June 2000

Driven to succeed

Unlike America's most prominent political leader, Trent Reznor has rarely, if ever, claimed to feel your pain.

But the lead singer and musical mastermind of Nine Inch Nails -- still the mightiest industrial-rock band in the land after 11 years -- clearly feels his own pain, as he and his four-man band's charged Saturday night performance at SDSU's Cox Arena vividly demonstrated.

Reznor reiterated this point during a revamped version of "Hurt," which served as the fourth and final selection of the 94-minute concert's encore.

A deeply moving anthem of existential despair, it provided a stirring thematic coda to his anguished musical march down what Bob Dylan might now call neo-desolation row. In a hushed, plaintive voice, Reznor sang: I focus on the pain / The only thing that's real.

He expresses the pain of his troubled, dysfunctional existence so convincingly, and with such soul-searing intensity, that tortured young (and not so young) souls everywhere have embraced his conflicted emotions and dread-filled music as their own.

At least they did up until the mid-1990s, a time when Nine Inch Nails sold millions of albums and could easily fill such cavernous venues as the San Diego Sports Arena (as the group did in late-1994).

But times and tastes change. And while Nine Inch Nails' most recent album, last year's two-CD set, "The Fragile," is Reznor's most ambitious, challenging and rewarding work yet, the public response has been decidedly lukewarm.

To date, the critically acclaimed "The Fragile" has sold just over 750,000 copies, and has completely dropped off the national album charts. That's several million less than its predecessor, 1994's "The Downward Spiral," a wrenching aural chronicle of Reznor's rock-bottom descent into self-loathing and debilitating nihilism.

Reflecting this commercial downward spiral, Saturday's SDSU show drew just 5,060 fans, barely half the number that attended his group's Sports Arena gig six years ago.

Undaunted, he and his band are performing better -- and with greater determination and focus -- than ever on their current tour. So much so, in fact, that their decline from prominence seems to have only strengthened their resolve in this vision-challenged era of teen-pop confectioners, strike-a-pose hip-hop charlatans and rap-rocking white-trash lunkheads.

Accordingly, Reznor and company performed with liberating power and finely calibrated precision Saturday. Taking to the stage after a promising opening set by the moody Tool-offshoot band A Perfect Circle, Nine Inch Nails delivered even its most pulverizing numbers with finesse and a masterful command of dynamic tension and release.

The concert's electrifying opening salvo was provided by "Terrible Lie" and "Sin," two rock-and-roil classics from "Pretty Hate Machine," the 1989 debut album that put Nine Inch Nails and industrial-rock on the map.

"March of the Pigs" and "Reptile," which followed, were even more ferocious, as drummer Jerome Dillon laid down pile-driving backbeats marked by machine-gun-like bursts.

As strong as these first four songs were, they harkened back to the still volatile musical past of Nine Inch Nails, whose studio albums are largely one-man affairs by Reznor.

"The Frail" and "The Wretched," which came next, represented the group's musically fertile present. They also showcased Reznor and company's growing command of textural shading and understatement, even in the midst of an aural attack that was ear-numbingly loud but consistently crisp and clear.

The six other selections from "The Fragile" featured Saturday pointed to an artistically promising future, one in which Reznor's terminal Angst and self-loathing are balanced by a welcome sense of hope, however cautious.

Moreover, the material performed from "The Fragile," in particular the dreamlike "La Mer" and "The Great Below," suggested that nuance and delicacy may eventually rival sonic explosions and implosions as Reznor's most potent musical weapons. And the striking visual images by video artist Bill Viola -- which appeared on three light-crystal display (LED) screens above the band -- contasted very well with the rapid-fire strobe lights that dominated other parts of the concert.

As on previous tours, Reznor and his band mates still utilize the carefully sequenced, high-tech drum and bass loops that are a trademark of Nine Inch Nails postmodern rock style. But where the group once seemed to be providing live augmentation for its prerecorded tapes on stage, that equation has now been reversed, resulting in a fuller, more organic sound.

With the exception of the Marilyn Manson-bashing rave-up "Starsuckers" (as the similarly titled song from "The Fragile" was retitled when released as a single), Saturday's audience generally reacted more enthusiastically to such proven favorites as "Closer" and "Head Like a Hole" than to the newer, less overt material from "The Fragile."

But musical catharsis can come in many forms, and Trent Reznor has bravely decided to prove that the dramatic silences between his musical onslaughts can be just as effective.

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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.