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Angelo Badalamenti’s score for Twin Peaks: The Return plays over the sound system as big clouds of fog take over the stage. The iconic NIN logo slowly fills the screens at the sides, but for those of us on the rail, we have no idea. Trent Reznor’s prerecorded voice robotically slithers, “Yes, everyone seems to be asleep,” and with it, everybody seems to wake up – the band takes the stage. The blistering opener “Branches/Bones” begins. In the same look that Reznor wore in his Twin Peaks appearance, he commands the stage, ethereal, timeless. The crowd in front immediately becomes feral, dangerous, soak sweating despite the beautiful New York night. Water bottles are passed, shoved and tossed into the hands of fans that security worries might be overdoing themselves only two songs in. A medic working the event screams the lyrics to the 1992 angst anthem “Wish” back into my face.
This is Nine Inch Nails live in 2017.
Rather than filling the stage with high-tech stealth screens, moving carts and seemingly-magical visuals like on past acclaimed tours, Nine Inch Nails has ditched the LEDs and art shows for something far more fitting to their new material and newfound relevance in an age of bad moods, bad news and harsh attitudes – simple yet powerful lights bathe the stage and the skin of the band as clouds of rolling fog like smoke causes each of them to get lost in their stances temporarily, fading back in during just the right solos, during just the right moments. Fans blow strips of VHS tape that decorate every mic stand, synth console and drum platform to be found, the only thing close to a cooling feeling for anyone in the crowd – this set is a feverish, blistering one, hits and harder cuts and new material all woven in to a perfection, songs from 1989 fitting in flawlessly alongside modern work like “Less Than.” Everyone sings or screams every song – everyone knows what this band is doing. As the first of the rare slower songs of the night begins, the audience is still and enraptured – “Something I Can Never Have” takes the place of usual staple “Piggy,” and despite being a song about heartbreak written by a man in his twenties now sang in his happily-married fifties, every lyric resonates – Reznor’s ability to fade back into the emotional space that created his artwork is impeccable, and everyone can see it. We’re brought along with him, and everybody sings, reverent and in tune.
He pauses before the piano intro “The Frail” blends into the sinister and towering “The Wretched” – rather than play the typical flourish that live versions of it have had since 1999, he covers his face with a hand, looking out in silhouette at the crowd that must look quite the same behind the beaming lights, thinking. It’s a short moment, but for those of us there to see it, it lasts forever, and we feel it – the connection, the loneliness, the wonder, the grief, and all of these things feel genuine; all of these things feel new again.
People scream along to “The Wretched.” Someone catches a water bottle thrown by veteran guitarist Robin Finck and pours it onto nearby fans. Nobody seems to mind. “Closer” has an urgency brought back to it that had been lost over the years, the simple blue and red lights impacting, the darkness of the song taking center stage and finally surpassing the face-value smoldering sexuality of the choruses. Thousands of people scream back at Reznor that he can have their isolation, that he can have the hate that it brings. As an act of catharsis, it proves sincere; everyone is draining the baggage that they brought with them here, rather than avoiding it for an hour and a half and returning to it as they walk off of the grounds.
2013’s “Copy of A” sounds better than it ever has, live drums mixing with cool electronics and a deceptively simple shadow show displaying the silhouettes always trying to catch up with themselves that Reznor characterizes himself as. When Reznor brings the speed back down from the white-knuckled “Gave Up,” no intensity is lost – performing a rework of David Bowie’s “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” we watch as he processes his grief of the loss of a mentor and friend, and as Bowie’s studio vocals begin to harmonize with Trent’s, it’s hard not to think of all of the footage of them singing together onstage in 1995. One look at Reznor’s face shows that he is thinking the same. No one whoos. No one shouts. No one ruins this moment. It’s a beautiful, special thing, something no one would ever expect from a festival crowd, but everyone here is dialed in.
With their latest EP, Add Violence, only being a few weeks old, it wouldn’t be surprising if half of the people here knew nothing from it beyond lead-single “Less Than,” but everybody seems to know “The Lovers” – it’s eerie verses blend into its off-putting yet beautiful chorus and Reznor’s vocals are soaring. Reznor described this tour as somehow being “anti-technology,” and here, finally having a moment to breathe from the crushing of people behind me, from the sense of being lost in every song, from the screaming that is going to ensure that my throat can’t speak tomorrow, I get it – the barriers of screens between the band and the audience are gone; the quiet moments are few and far between. In an era where most crowds watch a show through their phone instead of in the moment, Nine Inch Nails have made a festival full of people keep their devices put the fuck away. Every song is too vital; every moment is too intense; every second is too important. Why waste it fumbling with your pocket?
“The Lovers” give way to live-favorite “Reptile,” the familiar sampling at the beginning tipping old fans off and electrifying those here who are new. When it kicks in with its walls of guitars and Reznor’s vocals coil around the microphone, nothing else in the world exists – the lights of Manhattan nearby couldn’t be further away. “Reptile” creates a black hole that sucks the audience into it, too big to ignore, too intense to not get into, too overpowering to not give into. Until now, the band’s had nothing else quite like it in its catalogue, but after Year Zero’s incredible “The Great Destroyer” finishes, leaving everyone bathed in a flood of electro-noise brain-melting, the closest thing to a competitor for “Reptile” starts.
The stage is filled with fog again and everything turns cherry red. From the depths, Reznor emerges again, a megaphone held up to his microphone as he yells the verses to “Burning Bright (Field on Fire)”. In the crowd, not a single word is intelligible – the band’s wall of sound is too powerful, too industrial, too drowning, and nobody minds. As his vocals finally become clear, he sings, “Breathe, breathe, breathe – break through the surface and breathe.” Everyone chants along, snapped out of 2017’s mental fog, the stage somehow a perfect parallel to how almost all of us in some way have felt throughout this year and the one that preceded it. It’s the stand-out of the night in a night of stand-outs, the proof that almost thirty years in, Nine Inch Nails still has something to offer that nobody else can. It’s destructive, terrifying lyrics become empowering; it’s assaulting, defiant verses are electrifying. “The Hand That Feeds” blurs by afterward. “Head Like a Hole” is as epic, sweeping and relevant as it’s ever been, a song about the corrupting nature of capitalist greed still holding sway.
The lights explode. The band walks off. Nobody leaves.
When Reznor walks back out and thanks the audience, every word of it sounds sincere. As he begins to sing “Hurt,” everyone falls silent. The crowd goes still. No one is pushing; no one shoves. People begin to sing along; no one claps. For a song that diehard fans often complain about seeing as a staple, it still has an impact, still has a vitality, and everyone seems affected by it. Visuals of the damage people do to each other and the damage existence itself does to all life play behind the band, and as Trent sings the lines “What have I become, my sweetest friend? Everyone I know goes away in the end,” he looks more honest than ever, and for a moment, I’m reminded of when he and Bowie sang this together, and wonder if that’s who he thinking of tonight.
It hits its climax. Nobody budges. As the band leaves one last time, we become frozen in it, a single second stretched out forever, moved but unmoving, overwhelmed yet smiling.
Before the show began, everyone here was talking – about what songs they hoped for, about how many times they’d seen them. Some said it was their first, and were quickly warned by eager eyes vicariously experiencing their first-time excitement that “March of the Pigs” was going to wreck their ribcage against the rail (it did). Others said it was their fifth, or seventh, or ninth – too young to see older tours, but just as rabid as anyone. Some said double-digits like thirty, or fifty, or seventy-three. Few bands can cast such a wide net into an audience and keep so many pulled in while still attracting new blood, but Nine Inch Nails has done it through their passion, their intensity, their talent, their freshness and their vitality. For all of us, no matter which number show this was, no matter how many times we’d seen old classics done, we are all left satisfied.
The house lights go up. Assholes scream for guitar picks while more patient fans waited in hope of getting setlists. Friends separated in the crowd reunite, gushing about what they’ve all just seen. “I’ve never heard Reptile sound that loud before.” “I knew Burning Bright would be good, but I didn’t know it would be that good.” “Are you going to Riot Fest in September?” Everyone is happy. No one is stuck staring into their phone. Through songs of detachment, anger, grief, loss, loneliness and pain, thousands of scattered people are brought together in unison, and suddenly, all of those feelings are gone again. If that’s not art, what is?
Nine Inch Nails new EP Add Violence is out now digitally and streaming. You can read my review of it here. Nine Inch Nails will headline Chicago’s Riot Fest in September and Sacramento’s Aftershock festival in November. Reznor plans to tour extensively next year.