The lights are pretty much all you see at a Nine Inch Nails show, which is fine
Nine Inch Nails + Queens of the Stone Age + Death From Above 1979
Madison Square Garden
November 3, 2005
Other than the obligatory thank yous, Trent Reznor only spoke to the crowd directly once at Madison Square Garden last night. Late in the set, between “Hurt” and “The Hand That Feeds,” he told us that a few years ago he never thought he’d be onstage again anywhere, let alone here, that this was pretty fucking cool. And then it was back to the towering anthems. It was a telling moment. Reznor’s music has always depended on a certain tension between the impersonal, monolithic, brontosaurus distorto-crunches that dominate his records and the sudden moments of stunningly vulnerable beauty that interrupt them. Even more than his undeniable pop savvy, Reznor’s delicate soul is what always set him apart from his late-80s industrial peers like Ministry and KMFDM. Those bands gave us militaristic jackboot stomps and indestructible walls of sludge, a sort of hegemonic musical dominance. Reznor gave us that stuff too, but he also gave us the shivery self-doubt behind it. Or, more to the point, Ministry and KMFDM sounded the way awkward, introverted teenagers want to feel while Nine Inch Nails sounded the way they actually feel. With Teeth, Reznor’s newest album, is a disappointment because it only offers competently huge riffage; Reznor never sounds like he’s about to fall apart. And it’s that dichotomy that made the Nine Inch Nails huge, that still allows them to play the Garden’s arena more than a decade after their last genuine hit on the same night that current golden boy Kanye West plays its smaller theatre.
But if Reznor neglected to balance fury with futility on With Teeth, he succeeded beautifully onstage last night. The set was impeccably structured, building from tooth-gnashing blood-garglers like “March of the Pigs” to gorgeously sad ballads like “Something I Could Never Have.” Personally, I’d love Reznor even more if he ditched the bludgeon and dove headlong into emo-Eno fragility. But the girl behind me who spent the second half of the set giving her dude a lap-dance might not agree with me. The guy in the football jersey who spent the whole set with his face screwed into a rock-scowl, rhythmically stabbing the air with his cell phone, definitely wouldn’t. And the eternal arena-rock bangers like “Wish” and “Head Like a Hole” sounded just as thrilling as you’d hope. But the post-Johnny Cash lighters-up all-arena singalong on “Hurt” was the moment I’ll always remember.
There was something peculiarly insular about Reznor’s stage setup, which seemed paradoxically constructed to draw attention away from the frontman. From where I was sitting, it was hard to even tell which guy on the stage was Reznor half the time. The members of his band all had black hair and black clothes like him, and the light show was so complicated and dazzling that the stage was often hard to look at. The spectacular barrage of blindingly bright columns and interlocking beams and oscillating waves turned the band into silhouettes more often than not. And Reznor did two songs in the middle of the set from behind a screen that showed a series of society-sucks images (flocks of birds intercut with war footage, President Bush juxtaposed with homeless people, that kind of thing). During “Something I Can Never Have,” only one light was on in the arena, a single gorgeous purple spotlight that shone out over the crowd and completely missed the dark stage.
Voice review: J. Edward Keyes on the Nine Inch Nails’ With Teeth
If Reznor was all peaks and valleys, roars and sighs, the Queens of the Stone Age were nothing but a single uninterested grunt. The Queens have been called prog-revival, but, and this is weird, they’re too boring to be prog. They don’t do flourishes or flutters or grand gestures; they only do turgid, lifeless riffage. They even managed to ruin their one big moment, derailing “No One Knows” with gratuitous soloing. They don’t have anything going on visually, either, just standing there and disinterestedly bashing the songs out. The band is sorely missing the genially freaky presence of former bassist Nick Oliveri onstage. Without him, the only compliment I can offer is good drumming.
Death From Above 1979 opened, and I’m glad to report that at least one of the non-Reznor bands prized sinister cocaine slitherstrut over nonchalant plod. But DFA1979 should not be playing Madison Square Garden. I only caught the last couple of songs, but on that evidence, it’s hard to do anything visually exciting in a slowly-filling arena when your drummer is your frontman. In clubs or even small festivals like Intonation, when you can see the sweat dripping off them, their thing works. But at an arena, the band just ends up looking tiny, and they didn’t help anything by dicking around with a vocoder on the last song.
Download: “Little Girl”
Voice review: Nikhil Swaminathan on Death From Above 1979 at the Bowery Ballroom