make you feel better?