Concert (and Album) Review: Nine Inch Nails at Barclays Center: October 14, 2013
While Trent Reznor was busy creating award-winning movie scores over the past few years, some of David Fincher’s movie-making mojo must have taken hold of him. I say that because Nine Inch Nails latest tour – which I took in last night at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center – is designed less like a concert and more like a three act story. The two hour and 15 minute show, featuring well over 20 songs, was NIN at its finest, and Reznor – ever the showman – is as good as ever.
Prologue: Godspeed You! Black Emperor was the opening act, a band I somehow never heard of prior to seeing them live last night. The eight-piece instrumental only band plays the kind of long, drawn out, songs (each at least ten minutes long) that invite you to get comfortable in your seat and get swallowed up in the music. Once you do so, the sound – emanating from four guitarists, two drummers and several other instrumentalists – is very loud and very intense. I’m not sure under what circumstances I would kick back and listen to Godspeed You! either through earbuds or wall-to-wall speakers, but as a prelude to Nine Inch Nails these guys certainly set the right mood.
Act 1, Scene 1: The all-new Nine Inch Nails – brand new songs, same great sound.
Just in case you were worried that the re-assembled NIN (Reznor broke up the band in 2009) wouldn’t have the same potency of the 2009 version, let alone the 1989 version, Reznor puts our collective mind at ease by opening up with a song, “Copy of A” (off of the new album Hesitation Marks) that sounds an awful lot like “old” Nine Inch Nails. The crowd easily gets pulled in by “Copy of A” and the following song, “1,000,000,000” (from 2008’s The Slip) even though neither one can be considered a NIN classic.
Act 1, Scene 2: Same great sound, old familiar songs. Reznor shows that he’s still 100% the performer he’s always been.
Those first two songs merely set the stage by establishing a hard-rocking tone for Act 1. NIN follows that up with three of their most popular songs, “Terrible Lie”, “March of the Pigs” and “Piggy”. Reznor throws his guitar after March of the Pigs and jumps into the crowd during Piggy. He is a bundler of energy – he can’t stop hopping around the stage, stomping his feet, even jumping up and down. Dressed in all black and with the black arena surrounding him, and little special effects lighting disrupting his rhythm, it feels like Reznor is channeling an incredible amount of energy into these songs. It’s impossible not to feel like it’s 1994 all over again and I’m back listening to The Downward Spiral, Reznor speaking directly to me through his anguished screams.
Act 2, Scene 1: That was then, this is now.
A screen comes down in front of the band as Piggy concludes, which will stay there for the next three songs. The music shifts from the industrial rock sound to which we are all accustomed to some sort of electronic dance music you’d expect out of Deadmau5, not Nine Inch Nails. “All Time Low” is absolute terrible, “Disappointed” slightly less so and “Came Back Haunted” isn’t all that bad, yet the crowd cheers loudly after all three. Why? The visuals have become the show. Compensating for the lousy music, NIN has produced a visual display that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, using the screen to play visual tricks that are so dazzling the music becomes mere background. This is not your older brother’s NIN.
Act 2, Scene 2: More of the new, but dramatically slowed down.
“Find My Way” … “The Frail” … “The Wretched” … The music has slowed down considerably – no longer is the Barclays center the world’s largest club with DJ Trent – but the show is still more light show than music show. The highlight here is “Survivalism” (from 2007’s Year Zero) but it’s hard to be engaged. If not for the special effects – which I can’t stress enough, really are special – Nine Inch Nails would have completely lost the crowd.
Act 2, Scene 3: The new music dump.
Mixed around “Survivalism” runs another theme, which is “get the rest of the music off of Hesitation Marks out of the way.” At this point “Copy of A” seems very far away, in every sense of the words. I’m not running out to buy Hesitation Marks, and I’m anxiously awaiting “classic” NIN. It’s not like I can’t appreciate new music from a veteran artist, but something is plainly missing here. Earlier I used the word “anguished” – Reznor doesn’t evoke that feeling on his new material. These are just songs, and they are largely forgettable.
Act 3, Scene 1: Back to basics. Chuck the lights, bring on the guitar.
And just when you’d forgotten what you’d learned in Act 1 Reznor reminds you – I can still rock as hard as I ever did (and then some). He even exchanges the black tank top he’d been wearing all night (so 2013) for a black t-shirt (so any other time in NIN history). Reznor picks up the guitar – I only noticed last night that on his newer albums Reznor doesn’t play guitar, but on the older stuff he almost always did. The other major change is that the screen goes away for good and the band once again is nakedly on stage – no special effects are needed for the five songs that they are about to tear through. It starts with “Somewhat Damaged”, then “Wish” (one of the best songs you’ll ever see performed live, crowd screaming at the tops of their lungs), “Burn”, “The Hand That Feeds” (a more recent song – from 2005’s With Teeth – that has graduated to the status of NIN classic) and finally “Head Like a Hole”. Reznor still has his “A” game and there isn’t a person in the crowd of over 15,000 that isn’t exhausted.
Epilogue: Encore. Time to say good night, NIN leaves us haunting.
Despite having played for nearly two hours, NIN comes out for a five song encore. The songs chosen are slow, but not in the way that “Survivalism” is slow. This is NIN reaching out to its dark, sad and spooky side. After band introductions Reznor introduces “Even Deeper” as “from our saddest album” (1999’s The Fragile). “While I’m Still Here” – the 24th song of the night – is the first time that anyone actually takes their seats. This isn’t because the show is boring, it’s just fitting for the vibe the band has created. The last song of the night at this point is inevitable – the darkest song in Nine Inch Nails’ catalog (and possibly anyone’s catalog), “Hurt”. “Head Like a Hole” seemed like the perfect ending; it’s the kind of music most people associate with NIN. With “Hurt”, Reznor sends us away thinking also of their sensitive side.
Having been a fan for over 20 years, I bring a certain set of expectations to a Nine Inch Nails show. On this tour, the band manages to simultaneously meet all of those expectations and completely confound them. Acts 1 and 3 are the NIN show I thought I’d get, and I can’t complain – I got them. The kind of encore they gave was unexpected, but it was the kind of unexpected that you expect from this band, if you know what I mean. Act 2 was a complete shock though, one that I’m happy I saw but that doesn’t leave me hopeful for the new album. Racking my brain I don’t think I can recall an effects laden show that was as impressive as what NIN pulled off last night. I’m sure that Reznor had a huge hand in that, but I’m also sure that he had tremendous outside help. If not, he’s a greater artist than I ever gave him credit for (and I already gave him a lot of credit). But the music … it just isn’t Nine Inch Nails. Other than “Copy of A” nothing from Hesitation Marks impressed. The NIN Tension 2013 Tour is a thing of beauty, but the direction of the band leaves me scratching my head.
A full setlist can be found here.
The New York Post‘s review of the show is available here.
Great photos can be seen here, courtesy of the Fader.