June 2000

Call it Nine Inch Stale these days

It's unwise to posit yourself as an angry auteur in rock. It leaves you no options.

Whereas it's perfectly acceptable for a film director to spend decades exploring a lone theme through an endless array of styles, it's next to impossible for a rock star to do the same. Most artists are lucky if they get at least one massive makeover.

But Trent Reznor needs one immediately.

As leader (and often sole member) of the gloomy industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, one of the most influential acts of the '90s, Reznor has mastered the role of the Grim Reaper's Best Friend. His albums, especially 1994's bruisingly bleak "The Downward Spiral," are more than just fascinating studies in extreme pathos. His harrowing tales of abuse and suicide are deeply felt even by the most self-actualized fans.

Which explains why the Nails' 90-minute gig Tuesday night at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim was sold out despite Reznor taking five years to return to the stage. Once a messiah of misery, always a messiah of misery - and Reznor's black-clad, fist-waving, sneer-laden minions are an unwaveringly faithful lot.

But even the ardent had to notice that their anti-hero's turbulent persona isn't aging well. Aimlessly knocking over equipment, for instance, or tossing both his mike and his guitarist into the crowd once seemed like amusing acts of aggression; now such tricks are just pretentious and petulant.

Clearly he's trapped by his self-serving crown of catastrophe the way Bowie (his hero) became trapped by Ziggy Stardust. And it's evident Reznor wants out - that's what last year's magnum opus, "The Fragile," was really about. Its spacious instrumentals and swooping dynamics were an indication that the metallic thrash of yesterday has grown stale. Woe may be the weapon, but there are other ways to wield it.

But whereas Bowie established a pattern of quick changes early in his career, Reznor has only spun his wheels. It's harder for him to back away from his brutal youth now, and he knows it. That's why the first and last thirds of Tuesday night's show were heavy on expected roar (a stomping "Sin," an uncontrollable "March of the Pigs") and recent rancor, like his notorious "Fame" rewrite, which we'll call "Starsuckers Inc."

The middle of the Nails' set, however, glimpsed the future, as Reznor jettisoned the tried and true in favor of deeper wells like "La Mer," while slow-mo nature films and rave-euphoric lights blinded the audience. That led to a few moments, notably a blasphemously sultry "Closer" and a nasty version of "Head Like a Hole," in which Reznor was able to slightly reinvent, adding nuance to his mania.

But it's not enough. It may be fatal to his career to drastically rethink the Nails at this point, but Reznor must if he wants to avoid becoming a laughingstock. Too often Tuesday night his show felt like a nostalgic revue, a look back at the brightest moments from an acrimonious artiste, still dressed in the same fatigues he wore at Woodstock '94.

Hate to think that's how he'll be remembered when he has so much more talent to burn.

A Perfect Circle, featuring Tool's Maynard James Keenan on vocals, offered a sturdy (if samey) 45-minute opening set that lacked the subtlety the group brought to its just-released debut. Keenan, decked out like a glam Iggy Pop, was all wail and no weight, while the band, led by guitarist Billy Howerdel, ran roughshod over the flourishes that give each song personality.

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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.