Tag Archive: Trent Reznor


This article first appeared at No Ripcord  on March 7, 2014.

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The Downward Spiral is an anomaly. It is the success that doesn’t make sense, no matter which angle you tackle it from. How did an industrial metal concept album, whose main character is on a mission of self-destruction and whose most famous single has an f-bomb in the middle of the chorus, sell more than four million copies? How does it become one of, if not the defining album of the year, and one of the best of the decade?

While there were likely many outside factors that contributed to its success (the band’s growing fanbase and live reputation, the dark experimentalism that was prevalent and popular in the early 90s, Closer‘s freaky-but-can’t-look-away music video), the simple truth is that The Downward Spiral is a masterful album from beginning to end. It seems that every year or two, there is an album that demands the world’s attention. Sometimes it gets it, sometimes it doesn’t. This one did.

The story of a rock star’s journey through self-destruction, burning everything and everyone in his life, is a motif that had previously been touched on by other artists, but never explored to such an extent. It pushes Trent Reznor and ourselves further into the abyss than we would want to go, but never goes too far (well, okay, maybe Big Man With A Gun was a little much). Instead, the album is a rabbit hole that we can’t help but go down.

The main reason we choose to follow Reznor down is the music. The Downward Spiral is brimming from top to bottom with fantastic songs that don’t abide by any audible rules or cues. Between its uses of distortion, sampling and off-beat time signatures, the record somehow crafts chaos into melodies and rhythms. The Becoming rides a manipulated piano line to a sample of screams from the movie Robot Jox. The track keeps building until it fades into a gentle acoustic guitar, only to build back into an explosive, screeched outro. March of the Pigs is probably the most popular song in music history with a 29/8 time signature and takes the loud/soft dynamic to its extreme. The mechanical percussion of Ruiner slams into a deafening synth chorus, followed by the most fuzzed-out guitar solo this side of the 70s.

nin_closer

The further down the album you go, the more difficult the songs seem to get. But by this point, any listener is either hooked or left sometime around the first “God is dead” scream on HeresyA Warm Place is nearly an ambient track, with only touches of piano to latch onto in a wave of sound. Eraser is a buildup of buzzing synths, needling guitars and pounding drums to one of the most destructive minutes put on record. Reptile is a mix of industrial noises, grungy guitars and what sounds like a swarm of insects scrambling over each other, a spine-tingling moment and not in a good way.

And we haven’t even gotten to Closer. What can really be said about that song? Starting with the heartbeat drum sample from Iggy Pop’s Nightclubbing, the warped keyboard pattern sounds like it’s being played underwater. For the chorus, it’s joined by another riff that’s jumping out of its own skin. Layer after layer of percussion and synths are stacked for the extended outro, ending on a simple piano line known as the “Downward Spiral” motif.

“If I could start again / A million miles away / I would keep myself / I would find a way,” Reznor sings as the fragile classic Hurt bursts and fades away into white noise. Now, 20 years later, the mastermind behind Nine Inch Nails is basically a million miles away from where he was when he made The Downward Spiral. While arguments are made all the time as to whether he ever topped it, he never tried to repeat it. This is one of those “lightning in a bottle” albums, where Reznor took every negative emotion he felt and used it to craft of the most definitive albums of his generation. Unlike its ending, the record will never fade away. No matter how dark it may seem from the outside, this is one album that keeps drawing us back in to spiral down again.
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I actually reviewed record a few months back. I think I put my thoughts on this album there the best. Trent Reznor really does a fantastic job of showing both the continued viability of Nine Inch Nails and industrial metal as a whole.

Best Moments: The swarming drones of “Disappointed,” the taunt sound effects and string scratches that start “All Time Low,” the chaotic breakdown in “Copy of a” and the out-of-nowhere saxophone in “While I’m Still Here”

This article first appeared at No Ripcord on Sept. 10th, 2013.

In his 25-year-career, Trent Reznor has found solace in rebellion. Whether it was his fight against TVT Records in the early 90s, his battle with addiction in the second half of the decade, his fight with pre-conceived notions of what he should sound like or his attack on the music industry altogether, the mastermind behind Nine Inch Nails has taken on every obstacle and opponent in his path. With his latest release, Hesitation Marks, Reznor is tackling one of his biggest challenges: his own past. Nine Inch Nails’ first album in five years is an attempt by Reznor to find the balance between the person he used to be when he recorded The Downward Spiral with who is he today. The album art by Russell Mills, who also supplied the images for that 1994 album, helps to create a solid line to the past. Just like that album challenged expectations as to what Nine Inch Nails can be, so does Hesitation Marks.

After the creeping The Eater of Dreams, Copy of A evolves from a bare bones beat to a cacophony of percussion and barely-perceptible guitars. Within one song, Reznor shows the EDM generation how they did it back in his day. Came Back Haunted follows with a jittery keyboard that leads into a definitive Nine Inch Nails chorus that fans will shout along to for years. Another future NIN nation anthem is I Would For You, one of those “romantic” Reznor songs that will recall The Fragile, though the organic instruments of that track have been upgraded with swarming synths and scratching guitars. The real star of the track, though, is the vocal performance, during which Reznor goes from low-key to scared to a full-on shout for the chorus.

“Ghosts of who we used to be/I can feel them come for me” Reznor sings on Find My Way, over touches of icy piano keys. Not only has the journey from yesterday to today left him disoriented, but he is not even sure if he’s gotten through all the consequences for his sins. On In Two, he’s not even sure if he can clearly separate the past with his current life, with lines like “it’s getting harder to tell the two of you apart.” While the heavy beats may feel like an amped-up version of How to destroy angels_, the album continually challenges as you move down the tracklist. All Time Low has a wriggling guitar part that leads to a seductive Reznor singing in falsetto or a low growl. It’s easily the funkiest and sexiest track he’s down since Closer. It’s likely no coincidence that both songs come in at number five on their LPs. Further on, Running layers multiple rhythms, including what sounds like a shaker and steel drums, over sharp cutting guitars. Still, not all experiments are created equal. Everything, with its major chord punk-pop is an attempt for Reznor fit a square puzzle piece into a circle. The moment his singing comes in, along with those bright chords, it’s difficult not to cringe a little.

By the time the album fades into Black Noise, Reznor has once again flipped over the chessboard and started the game anew with Nine Inch Nails. While not his best album, Hesitation Marks shows that he has no intention to fall back on old formulas. He may often write about his various challenges, but it’s through those experiences that he keeps challenging us as well.

9/10

This article first appeared at No Ripcord on June 10th, 2013.

Josh Homme has had a few difficult years in the run-up to recording and releasing …Like Clockwork. In 2010, a routine knee surgery resulted in Homme’s clinical “death” for a short time, leading him to being bedridden for three months. The incident deeply shook the frontman, stating that he left something behind on the operating table. Although he was deeply depressed, his band mates convinced him to start work on a new Queens of the Stone Age album.

While the album was recorded, Homme couldn’t shake the near-death experience from his mind and it comes pouring out through this LP, the darkest and creepiest one the band has made. It also happens to be their best in over a decade.

The foreboding tone and thoughts of Homme’s “death” are noticed immediately on the opener, Keep Your Eyes Peeled“If life is but a dream, then wake me”, Homme screams over a sinister bass and warped guitar riff that slides into a sinking harmonious bridge. I Appear Missing is even more blatant. Homme sings, “Pinned like a note in a hospital gown/Deeper I sleep/Further down/A rabbit hole never to be found”,as the music alternates between a gentle, lullaby riff that grows louder and louder, almost as if the instruments themselves are trying to bring him back to life.

Even when moving on to other subjects, the music mostly stays under the surface, with only glimpses of sunlight coming around. The Vampyre Of Time and Memory is piano-centered, with the mournful melody offering an anchor for Homme’s voice. The tiny bits of guitar borders between jazzy licks and sharp soloing.Kalopsia uses a heartbeat as the drumbeat, while the guitar riffs meticulously inches forward, until a sharp guitar screech kicks the band forward for the chorus.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom on this album. If I Had A Tail and My God Is The Sun offers a reprieve, while still being extremely strong material. The former has a seesaw, sexy swagger that became the Queens of the Stone Age signature. The latter is a straight-up hard rock song with a chorus that will be stuck in your head for days. The guitars cascading down the neck, increasing in intensity and pitch as the band sings out towards the sky, seemingly reaching for the sun itself.

Besides the rough path Homme had to this album’s gestation, the other noteworthy factor is the list of guest stars spread out over the track listing. While many of these big names play a role in their respective songs, they never overshadow the music, to the point where you have to actively listen to hear their contributions. Trent Reznor’s vocals are hidden in the background of Fairweather Friends, but the song’s other musician is noticeable the second his hands hit the piano. Elton John’s work on the keys give the song a propulsive touch that take it from good to great. On the next track, Smooth Sailing, Homme gets his cockiness back, throwing out lines like “God only knows/so mind your behavior” and “I blow my load/over the status quo.” Add in the backing falsetto of Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears and you have one of the funkiest songs in the band’s catalog.

On paper, such an assortment of special guests and different moods would appear to create a disaster. Instead, all the personalities put themselves in the background to let the songs shine and the moods are laid out in such a manner with the music that the flow is nearly perfect. …Like Clockwork is easily the best release from the band since Songs for the Deaf. It may not have been worth Homme’s near-death, but this record is a perfect example of making something great out of bad circumstances.

9/10

This article first appeared at No Ripcord on April 3rd, 2013.

The singularity is a theory emergence of superintelligence through technology, whether it is through artificial intelligence, human enhancements or a mix of the two. While such a moment and its after-effects cannot be predicted with any sense of accuracy, there are some who think that the singularity will lead to the destruction of humanity, whether through an A.I. takeover or through the loss of individualism. The way humankind removes itself is not with a bang, but with a whimper.

This theme is central to Welcome oblivion, a slow burn to the apocalypse by How to Destroy Angels. Not a bang, but a whimper can also describe the sound of Trent Reznor’s project with Mariqueen Maandig, Atticus Ross and Rob Sheridan. Whereas Nine Inch Nails often dealt with abrasive, pounding melodies and rhythms, HTDA is often a chillier, more texture-focused experience with riffs that worm their way into your brain. This approach fits better for the slow-encroaching theme of the album, but the songs aren’t always there to back it up.

The theme does work most of the time though. The wake-up sounds exactly like it the title suggests. Electronic beeps float over a trip-hop beat until they’re interrupted by a distorted keyboard pounding, like a storm growing stronger above your home. Maandig’s vocal are cut-up and masked, almost like she’s become part of the machine already, until she shouts ‘Wait a minute,’ seemingly jolted out of her reverie.And the sky began to scream fulfills the same purpose, mixing it up musically with a shuffling electronic raindrop background and putting Maandig’s vocals closer to the front of the mix. Unfortunately, the song doesn’t really go anywhere.

Those who listened to the band’s An Omen EP should find Keep It Together to be familiar ground, given that it was the lead single of that release. In fact, four songs from that six-track record are found on this album as well. Neither Keep It Together nor The loop closes really fit with the rest of the LP, mainly because of their already-used status.

However, Ice Age works much better, moving from being the strongest song on the EP to the focal point of the album’s theme. It follows the harsh title track that feature Maandig screaming lines like ‘All the flashing lights take over/All the pretty little dots make trails’ over a roughly warped guitar and speaker-shaking beats, a warning about the incoming destruction. Ice Age pulls all that aggressiveness back though, featuring a moment of isolation with its frozen guitar plucks, gradually overwhelmed by a wall of noise.

The first single, How long?, is also the turning point of the album, where the humanity really starts to fade into the singularity. Appropriately enough, it’s the most hopeful song on the album, with a wave of voices singing ‘How long can we keep holding on?’ The synths on the verses sound so much like mournful strings that it’d be hard to tell apart from the real thing. It feels like one of the last pockets of humankind singing together to try and stave off oblivion, a beautifully done song that combines heavy electronic rhythm with angelic vocal melodies.

The rest of the album is mostly dedicated to electronic rhythms and textures, with the vocals falling more and more into the background as you get towards the end. Song structures become far looser and melodies are not as apparent. Unfortunately, this is also where the album starts to drag. There’s no need for the mumbles and metal-scrapping sounds of We fade away to go on for six minutes. The same is true of the percussion-heavy, loud-soft seesaw dynamic of Recursive self-improvement or the plodding Hallowed ground.

Even though it falls apart towards the end and could stand to cut a few songs, Welcome oblivion is a powerful record, both musically and thematically. It is a very strong full-length debut for a band that’s only been playing together for three years. The varied percussion, beautiful vocal performances and varying textures song-to-song will entice any fan of Reznor’s previous work and may garner listens from those looking for not a bang, but a slow burn to the apocalypse.

8/10

This article first appeared at No Ripcord on November 19th, 2012.

When How to destroy angels_ released their first EP in 2010, it was not far removed from the soundscapes Trent Reznor had been painting for years with Nine Inch Nails. It was a little quieter, a little more electronic, but not too different otherwise. Reznor even said himself that the self-titled EP was just an initial experiment to see what this new group could make.

Two years later, the band has shown significant growth on their new release, An Omen EP. Rob Sheridan has been added to the band, which includes Reznor, Mariqueen Maandig and Atticus Ross. An identity has been formed and it is a very atmospheric one. The EP is far more mood-based, than song-based. But don’t think that means these are sketches or incomplete ideas. Instead, the record’s shifting vibes and buildups create a deep well of instrumentation to dive into.

Even though it’s only the second song in the tracklisting, Ice Age feels like the EP’s centerpiece. The main guitar riff is straightforward and taut, creating the feeling of icy raindrops plinking on a tin roof. The lyrics are still typically dark and Reznor-esque, but Maandig’s vocals and music move in the opposite direction, bringing some lightness to the dark words. Despite the song’s simplicity, it keeps your attention for its whole seven minute length. It is great as both headphone and background music.

The sleep of reason produces monsters doesn’t give you much to go on lyrically to interpret its title. Instead, the meaning is in the melody. The intro piano is child-like, a pattern that you imagine would be taught to first-time players. After all, who else worries about monsters while they sleep but kids? Over time, the atmosphere grows more and more foreboding, as if the imaginary monsters children dream of has been replaced by the very real monsters that adults fear.

Unfortunately, there is one major flaw to this EP, the first single Keep It Together. The fact that there was a single at all feels like a mistake on such an atmospheric album. It starts off well enough, with electronic beats flittering off the surface and an earthquake bass vibrating the melody through the speakers. The guitar pieces echo in the background, like winds smashing against a boarded up window. The chorus though feels shoehorned in, as if the band felt the song needed one to be a single. It attempts to create dual melodies that are also slightly offbeat, but it seems too much like math rock to be enjoyable.

On the wing would have been a far better choice if the group had to choose a single. Electronic synths slink in the background, while the heavy drums sound like something off of Year Zero. The dual vocals of Reznor and Maandig are smothered in the background, not becoming intelligible until the chorus, where a bright (yes, bright and Reznor in the same sentence) synth plays out, like the sun shining briefly through rain clouds.

If I had to choose a Nine Inch Nails project to compare An Omen to, it would be the Ghosts project. This EP is not a singles-ready collection, nor should it be. Instead, the atmospheric songs do their part to transport the listener to another mood or mindset. Despite the flawed first track, this record is another great addition to Reznor’s catalogue and an excellent step forward for How to destroy angels_.

7/10

This article first appeared at Consequence of Sound on August 29th, 2009.

After seeing Nine Inch Nails play its second to last show in New York on the Wave Goodbyetour, it was more than obvious that Trent Reznor is leaving at the top of his game. The club show at Terminal 5 in Manhattan was a straight-up, brutally beautiful attack on the audience’s eyes and ears.

Before NIN hit the stage, however, the crowd was treated to the alternative style of The Horrors. With a unique sound that combines garage rock with shoegaze, singer Faris Badwan spent most of the concert in full goth star mode. His vocals sounded like a harder version of Robert Smith, which meshed surprisingly well with the group’s juxtaposed sound.

When 9 p.m. rolled around, the stage filled with fog as Robin Finck, Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Ilan Rubin, and Trent Reznor took the stage. After opening with “Home”, the band really moved ahead with “Terrible Lie”. The audience of 3,000 screamed out the lyrics as a mosh pit quickly formed in the middle of the club. Reznor ended the song by screaming out the final lyrics and knocking over his microphone with his guitar. This on-stage brutality only doubled during “March of the Pigs”, which had the ill-tempered frontman chucking his mic stand behind the drum set. He may be pushing 50, but Reznor has more energy than most other frontmen who are in their 20s.

The rest of the main set fiddled about the band’s entire discography — everything from Pretty Hate Machine, to their free 2008 release, The Slip. After about an hour, Reznor told a story about Nine Inch Nails’ earliest shows in 1990. While he claimed that they were pretty bad, he remembered that one of the first artists to give him a chance was “Godfather of Goth,” Peter Murphy. The Bauhaus singer then came out to nearly deafening applause. He joined Nine Inch Nails for “Reptile” and two covers, Bauhaus’ “Kick In The Eye” and Joy Division’s “Dead Souls.”

While the hits were well represented throughout the show’s entirety, the band treated even the most hardcore of its fans. Songs such as “Wish”, “Eraser”, “The Fragile”, and “1,000,000” delivered the same punch as the bigger hits, thanks to the band’s unchecked enthusiasm.

By the time NIN closed their show with “Hurt”, they had played for more than two hours and gone through every stage of their now 20-year career. Reznor thanked all his fans for their loyalty over the years before playing the emotional song. When the song ended, he simply left with a wave.

Even though Reznor may be exiting stage left out of fear of becoming a parody, it seems like there’s no chance of that ever happening. He’s managed to stay relevant long after all his peers have fallen by the wayside. And while it’s a shame that he’s decided to leave, at least he’s giving his fans what they want for one final time.

Photo support courtesy Jeff

Setlist:
Home
Terrible Lie
The Beginning of the End
Discipline
March Of The Pigs
The Line Begins To Blur
I’m Afraid of Americans
Ruiner
The Big Come Down
Burn
Gave Up
La Mer
The Fragile
Non Entity
Eraser
The Way Out Is Through
1,000,000
Letting You
Survivalism
Reptile
Kick In The Eye
The Hand That Feeds
Head Like A Hole
Encore:

The Frail
The Wretched
The Day The World Went Away
Dead Souls
Wish
Hurt