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Nine Inch Nails

+ {Trent Reznor / Atticus Ross} + {How To Destroy Angels}

Alongside MINISTRY, Trent Reznor’s NINE INCH NAILS have almost single-handedly carried the can of industrial metal since their inception in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1989. A classically-trained pianist and multi-instrumentalist, young Trent went through some tough times after his parents divorced when he was only 5, although living with his maternal grandparents brought some stability.
Duly inspired by pop, hardcore-punk and industrial rock since dropping out of Allegheny College, he struck up a friendship with Chris Vrenna, although the connection was curtailed somewhat when Trent joined short-lived new wave act, Option 30, a trio led by Timothy K Smith, that never surpassed demo stage. AOR act, The Innocent, was Reznor’s next port of call (he stuck around for one LP: “Livin’ In The Street” in 1985), while Exotic Birds gave him another opportunity to further his career as a keyboard player until he left in 1988; Vrenna was also a member.
Spurred on by his 15-minutes of fame and, while keeping jobs as a janitor and as a keyboard store salesperson, Reznor wrote songs and taught himself various computer applications, which led him to become an assistant studio engineer; in 1987, he played keyboards in fictional trio, The Problems, as they performed on the Michael J. Fox/JOAN JETT movie, Light Of Day.
Subsequently working with John Malm, Jr. (manager of Exotic Birds) over the course of a year, Reznor was able to piece together demo tapes, collectively known as “Purest Feeling”, and otherwise known as NINE INCH NAILS’ inaugural TVT Records set, PRETTY HATE MACHINE (1989) {*8}. A solo effort – the album was written and played wholly by Reznor (the drum programming was by Vrenna) – its despair and bitter self-pity was set against walls of churning synths and industrial rhythms; the compelling opener `Head Like A Hole’ becoming a minor hit thanks to heavy MTV rotation. At 24, Trent was finally the promising act he’d always promised to be. Detached and cold like some mechanical PHIL COLLINS/GENESIS set interlocking at a DEPECHE MODE gig, `Terrible Lie’, `Down In It’, `Sin’ and `The Only Truth’, pounded their way into the hearts and minds of the pre-grunge American market.
Around the same time, Reznor recruited a live backing band and struck out on the Lollapolooza trek, previewing a harder hitting, guitar influenced sound.
Although the debut album was equal parts DEPECHE MODE/MINISTRY, NIN’s next release, the mini-album, BROKEN (1992) {*8}, followed the metal/industrial fusion of the live shows. “The Terminator” Reznor seemed more tormented than ever on the likes of `Help Me I Am In Hell’, while an explicitly masochistic video for the `Happiness In Slavery’ single courting not inconsiderable controversy; worth searching to find their version of ADAM & THE ANTS’ `Physical (You’re So)’ and the pummelling, Grammy-winning `Wish’. A punishing 40-minute mini-set of remixes, FIXED (1992) {*7}, followed a couple of months later, featuring such good-time party favourites as `Fist Fuck’ and `Screaming Slave’; fellow doom merchants Butch Vig, J.G. Thirlwell (FOETUS) and COIL blending in to the mix.
Clearly, Reznor was rather discontented with his lot, his scary reputation heightened when it was revealed that he’d rented the L.A. pad where Charles Manson and “family” had murdered Sharon Tate and her friends back in ‘69. While Trent was allegedly unaware of this spook factor when he took on the property, it nevertheless gave THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL (1994) {*8} set a grim new resonance (the album was recorded in said abode). The consummation of everything Reznor had been working towards, the record was a masterful alternative metal/industrial landmark, exploring the depths of human despair and depravity in its multifarious forms. Reznor’s tormented musings obviously struck a chord with the American populace, when the double album reached No.2 in the charts, while NIN were given a rapturous reception at that year’s Woodstock anniversary festival. Multi-layered and re-constructed to the NINth degree, Trent’s stage posturing and preening on stage drew comparisons to the late, great Jim Morrison, the depravity and nihilistic nuances nurtured via `March Of The Pigs’, the funky `Closer’ (parental guidance needed here) and `Reptile’. Not an immediate star track, `Hurt’, was later re-vamped to better effect by producer/guru Rick Rubin and his ageing protégé, JOHNNY CASH. Yet another album of remixes, FURTHER DOWN THE SPIRAL {*5} – featuring remixer Charlie Clouser (the geezer behind the “Saw” soundtracks) – appeared the following year, while Reznor set up his own Nothing label, nurturing such famous talent as the equally scary MARILYN MANSON.
It had been five long years since the emergence of any new NINE INCH NAILS material (apart from Trent producing the music to Oliver Stone’s movie, Natural Born Killers), however Reznor and his nihilistic NIN completed their comeback double-set, THE FRAGILE (1999) {*7}. Packed with over 20 apocalyptic tracks, it hit the top of the charts (scraped Top 10 in the UK); doom, gloom and then boom, it was all here for America’s forgotten youth of the day. The rather unnecessary THINGS FALLING APART (2000) {*4} condensed remix package, was notable for a Clouser-Reznor collaboration, `Starfuckers, Inc.’ (2 takes!), and a cover of GARY NUMAN’s `Metal’.
The subsequent “Last Tour On Earth” extravaganza was at least partly documented on live set AND ALL THAT COULD HAVE BEEN (2002) {*5}, an ironically appropriate title for a record which somehow failed to communicate the frenzy of NIN in full, furious flow. In effect a poor man’s “greatest hits” (or even “greatest blows to the body”), the cash-in record came across like a very good bootleg, or a very unworthy official NIN delivery.
After another interminable wait, WITH TEETH (2005) {*7} finally saw Reznor – with FOO FIGHTERS’ Dave Grohl battering the drums – coming out of his shell (and allegedly his battle with the demon drink) on a record that harked back to the sinuous, splatter-grind-groove of his early 90s landmarks. He was still railing at the world, if not with quite as much outrage as before, veering between expletive-filled tantrum-thrash and synth-syncopation: both the title track and UK Top 20 single, `Only’, came on like an unholy PRINCE; Trent’s old idol, incidentally. Needless to say the album was a straight-to-No.1 set and his highest so far UK chart showing at No.3, while politically-themed lead single, `The Hand That Feeds’, was another first for Reznor: the only time a NIN single had breached the UK Top 10.
For many punters not yet affiliated to the wherewithal and mystique of NIN (like some anti-nerd looking to get-in on the Da Vinci Code or Dungeons & Dragons), the game-boy movie concept of YEAR ZERO (2007) {*8} was at least ambitious in its dystopian and paranoiac approach. Apart from the usual post-9/11 and schizoid meanderings, titles such as `The Beginning Of The End’, `Survivalism’, `God Given’ and closer `Zero-Sum’, suggested more than words could express, as laptop Reznor fuelled his loopy version of binary code rock’n’roll.
With Atticus Ross, Alessandro Cortini, Adrian Belew and Brian Viglione aboard his ambient ship, Reznor and NIN broke free the shackles of his Interscope trappings and branched out on the experimental and fragmented GHOSTS I-IV (2008) {*5}; his first on his own Null Corporation imprint. If one had struggled to get to grips with NINE INCH NAILS as a “normal” industrial act, then this unsettling 36-track serving was not for the faint of heart. ENO, NEU!, DAVID LYNCH et al, Reznor turned his back on the mic to explore an inner-self – his “Metal Ghost Machine Music” could well’ve ended his career. Thankfully, THE SLIP (2008) {*7} brought back a stability to the situation, as Trent strolled into gear on the likes of the blistering and meaty `1,000,000’, and the tension-coiled `Demon Seed’.
Always looking to expand his horizons into left-field propositions, the main man inevitably branched out into music scores, director David Fincher employing TRENT REZNOR (and Atticus Ross’s) highly sought-after services for back-to-back movies, THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) {*7} and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011) {*7}. Both surprises in terms of chart success (Top 50), Reznor fans would identify with his textural and technoid brushes, and while the former Oscar-winner had some intriguing passages (and that included their re-vamp of Grieg’s `In The Hall Of The Mountain King’), the triple-set format of the latter film was a must for NIN collectors – the limited-edition deluxe, signed 6xlp boxed set drawing in big offers on eBay.
A near 3-hour master-class of psychological mind-games portrayed in true NIN aplomb, bookend cover pieces of LED ZEPPELIN’s `Immigrant Song’ and BRYAN FERRY’s `Is Your Love Strong Enough?’, were nice touches. Featuring Trent’s wife Mariqueen Maandig on vocals (of WEST INDIAN GIRL), it was a fitting lead into Reznor, Ross and Maandig’s kindred enterprise, HOW TO DESTROY ANGELS. Lifting their moniker from a 1984 COIL album, the trio surfaced a few times as low-key EPs, `How To Destroy Angels’ (2010) and `An Omen’ (2012), sufficed baying fans. WELCOME OBLIVION (2013) {*7} was instant enough to dent the US Top 30, while Maandig’s insinuating shimmers (on best tunes `Keep It Together’, `Ice Age’ and `How Long?’) were worthy to take over from the eerie angst of her hubby.
NINE INCH NAILS were not to be outdone, and that September, HESITATION MARKS (2013) {*8} crashed into the Top 3 on both sides of the big pond. A man now settled into married life with two children, Reznor was a different geezer to the tortured one of two decades ago who was railing against his demons of drink and drugs. That’s not to say, that this album was any less cathartic and cynical, its just his sonic palette had succumbed to metallic melody (and the funk) over nihilistic “noize”. Helping the near 50-something artist was elder statesmen, Adrian Belew (guitar) – LINDSEY BUCKINGHAM was in there also – Pino Palladino (bass), the younger Ilan Rubin (drums), and, of course, recent NIN sidekick, Cortini; if one has his/her dance shoes on, playlist `Copy Of A’, `Find My Way’, `Everything’ and `Disappointed’.
NINE INCH NAILS cut down to Reznor and (Atticus) Ross, a digital-only EP/mini-set was unveiled running up to Xmas 2016: NOT THE ACTUAL EVENTS {*6}; recommended tracks `Dear World’, `The Idea Of You’ and the sonic-punk opener `Branches / Bones’.
Released around the same time as the official vinyl/CD memento of the aforesaid record, summer 2017 unfettered the second chart instalment of the trilogy: ADD VIOLENCE {*7}. Bookended by download single, `Less Than’, and a near 12-minute injection of sonic seduction in `The Background World’, NiN geared up for their first foray endorsed by both Capitol Records and The Null Corporation.
2018’s BAD WITCH {*6} – featuring lead single `God Break Down The Door’ – was the last piece of the mini-set trilogy, however, although it reached No.12 in the US/UK charts, listeners didn’t warm to the record as much. Echoes of BOWIE here and there, some sonic tinkering (by way of `Shit Mirror’ starring The CULT’s Ian Astbury and Reznor’s wife Mariqueen Maandig Reznor), plus the odd cinematic/drone flourish (`I’m Not Of This World’), NINE INCH NAILS kept to their anti-pop principles and experimental ideals.
NiN’s switch of genre allegiances from industrial metal to ambient new age was met with doubters across the board; but then who could argue with Reznor and Ross’s generosity when introducing free-to-download albums, GHOSTS V: TOGETHER {*8} and GHOSTS VI: LOCUSTS {*8}, in March 2020. Clocking in at 70 and 83 minutes respectively, there was a sense that the powers that be were listening to too much TANGERINE DREAM or POPOL VUH soundtracks, with an intention to compensate for an impending and paranoid apocalypse from outside their bricks and mortar. On first listening, their meditative miasma of muzak seemed all too ethereal for ethereal sake, however on closer inspection NiN warm to the task on `With Faith’, `Together’ and `Still Right Here’ (from the first of these), and `The Worriment Waltz’, `Turn This Off Please’ and the ominous, spine-tingling and cinematic, `Around Every Corner’ (from the second of these evil “Twin Peaks”).
© MC Strong 1994-2006/MCS/BG // rev-up Sep2013-Apr2020

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