Edited article for The Boar available here:
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It’s been 5 years since Trent Reznor and co conquered a British arena; and they unsurprisingly stretched Birmingham LG’s 16,000 people capacity. Fans new and old gathered from as early as 5pm; dressed in the colourful attire you’d expect from an industrial-metal show. (or rather, the lack of…) But the range of washed out tour shirts proved an overwhelming point – Trent Reznor has been playing this game for over 25 years now.
Nine Inch Nails are perhaps most famous for their work in the 1990s; with The Downward Spiral (1994) regularly cited as one of the most influential records of the decade. However, for an act that could easily fill arenas by playing ‘the classics’, Trent Reznor advocates a real dedication towards reinventing his live act. Albeit through recruiting new members or investing in stage production, Nails’ have earned a reputation for innovating their stage show. In fact, just last summer the band lashed out at Reading and Leeds Festival for refusing their elaborate lighting rig. It seems that the UK would have to wait another year before giving Nails’ a platform that could truly accommodate them.
The show itself opened with a spotlight on Reznor, in a minimalist rendition of ‘Me I’m Not’. The other band members progressively joined him, in a pattern that was allegedly inspired by The Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense tour. However, having just toured America as an eight-piece, it was somewhat disconcerting to count just three people join him on stage.
But there was nothing underwhelming about this show. After a strobe-driven ‘Copy of A’ and an exuberant remark about not playing another ‘fucking festival’; it was clear that this was a refined and polished live act. In turn, with a flurry of exotic lights during ‘March Of The Pigs’, Trent Reznor’s secret weapon was now in full swing. A mechanical screen covered the stage and sat behind, or in front of those performing. Images accompanied the music and masked those on stage; becoming one of the most immersive live act I’ve ever witnessed. The dynamics this presented were unparalleled. Screens of white noise and distortion obscured the band during breakdowns, only to be pulled back like a futuristic theatrical curtain.
This was most notable during the performance of ‘Eraser’. Uncomfortable images of insects covered the screen during its slow introduction, but were dispersed as the drum kicked in and Ilan Rubin was revealed from behind the metal sheet. This promoted the rest of the band to join in, and the crowd were engaged both visually and sonically. Frankly, these kind of theatrics are what are inspiring about live music on this scale. Trent has taken the essence of his music and projected in a way that exceeds what the audience expectant, when in all honestly, he doesn’t have to play anything more than the music.
In fact, for a band that is comprised of only one official member, there was a remarkable lack of ego displayed too. Whilst invariably, Trent Reznor is the crowd focal point, his band were impressively tight and professional. Ilan Rubin effortless glided between drums and synths, and occasionally picked up the bass and electric guitar. Robin Finck and Alessandro Cortini also swapped instruments; each facing a synth whilst guitars hung from their necks. It seems Trent has hired four likeminded musicians to cary his live act with him. There was no showboating or excessive guitar soloing, nor any of the usual rock star bullshit of bands (and stages) this size. Nine Inch Nails were an act, a collective unit, and above else; an experience.
Likewise, the setlist was equally as choreographed. Songs like Sanctified from 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine book-ended with tracks form 2013’s Hesitation Marks; covering as much as their catalogue as possible. (This certainly didn’t feel like a ‘plug the new album tour’ – *ahem* – Smashing Pumpkins at Wembley last year) Fans also received over-looked album tracks such as ‘The Great Destroyer’ and ‘Piggy’; something that is often missed in larger arena shows. Nevertheless, there was a distinctive scarcity of 1999’s The Fragile. Whilst this is likely the most divisive record within the Nine Inch Nails catalogue, the ripping guitars of ‘The Day The World Went Away’ proved that Trent Reznor’s darkest moments were undoubtedly, his best. Their finale was, unsurprisingly, the closest thing to a ‘greatest hits’ for Nails’. A back to back performance of ‘The Hand That Feeds’ and ‘Head Like A Hole’ ignited the crowd for one last time. The band then returned for gut-wrenching performance of ‘Hurt’ in the encore; which sparked the cliche cigarette lighter waving that only certain songs provoke.
Whilst I ultimately find it difficult reviewing something as subjective as live music; and no doubt I would’ve be satisfied with just hearing the songs, the experience that Trent Reznor and co have conjured is truly awe-inspiring. It is refreshing, immersive and it pushes the limit in what live acts should be doing in light of their ever inflated ticket prices. Nine Inch Nails set the benchmark incredibly high for live shows, and you’ll be hard pressed to see Reznor fading away any time soon.