Trent Reznor; academy award winner, multi-instrumentalist and black-clad obelisk of pain and alienation is back with a new album and Getintothis’ Mike Stanton celebrates with an essential NIN Top Ten.
With the release, last month, of Nine Inch Nails’ latest studio album Bad Witch, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross closed the narrative arc begun on 2016’s Not The Actual Events and continued on 2017’s Add Violence. Bad Witch sounds and feels familiar to previous albums but with a few twists, it seems both Reznor and Ross have emerged from their comfort zones and challenged themselves to do something “exciting” and “risky”.
Sound-wise, Bad Witch takes inspiration from Bowie‘s Black Star, Reznor employing a Bowie-esque croon on single God Break Down the Door, which also features a slightly manic and de-tuned saxophone surrounded by jittering synths.
Looking back on thirty years of pain and rage, Reznor has evolved both as a performer and songwriter. The addition of Atticus Ross brings a new dimension and the possibilities moving forward are exciting. Bad Witch is a good indication where Nine Inch Nails currently stand creatively; it’s a good place and pays due tribute to those heady early days as eyes and ears are pointed towards the future.
I first saw Nine Inch Nails live in Manchester 1991 and during the opening song, Terrible Lie, Trent Reznor smashed his microphone stand through a keyboard and the deal was sealed; I was officially obsessed with these dark and brooding electro-industrial overlords. It was a hell of a gig, the duration of which I spent bouncing in the mosh pit fight-dancing (definitely a thing) with a bunch of goths, cyberpunks and metal heads. We were all entranced and energised by the whirling dervish on stage, a man who seemed intent on destroying as much equipment as could feasibly be achieved in 90 minutes.
At this point Reznor had released one album Pretty Hate Machine, which had materialised to little fanfare in 1989 and spent its first 12 months being largely overlooked, something which seems inconceivable in 2018. By late 1990 this was changing. Pretty Hate Machine was garnering attention and praise, the music press were suddenly falling over themselves to lavish platitudes on what was being hailed as a watershed moment in industrial music, an album that punched through the harsh chain mail-curtain of experimental noise from the likes of Ministry, Skinny Puppy, Frontline Assembly et al. Pretty Hate Machine was an album of songs, of melodies, of semi-traditional structures rendering it accessible to a wider audience while still seducing the hardcore industrial brethren.
The follow-up seemed to come from the darkest of places. Broken was released in 1992 and indicated a departure in sound and approach. Where Pretty Hate Machine was darkly gothic electronica, Broken was an EP of searing processed-guitar thrash. Recorded as a monumental ‘FUCK YOU’ to his current record label, with whom he was in deep dispute. Broken was described by Reznor as a guitar-based “blast of destruction”. It was totally this and more.
Cut to 1994 and Reznor was in the early stages of drug and alcohol addiction during the creative process of his second album The Downward Spiral but the final result was a denser and more layered record that bordered on high-concept. Recorded at 10050 Cielo Drive (infamous for the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Manson family), Reznor seemed to take inspiration from the building’s horrific past penning hate anthems such as March of the Pigs, Piggy, Mrs Self Destruct and Hurt (the latter of which reached iconic status with a cover by an ailing Johnny Cash). Critical response to The Downward Spiral was enthusiastic and favourable and it remains to this day his best-selling album.
Reznor then cemented his growing reputation with an iconic rage-fueled and mud-splattered appearance at Woodstock ’94 before taking time out to work on soundtrack contributions and furthering his decent into addiction. There was a five year gap before The Fragile appeared in 1999. By this time Reznor was in recovery having turned to David Bowie for help. Speaking to The Guardian in 2013, he said “… when I was in the throes of that [addiction]was when we toured with Bowie, and this was the Bowie that had come out the other side and was happily married. I was nearing the peak of my addiction, and his role to me was kind of mentor, big brother, friend, and also he’d give me kind of shamanish advice.”
The Fragile was an ambitious double album and seemed to meld the first two albums stylistically, balancing guitar thrash and moody electronics perfectly. An even longer gap followed between The Fragile and With Teeth (2005). With Teeth was recorded and written during 2004 and displayed a mellower and more mature style. Once again he toured this album and was received enthusiastically by fans and critics alike. With Teeth demonstrated that Nine Inch Nails was still a relevant and universal force when it came to the alternative/rock/goth/industrial scene and Reznor was still in much demand as a contributor to soundtracks and conqueror of worlds (probably).
Year Zero (2007) was a concept album centred around a dystopian near-future in which the USA was being run by a totalitarian Government in response to multiple terrorist attacks on several major cities. It was an album very much of its time, essentially written in response to the Bush administration and the neo-con Christian fundamentalism that coloured his tenure. An elaborate social media campaign followed with treasure-hunt style puzzles and cryptic clues leading to an alternative reality game online portraying an Orwellian picture of the US in the year 2022.
Ghosts followed, a journey into ambience and soundscapes which hinted at the soundtrack work that was to follow; while studio album number seven, The Slip, appeared in 2008 to little publicity and free of charge to subscribers to his website. 2013’s Hesitation Marks displayed a deeper and darker electronic sound with Reznor experimenting with dancier and more IDM-inflected grooves. By this point, Reznor had been touring sporadically, routinely taking time out to pursue other projects and writing with Atticus Ross, who was becoming a permanent creative partner and the second member of Nine Inch Nails.
An Oscar for their soundtrack to The Social Network followed plus increasing critical success further cementing the Reznor/Ross partnership. Other soundtracks were contributed to Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and more recently Ken Burn’s epic 10-part documentary The Vietnam War.
Nine Inch Nails have been going for just under 30 years now and it seems incredible that Reznor has managed to guide this vessel with the skill and guile he has. Through addiction and contractual disputes, through seismic shifts in the musical landscape and the advent of the digital age, Reznor has embraced all these and used them to his advantage. The fact he has maintained his musical integrity and not only retained but grown his fanbase is a testament to his huge talent as a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. He has adapted and re-invented himself without compromising his original vision for Nine Inch Nails.
So in honour of Bad Witch being released, I have picked ten songs that any self-respecting fan should be cramming into their ears.
10. The Perfect Drug from Lost Highway Soundtrack (1997)
A drum and bass thumper that was featured on David Lynch’s movie Lost Highway. The video has a gothic/steampunk feel to it and the sound is quite a departure for Reznor who decided to experiment with jungle and breakbeat, concocting something of a chaotic head-trip. It works thanks to his infectious melodies and smooth production, however, he has admitted to feelings of dissatisfaction, speaking in 2005, “I’m not cringing about it, but it’s not my favourite piece.” I really like it and the steampunk video just capped it, Reznor has never looked cooler.
9. Every Day is Exactly the Same from With Teeth (2005)
From With Teeth and a mellower departure for Mr Reznor. Spun around a catchy and gorgeously melodic piano riff, the song is perfectly balanced and constructed. Verse and chorus are equally strong, there is no drop-off here, every note is pitch-perfect.
8. Burn from Natural Born Killers: A Soundtrack for an Oliver Stone Film (1994)
Filth-ravaged and nihilistically stamped in utter hate and pure white-hot anger, Burn was written for the soundtrack to Natural Born Killers and it is the paean to the howling black madness of psychopathy. Music to kill to is probably the tag-line, you can imagine it being blasted out in the subterranean den of some deranged killer as they plot their latest unhinged spree and fill jars with ‘bits’.
7. Down In It from Pretty Hate Machine (1989)
The track that started it all, the first track Trent Reznor wrote. Fusing hip-hop and electro beats with processed thrash guitar, Down In It was Reznor’s first release as Nine Inch Nails. Taking the formula that had been used by the likes of Pop Will Eat Itself in the late 80’s, Reznor experimented with pinging sub-bass, 808 drum machine beats, stabbed sampled guitars and spoken word.
The video famously fell into the hands of the FBI who thought they had discovered a snuff film showing a suicide and identified the person appearing to be Reznor. “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” Reznor remarked. It wasn’t until his manager proved that Reznor wasn’t dead that the investigation was closed.
6. In This Twilight from Year Zero (2007)
Arguably one of Trent’s finest moments on record. In This Twilight is a soaring and apocalyptic anthem and depending on who you listen to it is either a hymn to nuclear destruction or some environmental cataclysm.
5. Mr. Self-Destruct from The Downward Spiral (1994)
Opening with a sample from George Lucas’ early 70’s dystopian near-future sci-fi thought-piece THX 1138, Mr. Self Destruct is a snarling, ravenous thrash of loud and quiet passages and crackling noise. Mr Self Destruct opens Reznor’s follow-up to Pretty Hate Machine, 1994’s The Downward Spiral and sets the mood for what is to come; essentially angry, very angry, self-hate-fuelled songs launched at the listener in wrecked waves of noise and terror.
Famously recorded at 10050 Cielo Drive, scene of the Tate–LaBianca murders by members of the Manson family, Reznor seems to have channelled some demons and spewed their entrails into the record, smearing all that is ugly and downright evil into each beat, each pause and each snarled note.
4. Less Than from Add Violence (2017)
Digital, old-school 8-bit sounds hide beneath trademark guitar squalls and Reznor’s strong and waspish voice. The melodies are once again huge and infectiously catchy, making this another annoyingly genius slice of electro-industrial that seeps into the good-vibe receptors of your neurologically charged mind. The denouement is so satisfying that the euphoric trip lasts a clear 5 minutes after its conclusion.
3. Head Like a Hole from Pretty Hate Machine (1989)
Wow, what a tune to open your account with. Chainsaw guitars, stampeding beat and a vat-load of bile and angst, Head Like a Hole frothed and jack-hammered its way through a scene-setting verse and not one but two wholly massive choruses. The fact you could sing along and hum the melody was a huge sea-change in the industrial music, rather than being pummeled with hard, cold and robotic songs (see Front 242, Nitzer Ebb and DAF) Head Like a Hole had an earthy granular quality while still being predominantly electronic.
“Bow down before the one you serve,
You’re going to get what you deserve”
2. Wish from Broken (1992)
Arguably containing one of the greatest guitar riffs Reznor has ever written, Wish screams its arrival and opens up a Pandora’s Box of chainsaw guitar and throat-shredding angst. Wish like the EP it’s from Broken is a draining experience and wrings every last morsel of loathing from the blackened heart of the protagonist and frayed nerves of the listener. It is at once an apocalyptic listen and adrenaline-injected euphoric sleigh-ride. This makes it a devastatingly unforgettable experience.
1. March of the Pigs from The Downward Spiral (1994)
Aggressive, uncompromising and one of Reznor‘s most shouty tracks, March of the Pigs encapsulates everything that Nine Inch Nails was/is and probably always will be. It has that sequenced synth bass line that oozes menace, chaotic jack-hammer beats, raw and scorched guitars and Reznor‘s very angry vocals. There are elements of the loud and quiet, of calm and chaos and the counterpoints are jarring.
Honourable mentions: Last from Broken (1992), Hurt from The Downward Spiral (1994), Sin from Pretty Hate Machine (1989), Closer from The Downward Spiral (1994), Where is Everybody from The Fragile (1999), Satellite from Hesitation Marks (2013), Discipline from The Slip (2008), Meet Your Master from Year Zero (2007), Something I Can Never Have from Pretty Hate Machine (1989).