Nine Inch Nails Live at the Sprint Center

(Photo Brian Davidson/ Special to the Star/ KC Star)

In my review for Nine Inch Nail’s restless comeback album Hesitation Marks, I noted Trent Reznor spent much of the album’s run-time turning down the heat on past towering infernos, “until only a flickering blue pilot light is left”. The band’s searing two-hour set at the Sprint Center last night danced between the tiny shimmer of a lighter and a raging fire threatening everything in sight.

Jittery “Copy of A” opened up the night and Reznor was instantly caught up in his own groove, hurling across the stage like a feral animal. Follow-up “1,000,000″ smashed the opener into the “pieces of pieces of pieces” the squiggly song could only suggest, Reznor delivering the numb “I feel a million miles away, I don’t feel anything at all” with half-clenched teeth. Pretty Hate Machine warhorse “Terrible Lie” further escalated the aural onslaught. Every off-kilter guitar riff unleashed added additional black eye to an already bruised body.

Akin to the new LP, much of the show’s downtime was unexpected. “March of the Pigs” central question “doesn’t that make you feel better?”‘ became the eye of the storm, prolonged by Reznor and company. The piano traipsing along teased a respite that never arrived. Similarly, the skittish beat sequencing of “Find My Way” was oddly comforting in a live context. Surrounded by so much terror, Reznor’s “Children’s Prayer” subversion provided genuine tranquility. Elsewhere, the ambient washes following “Running” drowned out the entire crowd. Soon enough though the audience was cast onto the rocky shore by the seething interrogation “where the f*** were you?” of “Somewhat Deranged”.

But the brief intermissions of frailty were no match for the night’s muscular numbers; tracks intent on obliteration. Before the show, I heard someone yell what sounded like “cyber raptor” and that vivid imagine of a mechanical killing machine is ideal for the NIN discography. Backed by shadows, “Hand That Feeds” rose to its feet and stomped the audience into the ground with its indelible hook. “All Time Low” retained its rabid dog on a last leg status; flailing about without ever breaking the cage that contained it. “Disappointed”s scattered beams of light were right at home accompanying a fragmented mind that’s spent the last two decades attempting to piece everything together. And “Head Like A Hole” (which elicited the throatiest roar of the night) continued its dominance, heralding the apocalypse which the audience relished with delight.

The two songs that achieved equilibrium between the ragers and the growers are all too familiar to fans of the band. Bathed in purple, Reznor was quietly seeing red with “Piggy”. The “soothing” ambient whispers of the track were shouted down by the punishing drum beat and skyward reaching guitar solos. Then there was “Hurt” drawing the black curtain on the funeral procession. It was the least surprising moment of the night and still the most satisfying. Long since it was wrestled away from Reznor by Johnny Cash, he continues to imbue it with the same hopeless isolation an entire generation identified with nearly 20 years ago. When the whispering guitars find their voice, it’s the sound of man shedding his mortal coil.

When I was about 10, I remember having long shoots attached to my fingers and jokingly dubbing them “Nine Inch Nails” to my cousins. I had no idea who the band was; to me they were just a name. The apparent unease that crept over my cousins told me all I needed to know. The mere mention of the name clued me in this wasn’t a band that traded in comfort. Anyone that promises “the only that’s real” rarely does.

Setlist:
1. “Copy of A”
2. “1,000,000″
3. “Terrible Lie”
4. “March of the Pigs”
5. “Piggy”
6. “All Time Low”
7. “Disappointed”
8. “Came Back Haunted”
9. “Find My Way”
10. “Into the Void” (First time since 2007)
11. “The Frail” (Tour debut)
12. “The Wretched” (Tour debut)
13. “Survivalism”
14. “Running”
15. “A Warm Place”
16. “Somewhat Damaged”
17. “Wish”
18. “Burn” (Tour debut)
19. “The Hand That Feeds”
20. “Head Like A Hole”

21. “Even Deeper”
22. “Various Methods of Escape” (Live debut)
23. “While I’m Still Here”
24. “Black Noise”
25. “Hurt”

 

“Hesitation Marks”- Nine Inch Nails

A line like “everything I say has come before” in jittery faux dance track “Copy of A” off Hesitation Marks, Nine Inch Nails’ first offering in 5 years possesses particular relevance circa 2013. In his review for Stereogum, Tom Breihan posited Kanye West’s oppressive Yeezus may be the best Nine Inch Nails record of 2013. “Yeezus has that old urgency, the need factor,” he wrote in his column. 20-plus years into his career, Trent Reznor isn’t infected by the same desperation that defined Pretty Hate Machine or Downward Spiral. Often those albums defining numbers were in-the-red screamers where Reznor seethed with contempt for anything and everything. Much of Hesitation Marks turns the heat on the towering inferno down, until only a flickering blue pilot light is left.

A small burning ember is an adept metaphor for Hesitation Marks, because Reznor is often at his best here when he’s giving his “least”. Paradoxically the course of skeletal “Find My Way” is plotted over skittish drum sequencing. Reznor strips his cavernous mine of all but the essentials. A regretful whisper hovers above a haunted piano line crawling up from the abyss. He dabbles in the “Children’s Prayer”, though it smacks of an individual willing to try anything once to find a solution.  While quizzical and propulsive “Disappointed” finds time for post-rock guitar climbing, Reznor remains firmly grounded by a no muss no fuss clap track. He looks skyward solely to question Superman’s motives as he flies overhead; warning him “nothing is ever going to change.”

Reznor remains “one-step ahead” on twittering “Satellite”, though xx guitar runs are hiding in the jungle groove’s thickets. 2013 has become the year of satellites and surveillance, and listening to a Nine Inch Nails album is akin to listening to a slowly collapsing conversation, so why not cross the two wires together? Reznor can’t shed a straightjacket in “Various Methods of Escape”. Crestfallen he wonders aloud “why’d you have to make this so hard?” Losing yourself in another person can be a frightening experience and Reznor is screaming from behind claustrophobic maze walls.

Lyrically Hesitation Marks myopically focuses on fleeing. The pulsating “Running” scans for hiding spots and comes up empty-handed; leaving Reznor to resign “I’ll never get away.” Penultimate track “While I’m Still Here” sees time sprinting away, each lap brings Reznor one step closer to the end. Even “Copy of A” concerns Reznor’s attempts to “catch up with myself.” The race Reznor is really running is to reclaim the throne. Desolate industrial nihilism tempered by dance-pop sensibilities is no-longer a non-starter and Reznor’s empire is being encroached upon.

Reznor’s “problem” is comparable to the challenge My Bloody Valentine masterfully confronted in m b v. The void their near two-decade absence left was filled in by worthy successors spanning Sigur Ros to Beach House and Deerhunter. Addressing this, I wrote: “MBV attempting to begin again in a landscape it invented is virtually unprecedented, but restless innovators like Kevin Shields have rarely been concerned with precedence.” The descriptor “restless” can be readily appended to Reznor and Hesitation Marks’ weakest moments are when he settles down into familiar habits.

“All Time Low”s two-step thud and funk strut faintly recalls the insecure carnal feast of “Closer”, but defanged by an impish Wurlitzer. Both are rabid dogs fighting to stay alive; “Closer” is just more feral. “Everything” tries to outpace Hesitation Marks lurching crestfallen numbers, only to disappear into a pack of early 2000s emo imitators.  “Come Back Haunted”s drum hits and low-end bass burbles teases a militant chorus that never quite finds its rallying cry. Reznor says goodbye during the track, if he could just put the past in the rearview altogether.

Previously mentioned “Disappointed” asks “what did you expect?” and this far into Reznor’s career as NIN it’s a fair question to ask. Can we expect Reznor to die rather than relinquish control? Is Reznor still willing to hold on to what he wants to believe? Hesitation Marks never clears the high-bar because of reluctance to answer these questions. Finishing instrumental “Black Noise” flees before any conflict is resolved. Downward Spiral was an unrelenting bullet to the brain; here Reznor has a jittery finger teasing the trigger as the screen fades to black.

Nine Inch Nails will be appearing in Kansas City at the Sprint Center on September 30.