LIVE: Nine Inch Nails
August 5, 2008
Air Canada Centre
It’s fitting that Nine Inch Nails blasted through a vital rendition of “Survivalism” as a sort of thrown-down gauntlet three-quarters of the way through their two-hour show at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. Outwardly, “Survivalism” was simply a puzzle piece from 2007’s Year Zero near-dystopian concept album, and just another in a long line of NIN founder Trent Reznor’s successful industrial pop metal sloganeerisms, but it was really far more than that last night.
Most of Reznor’s peer group from the ’90s, be they alterna-nation rockers like The Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden, or industrial rivet bangers like Ministry or Nitzer Ebb, have faded to somewhere between obscurity and parody. Meanwhile, the show that the Nails put on for the near-capacity arena crowd proved that not only has Reznor survived, but he also remains positively vital.
It started innocently enough with a triple pack of “1,000,000,” “Letting You” and “Discipline,” all from NIN’s latest album, The Slip. Normally a veteran artist blasting you with three tracks from the new album to start a show ranks around the level of getting greyhounded, but apparently when you give the album away for free and everyone in the audience owns it, everything changes. “Letting You” was particularly sly. Played to a hammer-fisting audience who’ve just paid good coin on a Tuesday night, it probably wasn’t the audience who were getting away with something in the end…
“March Of The Pigs” was the first dip into the catalogue and it sent the general admission soldiers, be they normie or freak (a ratio of about 9:2 for the evening), into a lather. “Closer” was its obligatory singalong best, making the groupthinkers feel dangerous for screaming “I want to fuck you like an animal.” There were better moments, though.
Like “Gave Up.” With all due respect to Nevermind or whatever, I’m reasonably convinced Nine Inch Nails’ Broken EP is probably the most defining we’re-generation-X-and-we’re-all-fucked record that came out of the ’90s. Little has changed and that song and “Wish,” which was played later, remain among the fiercest things in Reznor’s catalogue. Both were performed entirely viciously.
The show really got interesting after “Gave Up,” though.
I’ve been suckered into more than a few “multimedia extravaganzas” and will probably never forgive the bands on the Invisible Records roster for having to suffer through a supposed groundbreaking Scorn tour package back in my giant-booted days. But what I was about to witness ranked close to mind-blowing.
It started relatively innocently with what appeared to be a Kraftwerk homage for “Vessel.” The band lined up at the front of the stage, banging keyboards with a dizzying giant curtain of red LED light strips playing patterns close behind them. It felt like Reznor was playing coy, and I thought it was because he was subverting the masses by laying down some truly old-school Wax Trax-style electro squelch-stomp.
That wasn’t it.
The band went back behind the curtain to play a number of “Ghost” instrumentals and that’s when things got truly crazy. Words can’t quite explain, but somewhere in the digital mind-melt of multiple screens swishing around we went from Arrakis to some weird marsh-type place to a rain storm in the jungle. If I was 16 and on mushrooms (and if security wasn’t being unnaturally buzzkill by hunting down dope-smokers all night) it just may have been the greatest thing I had ever seen in my life.
It still ranked solidly despite the lack of psilocybin.
The final stretch was a bit of a letdown. “Only” was just tolerable, “The Hand That Feeds” didn’t jump the way it should have and last-before-encore track “Head Like A Hole” was played with enthusiasm, though the best it could do for me was stir up some wistful nostalgia for a song I’ve long since burned out on.
The encore of “Echoplex,” “The Greater Good,” “The Good Soldier,” “Hurt” and “In This Twilight” was a bold choice, what with Reznor sticking mostly to newer material. “Hurt” should probably be retired, if for no other reason than to protect the audience from itself and the embarrassing things its members do, say and shout during the song. But most of the fans stayed glued to their seats to the end — no bailers, no lightweights — throughout the new songs. In the world of symbology, that’s not the sign of a band surviving. That’s the sign of a band still thriving.
This review was originally published August 5, 2008 via Chart Communications.