April 2000

Rock review, Nine Inch Nails at the UIC Pavilion

With a name like Nine Inch Nails, certain standards of pain, loathing and disgust must be maintained. And for years, Trent Reznor and his touring band of assassins have been reliably driving spikes of wrath into impressionable young psyches. But the seething contempt for everything that moves, it turns out, is a shield for far deeper emotions; when Reznor let his audience look behind his armor plating over the weekend at the UIC Pavilion, the view was startling.

Previous Nine Inch Nails tours have taken on disturbing, fascist-youth rally overtones with their unrelenting assault. The mood was cathartic, if one-dimensional: a dark, nearly inhuman purge. But the current incarnation of Reznor's road show presents a far more complex picture. The rivet-gun peaks were still there, but now the atmospheric lows were present as well. And, in the end, there was an oddly uplifting sense of having journeyed through something, damaged but transformed.

When Reznor screamed "How does it feeee-yall?" in the midst of "Suck," a decade-old track originally recorded with Chicago-based Pigface, the question verged on desperation. It is the central conflict in Nine Inch Nails' three albums, the struggle to retain feeling and compassion in an inhuman world. It's a big, potentially melodramatic theme--take a couple of wrong turns and pretty soon you've got Andrew Lloyd Weber for young goths. But Reznor wisely underplaying the theatrics--save for the stunning lighting designed by Mark Brickman of Pink Floyd fame--and let his music speak, with dramatic ebb-and-flow dynamics over a riveting 90 minutes.

Strobe-lit silhouettes behind a black curtain, the five members of Nine Inch Nails entered with the tense lurch of "Somewhat Damaged," blurring the line between "real" instruments and electronic artifice with impressive ease. Though Reznor's studio creations have become increasingly complex, the stage show was no less ambitious, underpinning live drums with scalloped electronic beats and altering the tone of guitars and keyboards to create cinematic soundscapes.

In the same way, his songs suggested smudged, impressionistic snapshots of rock 'n' roll's past, mutant visions of classic songcraft. The Rolling Stones' sneering, leering "Star, Star" became the brutal kiss-off "Star(expletive), Inc," which the singer dedicated to "an ex-friend" (congratulations if you guessed Marilyn Manson).

There was "The Day the World Went Away," with its "Hey, Jude"-like finale, Reznor trying to take his sad song and make it better, against all odds. There was "Closer," an undeniable hit despite its explicit chorus, which pulled a bit of trashy doo-wop from Lou Reed's "Take a Walk on the Wild Side," and then nodded toward George Clinton with an extended, surprisingly funky coda. And there was "Head Like a Hole," turning the theme of Depeche Mode's "Master and Servant" into a hard-swinging machine-metal rant.

But what made these moments resonate was the space between--the delicate instrumental interludes such as "The Frail" and especially the devastating "A Warm Place," and the majestic elegy "The Great Below." For the finale, Reznor didn't end with a wallop but with a relative whisper, the plaintive "Hurt."

"If I could start again. . .I would find a way." Whereas in the past, the Nails would have tried to hammer the lid down, here was Reznor emerging into the light, dazed and glassy-eyed, but alive.

Opening was A Perfect Circle, the new side project for Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan. The singer projected a brooding sensitivity that contrasted sharply with Tool's art-metal abrasiveness, and his band evoked the darker, heavier side of Seattle grunge.

By Greg Kot

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Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails
This article is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously located at SUS.