May 2000

Nine Inch Nails with A Perfect Circle

After experiencing the New York installment of Nine Inch Nails' "Fragility 2.0" tour, I found myself plagued by several questions.

Pre-eminent among them was: If you go on tour with Trent Reznor, whether as a musician or a member of the road crew, do you get good health and accident insurance? I assume you're well-paid, but it would take more than money for most folks to sign on to a job that carries such great potential for permanent physical damage. Prospective NIN-ers must have to sign some kind of release form granting Mr. Reznor the right to assault both their persons and their personal belongings for the duration of the tour without fear of legal consequences. Otherwise, how could the head Nail get away with the antics he engaged in at Madison Square Garden? Plastic water bottles were the main weapon at this show; Reznor threw a couple at keyboardist Charlie Clouser, used another as a mock-dildo on guitarist Robin Finck, and poured the contents of yet another onto multi-instrumentalist Danny Lohner's keyboard, causing it to audibly malfunction. Could have been worse, I suppose--they could have been glass bottles.

Truth be told, this was actually a mellow show by NIN standards. On previous tours, Reznor has thought nothing of tearing stage equipment apart or randomly slugging band members. Maybe he's losing his anger as he approaches middle-age. Or maybe he's realized that the difficulty he's had in the past holding on to backup musicians (including Richard Patrick, now making a name for himself in Filter) may have had something to do with those musicians' aversion to getting their teeth knocked out. In any case, no casualties were reported at MSG. Still, several amps, keyboards and mic stands got knocked over repeatedly; two Les Pauls flew through the air and crashed to the ground; and half a drum kit tumbled off its riser. Again, one hopes it was insured.

In the midst of all this rollerderby mayhem--meant no doubt to add an aura of dangerous violence to the music, but coming off more often than not like Keystone Kops slapstick--the stagehands were practically members of the band, continually scurrying from one corner of the stark, open platform to another, straightening tangled wires, handing off instruments, picking gear up from where it had toppled. Luckily for them, Trent didn't get in their way. And no wonder--they saved his ass right at the start of NIN's set. As the band ripped into its opening number, "Terrible Lie," Reznor was having mic problems; his voice cut in and out and words got lost. Eventually, Trent stopped singing and let the sold-out MSG crowd take a verse. An intrepid crew member rushed out, deftly switched mic cables, and restored sonic order. This led me to ponder another burning question: Why doesn't a performer as mobile onstage as Trent Reznor use wireless mics? Must be because they can't take as much of a beating as regular mics can. Trent's all about relative damage tolerance.

Problem solved, now the show could start for real, and a very exciting, well-produced arena rock show it was too, with excellent, clear sound (though not loud enough back in the nosebleed sections, a friend reports) and terrific lights, including a trio of tall rectangular panels that moved around eerily and doubled as video screens. Reznor was in fine, fierce voice, and the band played with aggressive gusto, particularly on thunderous numbers like "March Of The Pigs" and "Gave Up." One pleasant surprise in the main set was the inclusion of "Suck," originally the product of a raucous collaboration with Martin Atkins's Pigface way back in 1990. Yet as the concert progressed, more serious questions arose. Like: Why was the band playing so little from the latest NIN album? Considering that The Fragile is a double-disc set, it seemed fairly reasonable to assume that its songs would take up the bulk of the show. But no--Trent and company waited until song No. 5 before they played any new material, and even thereafter they focused more on the album's instrumentals (the quiet, piano-based "The Frail," the epic, bass-fired "The Mark Has Been Made," the more uptempo, New Order-like "Complication") and near-instrumentals (the moody "La Mer," which has only a few lyrics) than on its "normal" songs.

Confession: I am one of those critics who sincerely believe that The Fragile was one of 1999's best albums. I base this belief more on the album's musical virtues--in particular, its utterly distinctive sound and its brilliant arrangements--than on whatever kind of artistic statement it may be. In my opinion, Reznor's production and compositional talents far outweigh his abilities as a lyricist. When it comes to words, he's always been something of a juvenile, apparently firm in the belief that the dramatic tension of a song can be heightened most effectively by using "f--k" a lot. His efforts at putting a message across would be helped inordinately by reading a few more books. But The Fragile's lyrics do hint every once in a while at some emotional growth on Trent's part, and coupled with the most confident and mature music of his career, that's enough for me. In short, I was looking forward to hearing lots of new songs, and their absence was disappointing.

Most surprising of all was that the band completely ignored The Fragile's most accessible, commercial-sounding tracks. The first radio single, "We're In This Together," was MIA, as were strong single candidates "The Fragile," "Into The Void," and "Please." In their place? "The Wretched" and "The Great Below"--good tunes, but not necessarily prime contenders--and a bunch of old songs. Nothing against "Sin" or "Wish" or "Closer" or "Head Like A Hole," you understand, we've just heard them before. Many times. Of course, the crowd enjoyed them, and responded far less excitedly to the handful of Fragile songs.

More questions: Is such an oldies-heavy setlist a response to audience boredom with the new stuff? Would Trent care if his audience were bored? Is he planning to break it in gently over several Fragility tours, adding more new songs as he goes along? Is Reznor himself already tired of The Fragile? Or is he just being perverse? And finally, one question that blotted out all the others when, 15 songs and barely an hour later, Nine Inch Nails left the stage, a question posed over 20 years ago by Johnny Rotten: Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

Of course, there were still the encores, though they weren't notably lengthy. "The Day The World Went Away" easily achieved in concert the sprawling majesty it strained and failed to reach on record, with Reznor, Finck, and Lohner forming a tight guitar circle at the start and gradually spreading out to take over the stage, much as the song itself did. Next was "Starf--kers, Inc.," a driving piece of brutalism that Reznor announced was "about a friend of mine." In other words, Marilyn Manson, former Trent protégé turned bitter rival. So imagine the crowd's surprise when, toward the end of the song, the divine Mr. M himself strode onstage, grabbing a mic and sneering at Trent, "F--k you." The sneers quickly turned to smiles, however, as the band tore into a selection from the Manson songbook, "The Beautiful People." Made up splendidly as usual (especially those lovely eyes), Marilyn pranced, shrieked, and finally put his arm lovingly around Reznor's shoulder. Guess they've reconciled. Nice for them. But couldn't they have let us know in a way that didn't involve having to hear Manson's sub-Alice Cooper schtick?

Well, hey, that's just me talking. Everybody else seemed to love it; in fact, the girls behind me squealed louder during Manson's cameo than they did at any other time during the show. They also loved the second and final encore, "Hurt," which is admittedly a great closing number, especially with drummer Jerome Dillon flogging his kit as hard as possible. (Whenever there was a break in the action, he slumped over his drums in sweaty exhaustion.) Walking offstage, Reznor looked proud. And so he should be. Getting an arena full of people to hold up lighters, clap hands, and sing along with the words "I wear this crown of sh-t upon my liar's chair" is a pretty cool achievement.

Those who got to the Garden late missed a solid performance by A Perfect Circle, led by Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan. Not as heavy as Tool, APC played passionate hard rock laden with drones and hints of Middle Eastern melody. Bare-chested and long-haired, Keenan sang like a less whiny Eddie Vedder and gesticulated like a young Joe Cocker. Engaging at first, the Circle lost me as they veered into bombast toward the end of their set (and I wasn't the only one; several patrons were seen dozing off at this point). But thumbs up on Keenan's nifty tie-dyed pants.

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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.