Better Than: Most arena rock shows.
It began sort of like a Gothic tale. The dark stage had been shrouded in smoke well before Nine Inch Nails’ start time, and when the show did start up, it was cloaked in dark gloom well beneath the light-enhanced theatrics. But NIN in 2013 are anything but medieval or ancient in their delivery. Trent Reznor & Co., well past their suspected prime, are a fresh band undeterred by passing decades and evolving taste and are miles ahead their contemporaries–both new and old.
“Copy of A,” the second single off of their latest album Hesitation Marks catapulted the band into their set. Reznor was in fine form as he growled and lurched across the stage with the same focused anger and heat that’s marked the most common thread of connection between each of the band’s eras. The song set the tone for the new material-heavy set where only four tracks (most notably: the controversially poppy “Everything”) didn’t make the cut.
Beneath the violently flashing yellow lights, the general admission pit banged their heads and waved their fists in complete unison and the band jumped into “1,000,000” off of 2008’s The Slip, their last release before a farewell tour and hiatus that ended with this year’s Hesitation Marks. Before diving into a chunk of tracks off of that new release and after a quick detour to their first studio album with “Terrible Lie,” Reznor showed some love to an album that could easily be regarded as his most classic and will be celebrating a 20th anniversary in March, The Downward Spiral. “March of the Pigs” and “Piggy” were raw, searing, and fresh, which is much to be said as they were sandwiched by much newer songs. Towards the end of “Piggy,” Reznor jumped to the front of the barrier and got lost in a swarm of arms reaching towards him from the crowd. Upon his return, a screen lowered at the very front of the stage and the most breathtaking part of the show began.
The most special quality in a Nine Inch Nails performance lies in the use of special effects. On the screen, projections and an elaborate show of visuals not only accompanied the music but enhanced it. Backed by the equally mesmerizing display of lights on stage, the band members disappeared, acting more as a soundtrack to the evening rather than a spectacle to witness.
That’s not to say that the humans on stage between screens and rays of colored lights weren’t at least serving some elements of spectacle. The screens, two total, were lifted then lowered quite frequently as some songs required the more personal delivery of Trent Reznor unblocked by an inanimate object. The most fun additions to the elements of spectacle and the band overall were the two female backing vocalists. Sharlotte Gibson and Lisa Fischer, who are both from R&B backgrounds, brought a surprising and refreshing dynamic to Nine Inch Nails’ overall sound and helped enrich many of the songs. “Survivalism,” for example, benefited immensely from the back-and-forth of Reznor and one of the belting vocalists as the two took us to church while singing “I got survivalism” at one another. Plus, their absolute enthusiasm as they danced to songs like “Came Back Haunted” was a nice contrast to perpetually moody lead singer.
The main set ended with the appearance of two massive singles. “The Hand That Feeds,” the lone representative of 2005’s excellent With Teeth, was followed by NIN’s first hit “Head Like a Hole” before bowing out until an encore a few moments later. The encore opened with “The Day the World Went Away,” off ’99’s The Fragile and preceded a brief moment of word vomit from Trent, uncharacteristic of any of the past NIN shows. He thanked the audience and his band, showing appreciation for both. Noting the sentimentality of the moment, he ended the introductions by saying “I don’t want to get too positive so we’re going to play a song from probably the saddest record I’ve ever written.” This meant another track from The Fragile, “Even Deeper,” and some tribal Zeppelin wails from one of the backing vocalists. After returning to the new material one last time with Marks closers “While I’m Still Here” and “Black Noise,” the true centerpiece of the show closed out the entire evening. “Hurt,” Reznor’s most heartbreaking and biting ballad that does the most accurate job of painting a picture of self-despair than arguably any other song in popular music history, capped off the set by filling up the arena with the singer’s emotionally haunting delivery. The final moment of crescendoed dissonance that accompanies the final line, “I would find a way,” lingered in the arena for a few moments as stage lights were extinguished.
Set list on next page.
Critical Bias: This is the first of the three times I’ve seen Nine Inch Nails where I 1) had the option to take a seat during the show and 2) was not covered in festival mud and other people’s sweat. Also, the fact that I’ve seen ’em three times.
Overheard: “MY MOM LOVES YOU!”
Random Notebook Dump: I wonder how crazy the lights and projections looked to the guy who pulled out and smoked a bag of weed next to me.
Copy of A
March of the Pigs
All Time Low
Came Back Haunted
Find My Way
A Warm Place
The Hand That Feeds
Head Like A Hole
The Day the World Went Away
While I’m Still Here