Sunday night less than 24 hours after a 6.1 magnitude earthquake shook the Bay Area, Nine Inch Nails sent shockwaves through the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View. Of course, this unreal show was just another day’s work for the iconic, genre bending rock band. But for us mere mortals who got the chance to spend a night in Reznor’s world, it brought us closer to God.
Around 9:28 PM, juggling all the over priced beer I could carry, I scrambled back to my seat to find that all the venue lighting had been flipped on. I turned to my friend, clearly concerned that the show might be in jeopardy and he just grinned at me and said, “Don’t worry, Trent’s got you covered.” I should have never doubted Trent. Moments later the familiar intro to “Copy of A” began pulsing through the amphitheater and the band played the first three minutes or so drenched in stadium light before it went dark, allowing rapid-fire spot lights to throw their silhouettes against massive white screens positioned at the rear of the stage.
Now, if you’ve never been to a NIN show it’s kind of like the sun rises and then sets every six minutes or so with all of life’s emotions put on fast-forward, slow-motion, or a combination of both. The light show is second to none and the harrowing trip lasts as long as Trent wants it to.
Their sound is unmistakable, and although they’ve been labeled by many as the best industrial group of all time, Reznor publicly refuses to refer to his music as industrial. It’s clear that he wants his dark fusion of heavy guitar, piano solos, and piercing electronic beats to be in a class all by itself. I’d say he’s made a pretty good case and that his reluctance to file NIN under a single genre has paid off handsomely. He does not deny the influence that industrial giants such as Skinny Puppy and Throbbing Gristle has had on him, but I believe as a perfectionist, he wants, and deserves distinction for using industrial techniques to create a sound that incites such an emotional response from fans.
Like all touring legends, NIN’s whole catalog is just too damn big to cram into an hour and a half set, but on Sunday they sure tried. They hit us hard with head bangers like “March of the Pigs” before lulling the crowd into a trance with softer numbers. At times the songs seemed to disintegrate before your very eyes – the screaming guitar, hammering drums, and eerie electronic beats would peel away until all you were left with was Reznor pounding on the keyboard like your four-year-old cousin. But what makes NIN shows so memorable is precisely this ability to take playful, on-stage experimentation, and transform it into an exhilarating experience.
Trent even helped me fulfill a life long dream when I got to scream, “HEY, MOTHER…FUCKING…PIG!” at the top of my lungs while they performed their 1994 smash, “Piggy.” Cross that off the bucket list.
In all, they performed 17 songs from seven of their nine major studio releases, including four from their latest album, Hesitation Marks – an album that I’ve been hooked on for nearly two years now. The showmanship was on par with what you’d expect from an immensely talented artist who’s been perfecting his act for over two decades now. At one point, after lighting the place up with a performance of “Terrible Lie,” a sweat soaked Reznor tossed his guitar to the ground like a victor dropping the mic after dominating a rap battle. Finally, after making the crowd bow to Trent with “Head Like a Hole,” NIN sent us home with an encore performance of “Hurt” – one of the most brilliantly written songs of all time.
Trying to rank NIN among the greats is futile. Although entertaining, these types of debates are never settled. But consider this: Trent Reznor emerged around the same time as Nirvana began to dominate the alternative rock scene. Of course, we’ll never know the heights Nirvana could have reached or what kind of noise they’d be making today, but how many bands from that era are still delivering face-melting shows like NIN? Sure there are still living legends out there touring, but Reznor is seemingly still peaking, and that is what distinguishes NIN from the rest. Basically this man is the Jerry Rice of music–no one works harder than him, and it shows.