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After a surprise record store Q&A, a handful of festival dates and secret shows, and a day of music from alternative royalty like The Buzzcocks and synth-pop gods New Order to contemporary loves like the experimentally manic Liars and the sludgy rock duo Death From Above, Nine Inch Nails at Riot Fest gets underway, just minutes after an entire crowd has finished singing the undeniable “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” fog filling the air and the heat of thousands pressed against each other beginning to rise despite the cool Chicago night. “Yes, everyone seems to be asleep,” a sample of Reznor moans, the band taking position and opener “Branches/Bones” kicking in. The moment he appears, Reznor is already in his classic black tee, the heavy leather jacket and aviator shades of past performances this year absconded, and a signal of the show to come – stripped down, languid, energetic and capable of moving freely, never pinned to one place for long.
I’d travelled to New York to see their Panorama performance in July, and midway through new destined-to-be-classic “Burning Bright (Field on Fire),” I knew I’d be going to Chicago. Pressed against the rail, singing along excitedly to the recent single “Less Than” and staring at production genius Atticus Ross and drum prodigy Ilan Rubin, I know I’ve made the right decision. As the same songs play, they feel entirely different – the Panorama crowd was energetic, bouncy and dancing, no one’s feet on the ground for long, completely willing to give themselves away to a quiet moment, an engaged intensity engrossing the stage and filling the air. But at Riot Fest, the crowd is feral – lungs are pressed against metal and other people and if you were to jump, you’d lose your place, feet falling on someone else’s that have moved right in and under you. 1994’s mosh-happy “March of the Pigs” roars, but there’s no room to leap, and hands clutch and cling and claw at any suggestion of a fraction of open space along the rail, people desperate to get closer to the energy, to escape the constant crushing.
The body heat of everyone seems to collect and fume, rolling into a cloud of oppressive sweltering and sweat; the security isn’t handing out water even if you beg. Feet in combat boots fly overhead, crowd-surfing and tumbling in front of the stage, hands on heads to protect skulls a commonplace thing tonight, remnants of Ministry’s theatric and blistering set still lingering, black-clad bodies flung by reaching hands, hats lost and wallets dropped, passed to the front for security to sort out. Pretty Hate Machine’s iconic and lamenting “Something I Can Never Have” doesn’t feel somber or poignant; it feels smouldering, and Reznor seems to recognise it, dragging the finale out, the youthful romantic angst of the original song morphing into something demanding, eruptive and harsh, and it’s the moment I know that even if I get the same setlist, this is going to be an extremely different show.
For a few songs, I think about backing away a bit, conserving my lung capacity for screaming only along to certain songs, taking breathers at others, sleeves shrugged up, heat baking off of skin. “Copy of a” continues to prove itself as a modern masterpiece for the band, sleek and mercurial, capable of melding into something else every time it’s performed, the shadow play against the dirty sheets along the back of the stage mesmerising. The beautiful, hauntingly gorgeous reworking of David Bowie’s “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is as good as it’s been all year, and as Bowie’s vocals fade in to accompany Reznor in a posthumous duet, reminiscent of their 1995 Dissonance tour, it’s impossible to not get choked up, to feel what Reznor is clearly feeling on stage, right in front of you, someone trapped in the kind of mourning that never fully goes away when it’s someone you knew so well, who it feels like you just saw yesterday. Soft lights twinkle above, mirroring the digital undercurrent in the mix, the sound immaculate, perfectly-blended and allowing every instrument to breathe.
I’ve settled in, comfortably constricted by the crowd around me and committed to experiencing the show as close as I can, in love with the full view of Rubin’s remarkable drumming, of Ross’s swaggering digital fucking, and just as I’ve happily accepted that this is going to be the same setlist as before, something different happens. Pulsating loops and samples whirl along, drums thumping in lockstep, and I know I recognise it, my sense of expectation shattered, and Nine Inch Nails begins to play Add Violence’s sprawling closing track “The Background World,” its first live performance. An epic, swirling song built around thumping drums and apocalypse-lamenting lyrics that speak to the fears of inevitability and the sinking certainty that everything is reaching a breaking point – a feeling that has come to define this time for much of the world – it manages to translate perfectly live – Rubin’s drums add an organic element not found on the simulated nightmare of the studio recording, and Reznor’s vocals are clean, clear and powerful, performing as if he’d done this song plenty of times before, confident and strong. Yellow and blue lights flash and flare up, dying down and rising in brightness again.
“There is no better place,” Reznor sings, and though in context it’s a horrifying statement, standing there, seeing such an incredible song brought to life, it’s hard to not apply it happily to where I am. Stuck in heat and sweat and dehydrated skin, I am overwhelmed, and as the whole band pitches in to build up the climax, vocals layering on one another, lights blooming like spring and blinding me, I have to wipe tears away from my eyes. Breathless, I find something beautiful. For such a delicate song, the raging intensity of the Riot crowd makes into something towering, and if the studio recording feels like a bleak acceptance of a self-subjected end, the live performance feels like a defiant indictment of it, facing what’s coming with sobriety, still standing until the final curtain call.
Rather than subject the audience to eight minutes of a disintegrating tape loop, a genius studio trick that would numb a festival crowd anywhere, the ending of “The Background World” expertly cuts into the slamming drums of The Slip’s “1,000,000,” and it feels like any song can be played, like anything can happen. It’s a moment where the flashy, stage-encompassing lightshows of past Nine Inch Nails tours aren’t missed at all – the bare bones aesthetic gives room to play in, sets no longer constricted to songs that have elaborate pre-designed visuals and the band not having to worry about being choreographed right. Reznor leaps around the stage and slinks away, speaker stacks and fog machines obscuring him at will. The entire crowd around me sings along to Year Zero’s “The Great Destroyer,” the massive ball of electronic noise and fury that it morphs into not isolating the crowd but engaging it, red and blue lights exploding across the stage, video screens at the sides usually reserved for grainy close-ups at stadium shows exploding in static, distorted imagery and societal collapse.
“Burning Bright (Field on Fire),” the crown jewel of 2016’s daring Not the Actual Events EP, manages to recapture the way it felt two months ago, overpowering and enrapturing, the sound of something triumphant that shouldn’t be, a wall of noise creating a surface that Trent’s vocals then break through and breathe, a lyric that feels like an instruction as lungs are filled with hotter and hotter air, and I don’t care; my ribs could crack and I wouldn’t leave, and everyone beside me feels the same, places held onto, vocal chords straining to scream along with the abstractly powerful chorus.
After hits “The Hand That Feeds” and “Head Like a Hole” are complete, crowd-pleasers that even make the stoic security guards nod along with the beat, the band leaves for the stage for a minute, Reznor walking back out quickly after, announcing, “Fuck it, we’re gonna play some more,” and The Fragile’s fan-favourite opener “Somewhat Damaged” begins to beat in, hundreds of voices singing along, the song building and then falling back down again, a little more edge kept each time it falls only to burst into the raw, face-first choruses, and by the end an entire audience is shouting, samples of Reznor from 1999 growling, breath let loose with no words, only to fade into “The Day the World Went Away,” a wall of guitars giving way to delicate lyrics and a gentle, gorgeous outro, building into the wordless chant, and it’s beautiful.
I brush my hair back. I wipe tears away. My face stings from smiling. Common show closer “Hurt” plays, and, like everyone, I sing along, but I don’t fully register it, still in the afterglow of the song before it, “The Day the World Went Away” one of Reznor’s greatest compositions that has improved over time through live performances, stunning and cathartic, a song that turns from a heartbreaking melody of deeply personal loss into a pure and wordless blast of feelings, going from something left cold and grey to something unmistakably colourful, sun-soaked and open-hearted. For all of the speaking to numbness, the music is electrifying. At the end of the day, music is about sound, capable of expressing something pure and real and human and living, inanimate and abstract noises coalescing to speak to something in the centre of our chests that simple verbal communication doesn’t, unfiltered and inspiring, connecting and invigorating, and for the entirety of Nine Inch Nails’ set, Riot Fest was drowned it.