The Providence Journal

May 2000

Nine Inch Nails' Reznor a star with guitar, but less of a grudge

PROVIDENCE -- Rock's survivability is rendered in the way its innovators take the music someplace else.

Trent Reznor, a one-man band who records as Nine Inch Nails and brought the five-piece band he tours with to the Providence Civic Center last night, has imbued his rock with elements of electronica since 1992.

Doing so, and enlivening his rock with traces of hip-hop beats and jazz horns, has positioned him as a thrilling musical experimentalist.

His lyrics are too often framed in the push and pull of melancholia that rock stars mire in. But his songs in his newest record, The Fragile, aren't tales to which the protagonist is easily placed in a demographic -- white angst-ridden suburban teens or disenfranchised black teens in an underresourced ghetto. These aren't a collective bellyaching about how much school or love stink.

Instead, Reznor's songs are abstractions, spinning around themes of reflection and, increasingly, redemption with which we can all relate.

These days, Reznor's a rock star with a guitar but less of a grudge. But even if he's not feeling melancholy, he can still render the aesthetic with a bullet in old songs, and play newer ones with an authoritative stance.

"Terrible Lie," was buffeted visually by columns of lights that framed the stage; a laser light show pulled from Dark Side of the Moon.

With it, "Closer" and "Head Like A Hole," an older song about dying rather than relinquishing control, played with unyielding ferocity, arena rock was back.

The band -- drum programmer Charlie Clouser, drummer Jerome Dillion, guitarist Robin Finck, and drum programmer-guitarist Danny Lohner -- are fellow abstractionists and Reznor's partners in intensity.

Musically the songs in The Fragile pummel the attention spans of fans sensitized by three-minute pop.

Where all-the-rave teen pop is musically pedestrian, Reznor writes lyrics and uses instrumentation in penetrating, challenging ways. He imbued songs with context and shifted moods, often in a single song, vividly and in full view.

He worked in opposites and extremes: he played the keyboard intro to "The Wretched," letting the antirock instrument stand alone for minutes. But you could liken other songs to Rock 'n' Roll Version 2.0; they were rock 'n' roll for the millennium. To underscore the point, Reznor moved backward through influences in rock. "Piggy" had a pulsing mind-numbing techno beat but Reznor sang it with a Sex Pistols filth and fury. He leaped into the crowd to growl the last lines to clinch the punk aesthetic.

Maybe it's the way rock goes in the post-Cold War and Internet era, where threats and knowledge don't surprise you from one source; they bombard you from hundreds.

On stage, Reznor comes at you not like the old rock, crushing you over with one knockout blow. He grips the mike with both hands and leans into it, getting under the skin like a bunch of paper cuts, slowly, maniacally, devastating in effectiveness.

In today's pop music, that's a viscerally redemptive idea.

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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.