Washington Post

May 2000

Counting On the Decibel System

That wasn't a thunderstorm hitting Columbia a day early, it was just Nine Inch Nails essaying its industrial-strength sonic maelstrom at Merriweather Post Pavilion Friday night as part of its first American tour in five years. Of course, it's entirely possible that the subsequent storm began gathering around those black clouds that always seem to hang over Trent Reznor's tormented soul. In fact, NIN's creative mastermind seems to thrive on Desolation Row, alternating between being angry and overwhelmed at the low cards life has dealt him and his generation. Or as Reznor puts it in "Hurt": "I focus on the pain/ the only thing that's real."

In response, Reznor has wrapped his alienation, frustration and depression into a musical package that melds the mechanical precision of synth-pop, the ferocity of heavy metal, the ambition of art-rock and the confessional dramas of the singer-songwriter tradition--and then jacks the sound up beyond threshold levels.

At Merriweather Post, it proved a still-powerful combination, particularly on the opening full-frontal-lobe assaults "Terrible Lie," "Sin" and "March of the Pigs," early works that are as soul-wrenching and teeth-rattling in the new millennium as they were in the early 1990s when NIN and Ministry launched the industrial rock revolution. Reznor, suitably dressed for the apocalypse, screamed out his frustrations--only to have them screamed right back by the crowd in a stunning showcase of rock concert as group therapy.

But there were new elements as well. On last year's "The Fragile," Reznor explored a more introspective side of his music, and this allowed for some of the subtler triumphs in Friday's show, particularly the expansive instrumental interludes "The Frail" and "La Mer," which led respectively into the thick, queasy-listening experience of "The Wretched" and a hauntingly elegiac "The Great Below."

These were helped a great deal by the incorporation of a triptych of digital video screens, designed by Mark Brickman (best known for his work with Pink Floyd) and using empathetic, but never intrusive, images of primal elements (particularly fire and water) by video artist Bill Viola. Such images not only underscored the music, but also offered much-welcome relief from the frequent strobe- and klieg-light assaults that emphasized the raging, roiling mood of much of the night's repertoire.

Reznor, a studio perfectionist and one-man band, encourages more rough edges in concert, using a quartet of musicians to add density and an element of contention to his otherwise taut constructions. Drummer Jerome Dillon and guitarist Robin Finck stood out with their manic contributions, while keyboard players Danny Lohner and Charlie Clouser seemed less able, or willing, to push the music forward. Still, most of today's rambunctious rap-rock hybrids sound positively anemic compared with NIN's brutal atomic pop. When you feel this noise, you feel the pain, and not just in your ears.

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Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails
This article is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously located at SUS.