Nine Inch Nails: Popular Modernism in 90s Metal, Part 1

The alt-metal scene of the 90s was an incredibly fertile ground for the emergence of exciting bands that all fused the heavies of metal with exciting forms of sonic innovation and experimentation. There was progressive metal (Tool, Opeth, Meshuggah), stoner-metal (Sleep, Kyuss, Electric Wizard), nu-metal (Deftones, Rage Against the Machine), funk-metal (Primus, Mr. Bungle), industrial metal (Godflesh, Nine Inch Nails), drone-metal (Boris, Earth, and later Sunn O)))), post-metal (Neurosis and later Isis), and important standalone releases, such as Sepultura’s Roots (1996). What these bands had in common was that they rejected the cultural dominance and popularity of the ‘glam-metal’, which had been established in the late 80s as a sort of conventionalized version of the alien and androgynous explorations conducted by artists like David Bowie in 70s glam-rock, and instead aimed to reinvent metal by incorporating elements from progressive rock, stoner rock, hip-hop, funk, industrial, drone, post-rock, and so on. It was an incredibly exciting moment, since it crushed the culturally ingrained, stereotypical image of the ‘big-hair metal-dude’ that glam-metal had established – which indeed made myself initially reluctant to explore this new metal-scene when I was first introduced to it – and instead showed that metal could be a utilized as a productive base for the exploration of novel sonic expressions. This two-part series of essays covers two of the most influential groups who emerged during this period: Nine Inch Nails and Tool. Not only are they significant on a purely musical level, but they also managed to cross over to the mainstream like few of their fellow travellers, and used their music to communicate feelings and ideas usually deemed too demanding for popular culture: evolutionary (or metaphysical) in Tool’s case, and existential in NIN’s. In that regard, they came to operate at the forefront of the flourishing metal-scene of the 90s. This first part focuses and Nine Inch Nails, and the second part will cover Tool.

A pseudonym for what really is the brainchild of sole band member and creative leader Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails first emerged in the late 80s with the debut album Pretty Hate Machine (1989), which was strongly influenced by industrial music (Ministry, Skinny Puppy) and 70s/80s synth-pop (Gary Numan, Human League). Reznor has often been credited with having popularized industrial music (even though he apparently dislikes the term himself), and this first record of his played an important role in that regard – despite the fact that he never returned to and elaborated on its synth-pop style but instead went towards a harsher and more guitar-driven sound. Yet when listening to it today it still sounds remarkably good, despite clearly belonging to the 80s on a purely sonic level. Initially classically trained, before moving on to the guitar and later synthesizers and computer programming, one of Reznor’s and NIN’s strengths lies in the vast sonic registers that the band utilizes. From guitars, bass and live drums, to synthesizers, drum-machines, noise, and dissonance – fused with everything from acoustic piano to harsh electronic processing – Nine Inch Nails has always maintained an incredible coherence across its highly ambitious sonic spectrum. This is prominent already on the first record – recorded at night in the studio that Reznor worked in as an assistance at the time, with him playing all of the instruments himself – which powerfully set the tone for what was to come in the form of an eclectic mixture of harsh noise and melodic hooks, fused with Reznor’s signature lyrics that often tends towards depression, misery, and despair.

Even though dealing with such issues certainly is not anything new in alt-rock or metal (or was at the time), what makes NIN interesting is Reznor’s unique ability to communicate them lyrically and sonically, the straightforward way in which he does it, and his ambition to do so in a popular medium. This is why NIN is such a poignant example of so-called ‘popular modernism’; because for Reznor it has never been a case of subsuming to the demands of popular culture in his encounter with it. Rather, what was at stake for him from the beginning was the ambition to subvert the norms of popular culture – of bending and twisting them by exposing their repressed underside (particularly in the US). This became further evident with the release of the Broken EP in 1992, which introduced a much heavier and guitar-driven sound in contrast to Pretty Hate Machine (largely as a result of touring with a full band following its release and incorporating the intensity from the live-shows onto a record), and includes by now classical NIN-tunes like ‘Wish’ (with its (in)famous ‘fist fuck’-line) and ‘Happiness in Slavery’. The latter’s provocative video (which was banned from MTV due to censorship) set the stage for Reznor’s later work with fellow travellers in the cinema, and shows a man (the performance-artist Bob Flanagan, who suffered from cystic fibrosis and had started to experiment with extreme sadomasochism as a way of numbing the pain caused by the decease, before he died at the age of 46) getting undressed before being tortured and impaled to death (seemingly in pleasure) from a robotic machine while his blood is dripping down to fertilize a garden beneath. The video was later included as part of the Broken-movie – a short-film directed by Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson (of Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, and Coil – obviously another influence on Reznor) to accompany the EP, but which never saw an official release due to its extreme graphic nature. Although it was leaked (presumably by Reznor himself) first on VHS and later via the Pirate Bay, and has circulated at the edges of the mainstream ever since.

But it was with the release of The Downward Spiral in 1994 that Nine Inch Nails truly established itself as one of the towering actors in contemporary metal-culture. Recorded in Reznor’s new LA-studio – the same house where Roman Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate and her friends had been brutally murdered by the Manson-family 25 years earlier – while he was producing the debut album of his then protégé Marilyn Manson, The Downward Spiral is not only the quintessential NIN-album, but also one of the most important releases of the alt-rock/metal scene of the 90s that dealt with topics of alienation and the critique of mass-conformity (along with Radiohead’s OK Computer (1997) and Tool’s Aenima (1996)). Conceived of as a concept-album in the tradition of David Bowie’s Low (1977) and Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1979), The Downward Spiral expanded on the harsher sonic palette introduced on Broken in order to track the psychological descent of one man into addiction, depression, nihilism, and self-harm. This is certainly not an original theme in itself, but rarely has the descent into psychological darkness and existential misery been so powerfully communicated through sound. This is indeed the record, more than any other, where Reznor’s wide-ranging skills as a musician, engineer, songwriter, and producer come together to form a truly remarkable sonic palette which ranges from the heavily processed guitar-noise of opener ‘Mr. Self-Destruct’ and the harsh electronics of ‘Heresy’ and ‘I Do Not Want This’, to the sample of screaming children in ‘The Becoming’ and the dreamy ambience of the ‘Eno-esque’ ‘A Warm Place’ and the title track. Add some of Reznor’s most powerful lyrics to the mix – ranging from post-Nietzschean nihilism (‘God is dead / And no one cares’), to creative desperation (‘I want to know everything / I want to be everywhere / I want to fuck everyone in the world / I want to do something that matters’), and emotional crisis (‘I hurt myself today / To see if I still feel’) – and its position as one of the musical masterpieces of the past 25 years is secured. It is really an album which should be listened to from start to finish, for even though each track works perfectly fine on its own, it is only when they are heard together – in their tight sequencing and narrative progression (that also includes the recurrence of a specific melodic motif in several songs across the album, which is something that Reznor would take up again on his next record) – that they truly come together in the way that they should. Or as one reviewer put it: listening to The Downward Spiral is like having someone pulling a barbwire right through your skull.

The Downward Spiral became NIN’s magnum opus and remains so to this day. It is a compelling artistic statement which powerfully succeeds in combining the experimental ‘studio-as-a-compositional-tool’-approach – in the form of a sound which relies heavily on texture and mood – with more conventional melodic hooks and song-structures. It catapulted Reznor to huge fame as a central figure in the more subversive strands of American popular culture, launched the by now somewhat legendary ‘Self-Destruct’-tour (where the band often would drench themselves in flour and corn-starch to look like corpses) which only fuelled Reznor’s struggle with depression and addiction, and got the attention of a plethora of other artists who were captivated by his vision. David Bowie invited him to tour as an opening act (where they would share the stage and perform tracks both from Bowie’s and NIN’s catalogue) and to remix some of his work (he also appeared in the role of a stalker in Bowie’s Taxi Driver-inspired music video for his track ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’); music video-director Mark Romanek made the controversial video for the track ‘Closer’ (which at least made it to MTV, although in a censored version) that deals with themes such as religion, sexual fetishes, and animal cruelty (he would later go on to direct the chilling thriller One Hour Photo (2002), which powerfully shows a dark and disturbing side of none other than Robin Williams in the role of a lone stalker who slowly loses grip of reality); and in 2002 Johnny Cash did a beautiful cover of album-finisher ‘Hurt’ that was followed by an equally memorable video which also was directed by Romanek (‘Hurt’ is arguably NIN’s most famous song; so famous, in fact, that it even was covered by Leona Lewis in the UK-edition of X-factor in 2011 (although drained of its modernist antagonism, as Adorno would say)). It also prompted Reznor himself to make a first jump into the film-industry when he was invited – first by Oliver Stone and later by David Lynch – to compile the soundtracks and record some new music for their films Natural Born Killers (1994) and Lost Highway (1997), both of which – much like NIN – explore the dark underside of American life and popular culture. But it was in David Fincher and his work during the 90s – in Seven (1995) and Fight Club (1999) in particular – where Reznor would find his perhaps most intimate visual alley. Even though they did not work together until 2010 – when Reznor and now regular collaborator Atticus Ross scored Fincher’s The Social Network (for which they, against all odds, won an Academy Award) – the urban nihilism of Fincher’s two seminal 90s films fed right into the dirty, fleshy aesthetic of The Downward Spiral, whose track ‘Closer’ famously appears in a remixed version (by Christopherson) in the opening credits to Seven (Bowie’s track ‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ – one of the tracks that Reznor also remixed – plays over the ending credits, while his song ‘I’m Deranged’ opens Lost Highway).

Yet despite his massive success following The Downward Spiral, Reznor was in a dreary psychological state at the time (which uncannily seemed to mirror what was being narrated on the record). He was an addict, heavily depressed, exhausted from the bubble one has to live in while touring, eventually had a falling out with Manson, and also recovered from a lengthy battle with his first record label TVT – who he felt had attempted to compromise his artistic vision during the promotion of Pretty Hate Machine to such an extent that he refused to make a record for them again, even if it meant the end of NIN (the Broken EP was actually recorded in secret during the feud between Reznor and TVT, and was not released until TVT had agreed to let him move to Interscope in exchange for some of the revenues for his work). And he also suffered from writer’s block and was struggling with his new fame and status as a celebrity. At one point a magazine, somewhat distastefully, listed the rock icons who most likely would be the next ones ‘to go’ – following the suicide of Kurt Cobain – and put Reznor at the top of the list.

Thankfully, no such thing happened, since Reznor spent the years between The Downward Spiral and its follow-up The Fragile (arguably his final record that really dives deep into psychological misery) to get himself sober and his life straight in general. He also expanded on his experience as a producer and founded his own label, Nothing Records, which operated as a subsidiary imprint to Interscope and allowed Reznor to release music by himself and other artists without the restraints that labels usually impose on artists in order to maximize profit (indeed, part of the ambition behind Nothing came from Reznor’s own experience with TVT). Manson is of course the most famous artist who emerged from Nothing, although they also released music from other fellow travellers in the industrial genre and acted as a bridge to the exciting British IDM-scene of the 90s that emerged alongside UK-rave – with releases by Autechre, Squarepusher, Plaid, and Plug/Luke Vibert. Nothing built up a solid catalogue over the decade it existed (roughly), and also acted as a much needed creative counterpoint to the commercialized agenda of major record labels. Although that ended in 2004, when Reznor sued his co-founder John Malm for fraud and breach of contract (ironically, following an initial lawsuit of Malm against Reznor for deferred commissions). Reznor eventually won the lawsuit and was awarded about five million dollars, but it did mark the end of the Nothing-imprint.

Eventually, The Fragile came out in 1999 (after a five-year hiatus following The Downward Spiral) and was immediately recognized as another highly ambitious record. Once again a concept-album, it spans across two discs, 23 tracks, and over 100 minutes (and it could have been even longer, since Reznor and co-producer Alan Moulder apparently recorded over 120 tracks during the preparation of the album). Similarly bleak as its predecessor, it also acts as a follow-up to The Downward Spiral and incorporates influences from metal and art-rock to electronica and classical composition. But whereas The Downward Spiral is steeped in harsh noise and brutal electronics, The Fragile is more like a rock-album with some electronic influences. In part, this is a result of Reznor’s commendable artistic ethos of not getting stuck in previous aesthetic forms and constantly exploring novel sonic terrains (which partly is what prompted the shift in sound between Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral). But whereas the move from electro-pop to metal and art-rock felt like a logical step forward, the lack of harsh noise and electronics in favour of ambient soundscapes and a more traditional rock-sound on The Fragile is somewhat disappointing insofar as it fails to expand on the depth and complexity of the previous work. Simply put, it sounds somewhat flat and stylized compared to the rabid outbursts on the previous record (and, in all honesty, just like everything else that Reznor has released since then). Also, the length of the record is not really that convincing; for even though one certainly has to admire the ambition of putting out such a massive album – with the level of engagement it demands from the listener – around the time when bland nu-metal bands such as Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit had started to reduce the complexity of 90s alt-metal to four-minute jingles on MTV, The Fragile feels too long and (ironically) somewhat overambitious in its sheer length. It is a good album with some great songs, but it could have been even better if it had been trimmed and released as one disc (Reznor has somewhat admitted this himself, since he apparently rejects that he released it in one go rather than doing something like Radiohead with Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001) and put it out as two separate but thematically interlinked albums). In that regard (again, somewhat ironically), The Fragile ended up feeling a bit stifled by Reznor’s towering ambitions. This is also reflected in the reception of the album; for even though it did enter the Billboard-list at number one, it then went on to drop an entire fifteen spots the week after (a record at the time) and failed to reach the same commercial successes as Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral.

But there is an even deeper irony here, in that Reznor’s work from after he got rid of his most severe depression and overcame his addiction (i.e. from The Fragile and onwards) sounds distinctively less reptilian and subversive compared to what he produced during his darker years. It is as if the improvements in his personal life ended up draining the intensity of his music. Of course, the idea that all great art is born out of misery has become somewhat of a tiresome cliché, but it nevertheless does point to something crucial: the fact that an important motor for truly creative art is negativity and dissatisfaction. This was indeed what fuelled the anger and confusion that NIN so powerfully expressed on their early records – as Reznor has pointed out himself, insofar as he conceived of NIN as a vehicle for exploring these issues in a popular context – yet once he sobered up, overcame his most immediate demons, and became ‘rich and successful’, it was as if the glaring absence of the existential angst that once drove NIN also drained the band of its subversive potency. Indeed – much like his fellow traveller in cinema, David Fincher – while all of Reznor’s post-90s work has been solid and technically impressive, it has never really reached the same raw and brutal peaks as during the 90s (Fincher got close with Gone Girl (2014) though, which also was scored by Reznor and Atticus Ross). This is particularly evident on the album that followed The Fragile: 2005’s With Teeth, which – contrary to the title – sounds somewhat disappointingly defanged (basically like an extension of the sound from the previous album, with better pacing but fewer highs). Although certainly not a bad album, it nevertheless fails to capture the magnitude of the early work. Of course, it is not a bad thing as such that Reznor got his life in order, but it did put NIN in a somewhat strange quandary – one that still haunts it – in that the premises that initially defined the band no longer were valid. Indeed, when Reznor released NIN’s eight studio-album in 2013, the title – Hesitation Marks (inspired by the term ‘hesitation wounds’, which refers to marks on the skin that are produced by the testing of a bladed weapon before attempted suicide or self-harm) – even felt a bit contrived and stylized. It is a pretty solid album overall – with some great tracks, such as opener ‘Copy of A’, ‘Came Back Haunted’ (which was followed by a music video directed by David Lynch), ‘Find My Way’, and ‘Satellite’ – but it nevertheless reminds one of the time passed since The Downward Spiral.

In recent years, NIN has also gathered significant attention for the way that they have released their records and the concepts around them. 2007’s Year Zero not only marked a return to the concept-album – this time in the form of a cyberpunkish near-future dystopia set in the year 2022, where the political agenda of the Bush-administration has escalated to increasingly dramatic proportions – but was also preceded by a cryptic and extensive alternate reality-game that included the appearance of fictional websites and e-mails, the outlining of an underlying storyline to the album, and the ‘leaking’ of USB-drives which contained some of the songs from the then upcoming record (they were apparently often found in the bathrooms of venues at NIN-shows). All of this could be described as a clever marketing-campaign, although Reznor made it clear that he did not conceive of it in that way, but rather as a way to experiment with presenting music in a multimedia-age, and that the alternate reality-game should be considered part of the artwork as such – as opposed to mere marketing for it. The album itself is interesting insofar as it marks the first time that Reznor did abandon the inner journeys of the previous albums and instead oriented his writing outwards (one obvious way to move NIN forward thematically, but it is unfortunately not something he has developed much further since). It also brought back the electronic sounds of NIN’s early work, although in a somewhat more polished form compared to the harshness of the first releases. While this makes sense thematically – given the digital dystopia that the record dramatizes – it falls a bit short aesthetically insofar as it yet again feels somewhat flat and one-dimensional compared to early NIN. Also, the individual songs are structurally too similar in that they all follow a pattern of verse-chorus-verse-chorus, which then leads into an extended instrumental outro. Ironically, the remix-album that came out later in 2007 – Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D, which features remixes by artists such as Ladytron, Saul Williams, Olof Dreijer (of The Knife), and Fennesz – in fact sounds better than the original insofar as it provides more sonic diversity than the main record.

Year Zero was also the final record that Reznor released on Interscope, since NIN had fulfilled its contractual obligations and Nothing no longer was active. Although Reznor was also dissatisfied with the marketing and pricing of the album, and went on public record to criticize Interscope – and the recording industry in general – for ripping off fans with exorbitant prices. He even encouraged people to download the album illegally and share it with as many friends as possible. And sure enough, when NIN’s next record came out – the almost two-hour long instrumental epic Ghosts (2008), which actually consists of four EPs – it was released via Reznor’s new own label The Null Corporation, which only releases music by NIN and his other band How To Destroy Angels (a name taken from the Coil-track with the same title, and whose line-up includes Atticus Ross, the graphic designer Rob Sheridan, Reznor’s wife Mariqueen Maandig, and Reznor himself). Furthermore, the release of Ghosts also took a clear stance against the pricings and routines of the recording industry insofar as the album came out (with no further marketing than a note two weeks prior on the NIN-webpage) in numerous formats at different price-levels: a free digital version of the first EP, lower-priced versions of the entire album on CD and as digital download, and mid- to higher-priced versions on CD, Blu-Ray, and vinyl (including a special limited edition-set of 2,500 copies signed by Reznor, which sold out in three days). Sonically, it is, sadly, the weakest of all of NIN’s releases; for even though the idea of a fully instrumental album is intriguing – Reznor has after all pulled off a number of great instrumental tracks over the years, such as ‘A Warm Place’ and the title track on The Downward Spiral, and ‘Corona Radiata’ and ‘The Four of Us Are Dying’ on The Slip – the tracks feel too sketchy and do not really come together that well as a whole (a bit like on The Fragile). Yet the experimentation with the release of the album is intriguing, and it was followed later the same year with The Slip, which was released for free as a digital download without any prior promotion (and later came out in a physical version for purchase). Although slightly short at its roughly forty minutes, it is still one of the most coherent releases by NIN in a long time, and does echo some of the early work in its sound and structure.

In hindsight, despite the paradox that has haunted NIN since the late 90s – the fact that the existential misery upon which the band was founded since long has been overcome by Reznor – does not make the work he produced during NIN’s first few years any less exciting. It was indeed Reznor’s antagonistic positioning against what he considered to be an increasingly bland and politically correct cultural landscape in the early and mid-90s in particular, that, along with his sonic innovations and popular success, made NIN such a compelling phenomenon. What he showed was that it is not only fine to talk about alienation, anger, and hatred in a popular context, but it is something that we need because it is part of us as humans – which popular culture threatens to belittle because of its fearfulness for anything that deviates from popular norms. There is a certain honesty to NIN in that everything Reznor brings up under its moniker is never there just for show, in order to draw attention, but always has a very specific reason behind it. Of course, he got his fair share of moralist paranoia from the religious conservatives (although not nearly as much as Manson), but this misses the crucial fact that NIN has never been about shock just for shock’s sake. Genuine questioning and dissatisfaction has always formed its existential core. The latter has also driven Reznor’s many confrontations with record labels and other artists because of his unwillingness to streamline his sound in order to sell more records and get more radio-time. He addresses these issues perhaps most explicitly in the song ‘Starfuckers Inc.’ on The Fragile. Featuring lyrics that refer to fame and stardom – ‘I am everything you want and just a little more / I sold my soul but don’t you dare call me a whore’ – the song was later accompanied by a music video that shows Reznor sitting in the back of a limousine with a beautiful blonde woman until they arrive at a deserted amusement-park where he destroys plates with images of musicians such as Fred Durst (of Limp Bizkit), Mariah Carey, Cher, and his former protégé Marilyn Manson while the blonde records his actions with a digital camera. He then goes on to flush a bunch of CDs (some of Manson’s, but also The Downward Spiral) down a dirty toilet, before throwing baseballs at plastic busts of Billy Corgan (of Smashing Pumpkins) and also of himself. Finally, he dunks an obese blonde woman (allegedly a caricature of Courtney Love, whom both NIN and Manson toured with during the 90s) into a tank before leaving in the limousine, where the blonde woman removes her wig and we see that she is in fact Marilyn Manson (who also co-directed the video, which bears some resemblances to his own David Bowie/glam-rock/The Man Who Fell To Earth-inspired video for ‘The Dope show’ that came out the year before, as part of Mansons’s glam-rock album Mechanical Animals (1998)). The two had apparently reconciled at the time, partly because – as Manson put it – there is so much shitty music out there that we need to unite against, instead of arguing with each other. Critics have debated to what extent the song works as a criticism of fame and shallow music culture, or if it is just another part of it. But this is indeed the issue it addresses, because by putting Reznor and Manson themselves among the targeted artists it highlights the fine line between commerce and authentic art in the gigantic maze that is popular culture (Limp Bizkit, for instance, released their albums on the same (parent) label as Reznor and Manson at the time).

In the end, it is not so much that NIN failed to maintain the existential intensity of their early work that is the issue at the present, but rather that there have not been any major inheritors to take up where they left off. Manson, although a solid performer, never really managed to match his morbid visual appearance in his music, and lacklustre industrial metal-bands such as Rammstein (one of few that managed to reach similar commercial success as NIN and Manson) also did not reach the same level of complexity as in NIN’s early work. That is definitely a shame, since I think that this is a sub-genre that showed a lot of initial promises in the wake of Reznor’s breakthrough in the 90s, but unfortunately turned into more of a shock-rock spectacle in the hands of acts such as Manson and Rammstein – as opposed to expanding on the psychic and sonic explorations pioneered by Reznor on the early NIN-releases in particular.

To access the Nine Inch Nails-playlist in the video archive, click here.

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