June 2000

Reznor Brings Back the Thrill

His last album was inaccessible, but Nine Inch Nails frontman confidently connects in concert.

Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor is an artist who listens to his demons, an approach that has led to some of the darkest--and most compelling--music of the rock era. In a series of albums and concerts in the early and mid-'90s, Reznor explored issues of insecurity and self-loathing with a primal fury that made him not only one of rock's most popular figures, but also one of its most influential.

But Reznor ran into something of a creative dead-end last year when he released "The Fragile," a sprawling album that was brilliant in places but so relentlessly dark and overblown (at more than 100 minutes) that it proved inaccessible for even many of his most devoted fans.

Worse, the album, his first in five years, failed to expand upon Reznor's original message. The instrumental textures were imaginative and affecting, but the lyrics either retraced earlier ideas or simply misfired. When the collection was a disappointment in the marketplace, questions were raised about Reznor's ability to still connect with audiences on a mass level.

On Tuesday at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, Reznor answered the doubts with a nearly two-hour concert that was as confident and commanding as the Lakers' fourth-quarter charge Sunday against the Portland Trail Blazers.

Reznor knows the importance of demonstrating the continued vitality of his music, and he and the four musicians in this edition of Nine Inch Nails delivered that music with a relentless force that conveyed the genuine thrill of electrifying rock 'n' roll.

They were backed by lighting that crisscrossed the stage with jabs and stabs so in rhythm with the music that they seemed like another instrument. (Marc Brickman is the tour's lighting set designer, and Leroy Bennet is the lighting programmer.)

Reznor raced around the stage, sometimes tumbling across the floor or bumping into the musicians--as if he too was somehow an extension of the sledgehammer beats that were woven through a symphony of guitars, synthesizers and drums.

Equally effective was Reznor's choice of songs, drawn from various albums to provide an overview of his musical journey.

"Hey God, why are you doing this to me . . . ," Reznor shouted in the opening number. "Seems like salvation only comes in dreams."

The line from "Terrible Lie," a song on NIN's 1989 album, "Pretty Hate Machine," nicely summarizes Reznor's search for some kind of faith or comfort. The fact that he opened the show with it rather than a song from the new album offered a clue to what was ahead.

When he turned to "The Fragile," Reznor for the most part drew on the instrumental tracks, which offer some calming balance to his sonic assault. Though the live versions were tougher texturally than the more carefully layered recordings, they still served as effective islands of relief that tended to underscore the drama of "Closer," "Hurt" and other past signatures that were the real cornerstones of the show. Indeed, some of those softer textures from "The Fragile"--occasionally backed by extremely attractive video images created by renowned artist Bill Viola--helped put the rest of Reznor's music in a softer and more thoughtful context.

The disadvantage of the career retrospective approach is that it didn't offer clues about Reznor's next musical move. The advantage is that the material worked so marvelously that the concert defied you not to eagerly await that move.

Reznor wasn't the only rock hero on the bill Tuesday. Maynard James Keenan, the lead singer of Tool, another intense hard-rock outfit with a fiercely loyal fan base, is now part of a second band, A Perfect Circle, and that group is off to a fast start. That Tool loyalty is probably the main reason Circle's debut album, "Mer de Noms," has sold a whopping 275,000 copies in its first two weeks in the stores.

But the quintet's secret weapon is guitarist Billy Howerdel, who was once a guitar technician for Nine Inch Nails. Howerdel frames Keenan's vocals with a far greater musical color and sense of melody than the more narrowly focused, hard-bitten Tool. The quintet played with such commendable commitment and precision that its commercial future looks bright indeed.

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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.