The Downward Spiral
NINE INCH NAILS ACHIEVE a new kind of loud on The Downward Spiral:
Accessible hard-rock moves overlaid with a scrim of electronic racket,
white noise, screams, the kind of blown-speaker rattle that seems to use
the limitations of crappy stereo equipment the way that Hendrix riffed on
the distortion that howled from overdriven Marshall stacks. It's a new
frontier in rock & roll: Music that pins playback levels far into the red.
You have only two options with this album: Play it too softly, or play it
When you slap on "Mr. Self Destruct", for example, the first song on the
CD, the soft passages are soft chiefly in the sense of not being loud, as
if there were a really great party down the street that you were wimping
out on, pumped guitars and cranking boom-thwack drum machines and whatnot.
But almost as soon as you rush to your pre-amp and squeeze in more juice,
the loud comes back in, but so unimaginably loud this time that you think
your speaker coils might melt, and old man Reilly in the next apartment has
already started to bang his broomstick on the wall.
Then you turn it down and start the cycle again. Sure, bands like
Nirvana played the soft-loud game, too, but Nine Inch Nails auteur Trent
Reznor takes it to sadistic extremes, especially since the song-without the
power riffing and the howl- would essentially be as melodic as a late
What Robert Plant was to the post-blues screech and Kurt Cobain is to
grunge, Reznor is to tortured death-disco-existential pain expressed as
rock & roll. His 1990 anthem, "Head Like A Hole" from Pretty Hate Machine,
came this close to becoming what "Smells Like Teen Spirit" became-the theme
song of smart misfits everywhere. In fact, when the steel-edged dance-punk
hybrid known as industrial finally became popular, a lot of people were
betting that Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, the two important bands
associated with the genre, had the potential to redefine rock in their own
Ministry, of course, did kind of redefine rock, with and awe-inspiring
speed-metal/disco blend that delighted Beavis and Butthead even as it
failed to win many converts from fans of less extreme music. Nine Inch
Nails came out with Broken at the end of '92, an intriguingly unlistenable
meditation on how much Reznor hated his old record company. While the EP
didn't really break new ground, it did get that second-album thing out of
"March Of The Pigs", the first single from Spiral, alternates purest
torment-the anguish of swine before the slaughter-with a piano hook
saccharine sweet enough to sell pre-sweetened cereal to toddlers. "Piggy"
is an affectionately whispered, almost-tender lost-love song that carries
the emotional weight of a George Jones ballad. There's a lot of pig imagery
in the song, perhaps inspired by the nihilist legend carved into slain
actress Sharon Tate's pregnant belly, but the LP is less nihilistic than
you might expect.
Recorded not incidentally in the Beverly Hills living room where Tate
was murdered (the living room, also not incidentally, of Reznor's home),
The Downward Spiral explores Reznor's No. 1 subject-control-in a thousand
different guises. Paranoia, predation and acceptance, sex power and
religious power and gun power, the power of the suffering over the guilty
and the consumer over the consumed are all blasted out with the kind of
overwhelming presence Baudelaire might have had if he'd had access to a
battery of Macintoshes, a MIDI hookup and a Strat.
Reznor's voice seduces and insinuates where it previously expressed
itself only in animal screams; it slithers into your ears and curls up
somewhere near the medulla oblongata. He sometimes even expresses an
emotion that isn't anger, which throws the full-on assault of his catch
phrases-"Don't you tell me how I feel"; "Your God is dead, and no one
cares"-into brilliant relief.
The Downward Spiral is music the blade runner might throw down to: Low
tech futurism that rocks.
Added to Smashed Up Sanity thanks to Gaby Boffa.
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is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously
located at SUS.