View more photos in the “Nine Inch Nails @ Echoplex” slideshow.
The first time Nine Inch Nails appeared on my radar was at a tattoo party at some punk rock girl's house. She was a diehard hardcore chick with Oi/straight-edge leanings (minus the racism), worked at a record store, and hated “fucking techno.” She lumped every variety of music with electronic beats, be it Kraftwerk, Skinny Puppy, or Spandau Ballet, as equally soft and tepid. Music for wankers, basically.
Sitting at a kitchen table while a budding tattoo artist worked on her forearm, she announced that she had a confession, and directed a friend to pop in a cassette. There was this new promo tape she'd just got, and she was really digging it. But it was, she said with consternation, “kinda techno.” The album was Pretty Hate Machine, and as “Head Like a Hole” filled the room, a bunch of punkers got their heads clogged, and nothing was ever the same.
It's hard to overestimate Trent Reznor's influence on the direction that rock & roll has taken over the past twenty years. His synthesis in the 1980s of punk and electronic music, of the hardbeat Wax Trax sound of Chicago merged with D.C. and Los Angeles punk and Seattle proto grunge, weaved together strands of aggressive music that had previously eyed each other warily. The musics traded in similar emotions, though — alienation, fear, heartbreak, paranoia, disappointment, and, of course, rage — and Nine Inch Nails was a tipping point at the exact perfect moment. (Skinny Puppy, you may not know, was featured on the first-ever Sub Pop Records compilation.)
Last night, Reznor brought his arena show down to a basement punk club, the Echoplex, where he and his amazingly tight Nine Inch Nails delivered an epic, fuck-all hardcore rock show replete with beats, textures, rhythmic breakdowns, beefy Helmet power chords and a hundred million screams. Over nearly three hours — 27 songs! — of fury and texture, the band offered solid proof that while it can carry a show at an arena, nothing beats doing it in a no-bullshit club. It's where that reputations are built and solidified.
The venue, which is also the name of a Nine Inch Nails song on The Slip, was the perfect place for this show. The club has never sounded better; the PA delivered rich, thick, jumbo sound that never fed back or felt overloaded. It was, quite honestly, a NIN fan's dream show: hot, sweaty, loud, clear, crowded, energized — though at times oddly quiet between songs — and enthusiastic. (This was supposed to be the last-ever Nine Inch Nails show, but a flu bug felled Our Alienated One, forcing him to postpone shows at the Wiltern and the Henry Fonda Theater to this week.)
By the end of hour one, the joint smelled like tequila and a men's locker room, the air was filled with a sweaty fog, and the crystalline sound was offering the wildly dynamic, monosyllabic rock. Predictably, the band started out hard, fast and furious:
1. Somewhat Damaged
2. The Beginning of the End
3. The Collector
5. March of the Pigs
Nine Inch Nails lyrics seldom contain long words, Reznor preferring to craft universal anthemic mantras that can be barked out in one- and two-syllable declarative grunts. Reznor says what he means, and says it precisely and simply so that it is completely understood. And the fans understand, which at times last night made for a pretty disturbing spectacle. Hearing 600 amped up humans singing the “March of the Pigs” lyrics doesn't engender hope that the populace is content:
shove it up inside surprise! lies
stains like the blood on your teeth
bite chew suck away the tender parts
I want to break it up I want to smash it up I want to fuck it up
But oh did the fans chant, and scream, and dance, and lose its proverbial shit.
The middle part of the show saw Trent calming down a little bit, sitting behind the piano and getting all soft like with the mournful, self-loathing, confessional songs. One thing about Nine Inch Nails fans that's awesome is that they seldom scream out “I love you, Trent” during the quiet parts, allowing him instead to generate tension through silence that he usually can't help but build to a grand crescendo (Nine Inch Nails rivals only Trans Siberian Orchestra in the subtlety dept.) But that's what this music — and all rock & roll — is about: tension and release, tension and release.
The band moved through songs with the determination and drive a gymnast racing toward a pommel horse, each song a solid yet graceful muscle-flex of emotion. “Wish,” the epic track from the Broken EP, set the club aloft; despite the best (and mostly successful) efforts of the bouncers to curtail the crowd surfing, during “Wish” all hell broke loose. The crowd was frenzied; two women next to me kept chanting “Oh my god, Oh my god” as if they were in some sort of trance. It was a massive release, for sure, the kind you're more likely to see at Kentucky snake-handler's convention than a basement club in LA, what with the city's detached and way-too-cool demeanor. There was none of that there last night.
The highlight, among many, was Gary Numan's appearance. Numan, whose work in the early 1980s offered a foundation upon which Reznor would build upon, joined Nails for a hypnotic, admirably restrained and beautiful version of “Metal.” It was a blissful moment; the relative gentility of the music traded fury for contemplation and a steady four-four beat. The crowd, sweaty and parched from constant fist-pumping and chanting, seemed relieved to travel inside the song; it got hushed and Numan used his razor-sharp whine to convey emotion atop the repetition. It was a pure, truly memorable moment.
With a simple light show that managed to blind and awe and punctuate, the Reznor sent a huge message to a crowded, overheated and overjoyed crowd of 600: the massive arena shows and outdoor amphitheater gigs that Nine Inch Nails unleashed on the world through the 1990s and '00 were awesome, but a rock band is built for clubs, not sports arenas. You needed no further proof than another cover song that Reznor did during the encore, “Dead Souls” by Joy Division.
“Someone take these dreams away,” sang Reznor desperately, channeling Ian Curtis, “that point me to another day.” The band — longtime guitarist Robin Finck, solid session bassist and producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, and drummer Ilan Rubin — chugged along menacingly while Reznor kept bemoaning those dreams. “They keep calling me,” he complained, and the crowd was right there with him. “They keep calling me,” he continued, over and over, until he slipped into a chant of “callllllllling meeeeee … callllllllling meeeeeee” like someone who was on his way down to an extended stay in a deep, dark dungeon. What he comes up when he's down there is anyone's guess. But there will be a lot of people up above eagerly awaiting his release.
Nine Inch Nails at the Echoplex, September 6, 2009
Setlist (tentative: please correct in comments and we'll update):
The Beginning of the End
March of the Pigs
Something I Can Never Have
The Big Come Down
The Way Out is Through
Down In it
Metal [featuring Gary Numan]
I Die: You Die [featuring Gary Numan]
The Hand That Feeds
Head Like a Hole