Monday, November 25, 2013

Adrian's Summer/Fall Concert Blitz, Part 10: Nine Inch Nails, Key Arena, Seattle, 11/22/13

Of all the artists I've gone to see this summer and fall, the one whose work I was least familiar with beforehand was Trent Reznor. When Nine Inch Nails ruled the world with Pretty Hate Machine and "Head Like a Hole," I was too engrossed in progressive rock to pay it any mind. I missed out on a good 15 years' worth of mainstream music before I wised up and realized I'd neglected a lot of good stuff while immersing myself in the Renaissance Faire-like world of glittery capes, Mellotrons, and dry ice. Not that I don't still love that stuff, but nowadays there's room in my music-loving heart for just about any type of good tune that comes along.

Still, NIN slipped through the cracks for me until this past summer, when I heard a song on Seattle's alternative-rock station. It kicked off with a tight, minimalist digital beat that initially put me in the mind of something from Kraftwerk in their heyday. A warbling bass line on the synth created a feeling something like an aural vertigo. The singer entered, delivering his lines in a breathy urgency, as if looking over his shoulder while he sang, eager to get his message out before it was too late. Some dramatic sustained notes appeared under the relentless drumbeat as the mood grew more urgent. Then the refrain: "I came-back-haun-ted." A solo from a distorted guitar mixed in with the electronics, the singer fell to a loud whisper, and then it all came to an abrupt end.

Wow! That was cool. Once I found out it was a song by NIN from their then-forthcoming album Hesitation Marks, and that they were going to be playing in Seattle in the fall, I decided to track down their back catalog and catch up on what I'd missed. I found Pretty Hate Machine to be one of their best, mixing its grinding electronic heaviness with some great riffs and melodies. My only points of reference for industrial music up to that point were Einst├╝rzende Neubauten, who to my ears emphasized the avant-garde mechanics of the subgenre (music from non-musical sources, with all the requisite buzzes and squawks over insistent drumbeats), and Ministry, which favored metallic guitar riffs over a driving but repetitive backdrop of pounding drums and processed noise. NIN seemed to lean more toward the heavier Ministry side of things, but with more conventional-sounding song structures that surely made them more palatable to a wider audience. I can only take loud, aggressive music in small doses, but I could see what made NIN as popular as they were. Even for a style of music I wouldn't listen to on a regular basis, this was pretty good stuff. I don't care for the abundance of profanity in the lyrics, but alas, it's hard to get away from that in popular music these days.

The Downward Spiral and The Fragile seemed the most aggressive of all the albums, both musically and lyrically -- capped off by "Hurt," Trent's gut-wrenching depths-of-despair piece that Johnny Cash covered so brilliantly shortly before he died. Reading about Trent as I was discovering all this new music, I learned that he was staring down a lot of personal demons during this point in his career, and it certainly showed. Hesitation Marks signaled a comeback for a sober Trent Reznor, now a husband and father. I know some longtime fans have said the new album lacks the bite of some of Trent's best work, and I can see where they're coming from, although I don't mind having the emphasis back on the riffs and melodies, the way things were on Pretty Hate Machine. There's still plenty of heaviness and urgency in the music, though perhaps with less focus on the guitars and more on the pulsating electronics. It's still unmistakably NIN, only seen through the lens of someone who's gone through hell and come out the other side, with plenty of stories to tell from his harrowing experiences. In fact, if there's any lyrical theme on Hesitation Marks, it seems to be a sense of uneasiness that the new, improved Trent Reznor won't last and that his old demons will come charging back to pull him down to the depths again. So the new NIN isn't exactly a mellowed-out version of its old self -- it's just an anxious view from a different vantage point.

Now, I admit I might not have ended up buying a concert ticket had I known Adrian Belew wasn't going to be a part of the touring band. Ade has been one of my favorite musicians since I first heard him fronting King Crimson in its '80s incarnation. He's played on several NIN albums, including the new one, and even toured with them a few times. He was supposed to be on the current tour. But then news came that he was out. No one really gave any specifics why. The most Ade said on his Facebook page was that he had great respect for Trent, but things just didn't work out. Given that Trent has called Adrian "the most awesome musician in the world," I'm still at a loss as to what might have transpired.  

Anyway, I'm still glad I went to the show. About a third of the setlist came from Hesitation Marks, which made me happy. The rest was a mixture of music from across Trent's NIN career, touching on every album except for Ghosts I-IV, whose omission wasn't a surprise, as it's such a left-field album in NIN's career -- ambient, slow, moody, and almost completely instrumental. It happens to be my favorite NIN album, but I had no expectation of hearing anything from it at the show.

Trent was, naturally, front and center for the proceedings. He contributed a few guitar and keyboard parts during the show -- including an arresting piano solo on "The Frail," but most of the time he was clutching the mic with both hands and singing as if his life depended on it. It was also hard not to notice the guy's physique, with his muscular arms protruding from the short sleeves of his black T-shirt. He was fit and lean and full of emotion and energy -- not bad for a guy in his late 40s, especially one who's gone through all he has.


The band was a well-oiled machine, which I guess you'd expect with the tour winding down. There were only a few shows left after Seattle, and they've been at this for months now. That didn't make the performance any less impressive, though. The nine-piece lineup included six musicians besides Trent, and two female backing vocalists. On bass was the incomparable Pino Palladino, who's played with just about everybody who's anybody in the music industry. He's been working a lot with The Who ever since John Entwistle died. Naturally, he was perfect, as he and the rest of the band tore through two hours of highly intense music, including some with a few tricky twists -- like "March of the Pigs." It took me a while to decipher the time signature when I first heard it on The Downward Spiral, and a quick look online confirmed what I was hearing: 29/8. Nice. Or you could be less of a geek and break it down into three bars of 7/8 and one of 8/8, but where's the fun in that?

One of the musical highlights came just before the last song of the night, with the finale from Hesitation Marks, the combo of "While I'm Still Here" and "Black Noise." "While I'm Still Here," with its minimal musical atmosphere of electronic percussion and synthesizer drones, built to a close featuring a staccato baritone sax -- not something I expected to see onstage amidst all the electronics and inorganic sounds. As on the album, the first song leads directly into "Black Noise," an instrumental piece that takes the synth drones and slowly layers waves of distorted guitars on top of them, until the music has transformed into a roar of tuneless cacophony -- and then, suddenly, it all ended, as if someone had pulled the plug. The stage went black, and the air hung silent for a split second before the crowd realized it was all over and cheered its approval. After that, the show ended with "Hurt," featuring some disturbingly graphic scenes of violence projected onto the screen at the back of the stage. There's no arguing that the images fit the mood of the song, but it was quite a crushing way to end a concert. Trent didn't exactly send us dancing off into the night with that one.


As good as the music was, though, the visuals were even better -- the graphic scenes accompanying "Hurt" notwithstanding. A couple of times during the show, a mesh screen descended to the front of the stage, with a flurry of lights and lasers bouncing off its surface. There were even some pretty neat 3-D effects, with shapes and jagged patterns appearing to spin around the band, from the front to the back of the stage. The light rigs moved up and down and panned over the audience. The strobes were nearly blinding. Smoke billowed off the stage for most of the night. Early on in the show, a cluster of lights hung low over each musician like a ceiling lamp, and with the light concentrated on such a small area, the musicians could take a step back and disappear from sight, into the smoke and the blackness behind the illumination. At another point later in the show, Trent stood alone at the front of the stage while a sheer curtain dropped over the backing band, who were then illuminated from the back so that their silhouettes were visible as they performed. All very impressive stuff that perfectly accentuated the mood of the music.




My only complaint was that the show felt a little rushed. Trent's interaction with the crowd was minimal, as one song would start only seconds after the last one finished, almost as if the band was hurrying to get through the show. I felt as if the music stepped on our applause several times during the show. But near the end, Trent did take the time to introduce the band and thank the crowd for sticking with him through the years. So that was a nice touch.

I don't know that I'd go to see NIN again, but it was an enjoyable evening -- and not a bad way to wrap up my concertgoing fun for the year. I was fortunate to have some extra cash to spend on a lot of concert tickets this year, and I'm lucky to have an indulgent wife who doesn't mind sitting home with the little one for the evening while I go off and rock out for a couple of hours. I don't know if I'll ever be able to do anything like this again, but even if not, it's been a great year for live music in the Puget Sound area, and I'm grateful I was able to take so much of it in.

We'll see what next year brings.

Setlist:

Copy of A
1,000,000
Terrible Lie
March of the Pigs
Piggy
All Time Low
Disappointed
Came Back Haunted
Find My Way
Sanctified
In Two
The Frail/The Wretched
Satellite
Survivalism
Running
A Warm Place
Somewhat Damaged
Wish
The Hand That Feeds
Head Like a Hole

Encore:

All the Love in the World
Even Deeper
While I'm Still Here/Black Noise
Hurt

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