Nine Inch Nails
Manchester, Phones 4 U Arena
Sunday 25th May 2014.
Trent Reznor and co return to Manchester’s Phones 4 U Arena in support of their latest album Hesitation Marks. Louder Than War’s Sean Hornby reviews.
Much has been said about Trent Reznor over the years although it’s probably fair to say that the man is still a somewhat mysterious and misunderstood figure within the angular and fickle world of rock, pop et al that parallels that of Jason Pierce from Spiritualized. By this I refer to the fact that neither man has ever truly revealed more than they want to via interviews, their medium is of course through their darkly knotted lyrics. In its own particular way this murky behaviour is much more rock and roll and satisfying, it’s clearly the polar opposite to the attention seeking, stuck in child ego state wannabe’s that populate the music industry. The less you give the more interesting you actually become.
Let’s dispel with the obvious cliché, often dubbed as “industrial” and spawning a whole genre of loud complicated music, and although clearly an inspiration, no-one else sounds like Nine Inch Nails. And when others do try to imitate they generally end up sounding like a cack handed watered down Wal-Mart version that’s soundtracking a 1990s computer game. Nine Inch Nails do not fit into any pigeonhole; they just sound like Nine Inch Nails.
It’s been over two decades since Trent bitterly voiced on the Broken EP that he had “no new tale to tell, twenty-six years on my way to hell”. Talk about tempting fate, music and art can sometimes be a self fulfilling prophecy and when you reflect upon the years following the release of 1994’s The Downward Spiral,Trent did indeed visit his own personal hell. Substance dependency and its acompanying mental health issues would have a direct bearing upon his creativity and quality of life. Still, with a great deal of support and a period of rethinking what was acceptable, Trent returned stronger, fitter and most probably a hell of lot wiser from the experience.
The fact that Nine Inch Nails still exists as a working, touring band in 2014 should therefore come as no real surprise. Despite the 2009 tour being dubbed as the Wave Goodbye Tour there was no real sense of finality to it, (it probably helped shift a few more tour t-shirts mind you), Trent just needed to rest the tired machine for a while, new projects blossomed in the form of the unsettling How to Destroy Angels (have you seen the video for The Space In Between?, it made me feel rather nauseous), film soundtracks, Oscar nominations and awards as well as marriage and fatherhood. You could say this was a fallow period of his life but you’d be wrong, very wrong.
In 2013 a new album snowballed into life in the form of Hesitation Marks and as with all great bands when new material is released there will always be a contingent of fans that sit in the “we like your old stuff better than your new stuff” camp. “Where are all the guitars?”, “It’s too dancey”, and with Everything, “they sound like Blink 182”. All of which is of course utter nonsense. Hesitation Marks was a more than fine (comeback) album with a number of standout tracks that certainly equalled the strength of previous song writing and production. And there are reams of guitars and beats throughout the album so everyone is catered for. Nine Inch Nails, not heavy enough for the kids that only dig sledgehammer guitars, too electro for the EDM kids. Take it from me, it’s a grower, the most rewarding albums often are.
Anyway, Manchester, La La La, so much to answer for etcetera. The last time I saw Nine Inch Nails was at this very same barn of a venue on the aforementioned Wave Goodbye tour. Whilst the overseas leg of the tour had involved a stage production that would rival U2, Manchester was instead presented with a simple bank of lights that looked like they’d be borrowed from Carter USM. My friend Dan had gone along with me and had created “The Cone Of Displeasure”, (he’s nearly seven foot tall so whenever he goes to a gig there’s a big cone/triangle shaped gap where people would normally be stood behind for at least twenty rows). With support from the excellent Jane’s Addiction a good time was had by all and you were pretty certain that it wasn’t so much a goodbye, more of a “see you later”.
Support on this 2014 tour date was by ColdCave, a live duo that sounded like they had one foot stuck in early 80’s British synthetic pop, imagine if you can a mixture of Gary Numan and OMD on some cheap black market steroids. Cold Cave created a solid enough and likeable sound, a shame and perhaps a wasted opportunity that there wasn’t room to accommodate the excellent and family friendly Death Grips as an extra support as had been the case with some of the earlier dates.An expectant and charged atmosphere developed prior to Nine Inch Nails taking to the stage and you couldn’t help but feel caught up in the moment, full of excitement as the arena lights dropped. A moody electronic entrance signalled the arrival of the band, the roar from the audience further evidenced the anticipation from those in attendance. For this leg of the tour the band had reduced to being a four piece, sadly the backing singers were not in attendance either. Me, I’m Not from Year Zero set the scene for the evening ahead, a song that sounded much more impressive in the live setting than the album version. In some ways it’s the standard Nine Inch Nails song, hypnotic and menacing in equal measures, deep hues of blue light flooding the arena creating a suffocating ambience that’s akin to being submerged deep under water. Lesser well known tracks from The Slip were dropped in early in the set but worked perfectly well in laying down the foundations for the rest of the show.
Like much of the material from Hesitation Marks Copy Of A comes across as suggestive in a furtive kind of way. A motoring beat with bursts of angry hornet guitar that builds to an inevitable near orgasmic climax. It’s the kind of song that other bands spend their entire lives trying to create, a track that Trent casually gave away for free prior to the album release.
March of the Pigs is still one of the great overlooked pop records of the 90s and performed live it’s frantic scattershot, stop start angry delivery leaves you feeling overwhelmed, it’s a song that truly delivers on so many different levels, it’s Nine Inch Nails answer to Upside Down by The Jesus And Mary Chain. Piggy from The Downward Spiral followed, in the world of Nine Inch Nails it would probably be classed as one of their slower numbers although as to be expected it’s still somewhat demanding; the in your face drumming that bookends the song in particular reminds you that this is a band that can easily lull you into a false sense of security.
Even during these more intimate moments such as Piggy there’s a sense of apprehension, a constant feeling of angst that permeates throughout Nine Inch Nails back catalogue. The dystopian focus of the 2007 album Year Zero being a prime example of what Trent manages to capture so well and tracks from the album such as the stuttering Survivalism which followed Piggy, felt like you were being repeatedly punched in the face. Gave Up is perhaps one of Trent’s best songs and it still sounds as fresh, exhilarating and as punishing as it has ever done. Sanctified still manages to come across like a 1980s Phil Collins number albeit a Phil Collins song that’s twisted, cranky and is of course much more sexy than Phil ever was. The snake like Closer’brought the audience to near rapture helped of course by THAT risqué chorus. Despite the lyrics, as a piece of music it’s remarkable and the outro was clearly given a respectful nod last year via Came Back Haunted along with the Hesitation Marks artwork which again mirrored that of 1994’s classic The Downward Spiral, Trent acknowledging his past and fusing it with the present. Looking backwards in order to move forwards.
So, there’s clearly been a heavy reliance upon early material, thankfully Hesitation Marks is given an airing. Find My Way is simply gorgeous – it’s the closest you’ll get to a ballad with Nine Inch Nails. The guitars during Disappointed appeared to be a bit too low in the mix but thankfully minor sound problems were sorted out pronto and when the biomechanical guitars and synths kicked in during the chorus to Came Back Haunted you couldn’t help but feel the swathe of energy that was discharged from the stage. At this point during the Hesitation Marks section of the show the onstage production really came into its own, a swirling mesmerizing light show even if it was a somewhat stripped back affair compared to some of the earlier dates on the tour. The jittering, restless nervous beats that make up the majority of Hesitation Marks created an unsettling atmosphere, a mixture of insect chatter and overheating computer hard drives.
Wish was the first Nine Inch Nails song I ever heard. It’s a song that has never become tiring, the audience clearly psyched up by it, arms and fists held aloft throughout. Head Like A Hole is Nine Inch Nails in pure pop music mode which happily sits alongside other more mainstream songs such as The Hand that Feeds. The Day the World Went Away in the past has perhaps translated least well to the live arena. However, in Manchester the four band members stood in unison onstage brandishing their guitars created a wall of sound that shook the arena to its foundations.
Hurt inevitably closed the set as will most probably be the case from now on. A self deprecating anthem for the tortured outsider that the late great Johnny Cash truly made his own, it now feels like it is Nine Inch Nails that is performing a cover, although this might sound like a back handed compliment it is a rather special thing to have unintentionally created. Still, I wonder how many people stood there like myself transfixed by the screen during the song as it displayed some extremely harrowing images showing just what human beings are capable of in the name of cruelty, greed, fear and hate.
So, a mixed bag in relation to the Manchester set list, The Great Destroyer being another highlight of many. Recent tracks and crowd pleasers were played with much aplomb and thankfully the rumoured/threatened omission of Hesitation Marks material did not come to pass. Despite constantly immersing himself in darkness, Trent comes across as a fairly affable guy although on this date he was perhaps quieter than he has been in the past. He’s previously voiced that he’d prefer to play the smaller venues but knows that playing the large arenas results in more fans being able to attend. However, large sections of the Phones 4 U Arena including the entire top tier seating area were curtained off; two nights at the O2 Manchester Apollo might actually have been a better idea.
Trent is still keen on pushing the boundaries of a live experience and is willing to experiment with varied set lists as a way of preventing apathy setting in not just for the band but perhaps for the audience as well. In this multi media circus world we’re living in there’s not much in the way of surprises any more.
Some bands really struggle to capture the magic of the studio in the live arena, for others the pendulum swings the other way. Thankfully Trent has a more than accomplished live band including long time collaborator Robin Finck that manages to successfully translate his studio vision into something that is exhilarating, forward thinking, at times sexy and always utterly compelling. So what does the future hold for Nine Inch Nails? The only thing that is predictable is that Trent will continue to remain unpredictable and despite a quarter of a century having passed since Trent first fired up that computer and guitar amp this is still what makes and keeps Nine Inch Nails so utterly beguiling, a truly one off band that will be revered at some point as being one of the all time greats.
All words by Sean Hornby. You can read more writing by Sean by checking out his author archive.