At a time when virtually every other band and recording of note is being re-evaluated/celebrated/re-packaged/toured with a 10th, 20th, 30th, or 40th anniversary, it has come as no surprise that inevitably some of our own personal favourites will also hit a similar special milestone. In this case it’s barely conceivable to realise that 25 years have already elapsed since the release of this seminal and hugely influential album from industrial electronic rock giants Nine Inch Nails.
Historically speaking from a personal point of view, I was already a new convert to NIN on hearing their early singles Head Like A Hole and Sin on daytime Radio 1 (yes, that actually happened!) around 1990/1991. Intrigued by this hard onslaught of angst and irresistible electronic pummelling, which reminded me of Front 242, Nitzer Ebb and, inevitably, Depeche Mode at their most confrontational. I resolved to seek out whatever recordings they had out at that point. It was also, subsequently, my entry door to the wider world of what was known as ‘late 80s industrial rock’ which bands like Skinny Puppy, Ministry and the aforementioned Front 242 were obvious forebearers.
Even at this early point, NIN seemed a slightly different proposition to the other bands in this genre in that the lyrics and vocals seemed more human and heartfelt. Songs would centre around the recurring themes of hurt, betrayal, alienation, misanthropy – all aspects of the mind, heart and soul. Granted, this already had a precedent over ten years previously – in the form of the likes of Gary Numan, whose bleak, Dystopian electronic soundscapes and words spoke often of alienation and disconnection from the human world. It appears Trent Reznor – he who IS Nine Inch Nails – was an avowed fanatic of the oeuvre of Numan and other electronic artists of that time and would embark on a similar journey charting the whole gamut of emotional textures and human extremes in his work in the decades to come.
His first album, 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine, was a concise distillation of all of these themes. Most of these songs had been reworked over and over again from his earliest beginnings as a studio assistant being granted the luxury of countless hours of free time to do as he wished after the main recording artists left for the night. Melody Maker brilliantly described Head Like A Hole, the lead track and second single off the album, as ‘Depeche Mode with an attitude problem’. And, to a certain extent, the follow-up single Sin also perfectly fitted this comparison!
However, for all of what I witnessed of NIN through their aggressive and confrontational live shows at the time (supports with Bauhaus, Jane’s Addiction and Guns N’ Roses), I was actually a little disappointed by my first impressions of Pretty Hate Machine as it sounded relatively clean and still a bit too pop. I was expecting something a lot more in tune with how their anarchic and abrasive live sound was. Thankfully they, or rather Reznor, happily obliged by the time 1992 was in its last quarter, when he unleashed the mini LP/ EP Broken…..which practically kicked the door off its hinges and sent me into gasping raptures of pure delight at its utter ferocity and unrestrained rancour!
Broken was recorded amid extreme disillusionment and anger at his former record company boss Steve Gottlieb and, bloody hell, it shows! Reznor was pissed off for sure! Seldom has Schadenfreude at somebody’s artistic misfortunes sounded so addictive and compelling. The four main songs, Wish, Last, Happiness In Slavery and Gave Up, are as cathartic a release as they come and few other contemporaries at the time sounded quite as brutal and punishing. It really upped the ante for not just Reznor as an artist, but for the rest of the industrial rock genre as a whole. He earned a Grammy for the song Wish – improbable and unreal at the time, but now perfectly understandable.
The release of Broken actually foreshadowed the conception of his next recording: the masterpiece in question The Downward Spiral, to which we now turn.
If Reznor whetted our appetite with Broken as the teaser for the next full length, then it is fair to say that when The Downward Spiral finally arrived in spring 1994, it was greeted with – for many fans and critics alike – absolute astonishment at its mind-blowing breadth of scope and sheer variety of soundscapes within its hour and five minutes playing time. It certainly wasn’t Broken revisited….. no, it was a lot more subtle and brutal – sometimes simultaneously, if that could ever be possible. It totally re-defined the whole map of what one artist was capable of achieving.
The way the album was painstakingly conceived and impeccably assembled/constructed for a start – rich in every detail: a consciously-designed ‘song cycle’ with all manner of inventive sonic textures. Alternating melody and space with suffocating violence, claustrophobia and discordant shrapnel – was a conceit harking back to the great prog rock/concept albums of yore. Reznor openly cites Pink Floyd’s The Wall as a huge influence on this work, and it is not difficult to see some parallels with that opus. It’s fair to say that The Downward Spiral as a piece of work completely reconfigured the parameters for what a modern rock record sounded like. Its later influence on many other bands cannot go unnoticed. In fact it was hard to categorise precisely. It wasn’t just industrial, metal, prog or electronic/EDM, noise, avant garde or ambient. It was a cunning amalgam of all of these, meticulously layered and produced.
It wasn’t just a strictly ‘solo’ venture either as Reznor enlisted a small cast of luminaries to help realise his singular vision of orchestrated desolation and despair. Alongside production cohorts Alan Moulder and Flood, there was live band mate Chris Vrenna for ‘spiritual support and assistance’, Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins, long time associate Andy Kubiszewski (who played in Reznor’s first pre-NIN outfit the Exotic Birds and also Stabbing Westward), virtuoso guitar legend Adrian Belew (King Crimson, Talking Heads, David Bowie) and Mötley Crüe’s Tommy Lee (amusingly credited with ‘steakhouse’ on one of the tracks).
There is plenty of anger and misanthropy liberally splattered like freshly-shed blood on many of the tracks here. Much of it is self-loathing to an almost obsessive degree…but it is precisely this that makes the whole album such a compulsive, and utterly all-consuming, listening experience from start to finish. The sheer intensity of the layered production – the way the mechanical percussion lacerates your eardrums like whipcracks (the relentless, bludgeoning opener Mr. Self Destruct – as close a cousin to Happiness In Slavery as you are likely to get here) and the ingenious way in which Reznor’s sheer inventiveness with all manner of distressed and disquieting undercurrents (the sounds of ambient decay, dying insects, muffled clanking machinery, ominous drones, detuned synths and pianos, digitally processed guitar effects, etc) create this vast wasteland canvas on top of which he literally bares his soul and shreds his voice.
Witness the truly queasy/sleazy listening Piggy, the sinuous and menacing sexual throb of fan-favourite Closer, the slow, skeletal mechano-grind of Reptile which sounds like it’s played by giant satanic fire-breathing arachnids directly out of an old Quatermass And The Pit film set, and the utterly foreboding title track, which seems to collapse inwards, virtually smothering and suffocating itself by the time Reznor starts howling in anguish.
What is perhaps most astonishing of all is how, on closer listen, the entire recording actually sounds like it is gradually decaying as it progresses. With the noises (and indeed the mix: vocals, instruments) becoming ever more indistinct and distorted with every subsequent track – particularly the last quarter by the time we get to the final two tracks. This is entirely deliberate, and it does nothing so much as demonstrate perfectly the acute mastery with which Reznor creates these distressed soundscapes with such attention to detail – something which many other contemporaries would attempt to emulate in future, but never quite succeed in equalling, let alone surpassing.
It is nigh on impractical to single out every track with a synoptical overview as the album was designed by Reznor to be listened to in one sitting but, one thing which needs to be said, is that what makes this album doubly impressive is the sense of dynamics which many critics and fans have touched upon.
And on an album crammed with so many highlights, nowhere on the record is this jaw-dropping contrast more ably demonstrated than on (my own personal favourite) March Of The Pigs, for its sheer murderous tempo and venomous rage giving way to a lone piano interlude followed by a brief silence, before the volcanic onslaught resumes with awful suddenness, knocking you for six. The surging blitzkrieg of guitars, noise and screamed vocals alone induces a state of near total nirvana within me…..and I end up completely lost within its furiously stampeding maelstrom, grinning deliriously from ear to ear.
Very few records at the time trod such an incredibly precarious path between outright atonal noise assault, occasional vulnerability and even stark beauty. A prime example of this disparity is the instrumental interlude A Warm Place, the quietest track, which immediately follows the noisiest and most nihilistically violent, Big Man With A Gun – and the deeply soul-searching and almost redemptive grand finale Hurt. Despite this rich mix of styles, it would seem that the imitators would all soon start appearing in its wake.
The story behind the actual location of the album’s recording is now also common knowledge and the stuff of legend …. Reznor renting out the old Beverly Hills abode on Cielo Drive where the infamous Charles Manson Family slayings of Sharon Tate and her friends took place. But some of the stories which later emerged of strange things happening there kind of creeped me out and still remain inexplicable to this day. For instance, there was the time when Tori Amos popped round to visit Trent and his then partner-in-crime/housemate Chris Vrenna, and provide a bit of much needed female company and, noticing he was very pale, undernourished and withdrawn at the time (you can only guess why!), offered to cook him some chicken…but the chicken, despite sitting in the oven for over two hours, remained resolutely raw, even though the gas was turned on full. And then the time when some of the backing tracks started self-erasing for no apparent reason and one of the other recording machines kept switching itself off and on. Freaky shit!
It was these stories which I pored over with relish – as I became so utterly fascinated and obsessed with the recording minutiae of this album. Downward Spiral has become such a near permanent fixture on my CD deck and turntable (yes, I shamelessly admit to have no less than NINE different formats of this album on vinyl, tape and CDs – originals, reissues, picture discs, remastered deluxe editions, etc…) that I still love to expend a lot of my time telling any friends who have not heard the album to go and get themselves an education into how to make an absolutely epochal fuck-off record which will slay most, if not all, of the competition, and still sound timeless to this very day!
Not since The Cure’s Pornography have I ever become so utterly besotted and infatuated with [the sound of] one album by a single artist as I have done with this one. Inevitably, it then meant that every subsequent record Trent Reznor released as Nine Inch Nails to this present day would always forever be unfairly judged against the immense yardstick with which he has set himself through The Downward Spiral. And so it shows.
If there really is a god, it would demand that every single fucking shop, cafe, boutique and supermarket up and down the land plays March Of The Pigs at least every hour, on the hour, from open until close, at full blast, and it gets to record, candidly on CCTV, the reactions of outright shock, disgust and terror on most of the goddamned masses just for our own gleeful sadistic pleasure!
But don’t tell Trent that, he’d probably hate it!
Immerse yourself in all things NIN via their Official Website
Words by Martin Gray