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Circus Magazine December 1999

Nine Inch Nails Not So Fragile

It's tough to see Trent Reznor as this "Prince of Misery and Despair" with all his worldwide artistic, critical, and financial success. After all, his band's, Nine Inch Nails', new album, The Fragile, retains the blackness that's been its leader's wont since NIN took off, ten years ago.

But then again, nothing about Michael Trent Reznor is typical. Perhaps his childhood heroes give it away; as a fan of science- fiction, he always admired the superhuman possibilities in the "Six Million Dollar Man" and "Bionic Woman".

His professional expectations are no less dynamic. The band Nine Inch Nails-essentially Reznor backed by talented, adept players-helmed the industrial rock revolution in the mid 1990's that has helped forever dethrone the supremacy of grunge. His introspective, synth- led tunes paid off very well; the Mercer, Pennsylvania- born musician was voted by Time Magazine as "one of the most influential people in America". His debut album Pretty Hate Machine (TVT, 1990) sold double- platinum (2 million records) and was named one of Rolling Stone's "200 Albums Essential To Any Rock Collection" and The Downward Spiral(NOTHING, 1994) has sold more than 5 million copies worldwide. Their infamous mud- strewn performance at Woodstock '94 also put NIN into the annals of rock history.

Reznor could have forged a career on the interim projects he'd done between his groundbreaking '94- 96 "Self Destruct" tour and The Fragile. The 34- year- old Reznor secured the future of his Interscope Records imprint, Nothing, by nurturing his prize act, shock rockers Marilyn Manson as producer producer of their '96 breakthrough album, Antichrist Superstar. Reznor coordinated the soundtrack for the popular CD- ROM game, Quake, and created remixes and collaborations with David Bowie, Dr. Dre, and Puff Daddy. He also produced the debut album of ex- Judas Priest's lead singer Rob Halford's side project, too.

For NIN fans, the most revealing aspect of Reznor were the projects he produced on his own. He assembled Closure, a comprehensive double- video collection of his clips and his "Self Destruct" tour diary. NIN's overdue new album, The Fragile, is their first in five years since The Downward Spiral. Co- produced by Reznor and veteran producer/ mixer Alan Moulder is no less ambitious in its making, nor less stunning. It was a two year long process of re- evaluation for Reznor, not only because Reznor had been out of the studio for so long, but also the strenuous personal information he had gone through. "Instead of trying to analyze what I was creating, I just let it flow where it went. It was all about not being afraid and it felt very liberating".

What was equally liberating for Reznor was the unorthodox style of the album. Rather than stringing the songs into an internal whole like The Downward Spiral, everything on The Fragile seems to fall apart at the seams. The concept was to start the set with disillusionment, but there's no light at the end of the track-it's just as chaotic and lost as it was in the beginning.

Bob Ezrin, the producer of one of Reznor's all- time favorite albums, Pink Floyd's The Wall, did go down to Reznor's funeral- parlor studio in New Orleans to block the album into sequences, but that's where the "concept" ends. "There's a general theme to the album of systems falling and things sort of falling apart, in keeping with the idea of making everything sound a little broken. I chose stringed instruments because they're imperfect by nature", says Reznor, whose influences on the 100 minute- long album ranged from Pink Floyd and Atari Teenage Riot to Tom Waits' Bone Machine and Organic Funk.

"Although it may not sound like it, most of the album is actually guitar- and that includes the orchestral sounds and weird melodic lines", Reznor explain. "When it came to instruments that I didn't really know how to play- like the ukulele or slide guitar- we were able to get some really interesting sounds by making the studio the main instrument". To help generate this otherworldly aura, he enlists such luminaries like guest pianist Mike Garson and guitarist Adrian Belew.

Working in an atmosphere of microphones and mixers has long been a second home for Reznor. As a student, he majored in computer engineering at Pennsylvania's Allegheny College. When he moved to Cleveland to pursue a musical career, he worked in a keyboard shop and as a janitor in Right Track Studios. At the same time, he gigged in many bar and college cover bands. Reznor tries his hand at writing his own compositions, which he said were politically- themed and inferior. It wasn't until he drew from his own dark, sexually- charged thoughts into his songwriting that his composing improved (just for trivia buffs, his first tune ever was "Down In It").

He wrote and recorded his first album, Prettty Hate Machine in 1989 for TVT Records, a label he departed from and one that still earns publishing royalties from his new material. To make his detached, furious music on the road, he recruited fellow Cleveland musicians like Chris Vrenna to tour with him in an outfit he dubbed Nine Iinch Nails. Eventually, their following became so huge that he was tapped to play the first- ever Lollapalooza festival in 1991.

The 23- track album wasn't merely a milestone that reflected Reznor's latest personal state. The double- CD set was crowned modern rock watershed years before it finally hit shelves September 21. The rocker, now these days sporting a symbolically clean- cut do, dropped hints in past interviews about his latest musical experiments, and how it departed from his usual style. At one point, he talked how it would embrace more the drum'n'bass touches of his standout on The Lost Highway soundtrack, "The Perfect Drug" or the tricky rhythms of hip- hop. Meanwhile, Interscope fanned the flames to keep Nine Inch Nails in the public's eye (a tough task, considering there would be no new music for awhile) by scheduling occasional interviews and airing "NINety nine" ads on TV and print.

All the buzz paid off for the Nine Inch Nails. The album debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 the week it went on sale, selling a very respectable 228, 000 copies. Their fierce performance of "The Fragile" on the MTV Video Music Awards and the European, cold feel f the album's first video, "We're In This Together" contributed to the disc's success. In another clever marketing ploy, the album is being sold in a alternative vinyl configuration that featured longer versions of the first single, "The Day The World Went Away", the bottomless "Even Deeper" and the gentle "La Mer", and the two additional tracks, "10 Miles High" and "The New Flesh".

The Fragile's success also whetted audiences' appetite for the return of NIN on- stage. The live band-- now featuring longtime NIN members Danny Lohner and Charlie Clouser, as well as returning member Robin Finck and Jerome Dillon-is playing a string of European dates in November and December, and headlining Australia and New Zealand's Big Day Out festival in January (alongside such acts as Red Hot Chili Peppers). They will tour the States in early 2000.

The new album was also shaped by more hard- hitting events in Reznor's private life. His grandmother, who brought him up through much of his childhood, passed away in 1997. "I didn't deal with [the pain, at first]", he told MTV. "I just put it off 'cause I didn't know how to deal with it. No one ever died around me". (Once his homemaker mother and commercial artist dad separated when he was six years old, Trent and his sister, Tera were sent to live with his maternal grandparents in Mercer). Also, the cooling of his friendship with his protégé Marilyn Manson was and still is a smarting sore for the Nine Inch Nails leader. Songs like "Starfuckers, Inc." and "No You Don't" take vaguely- pointed jibes on the said Reverend Manson, attacking his flamboyant celebrity ways (indeed, the latter has the bouncy, glammy tone of "Mr. Superstar" from Antichrist Superstar). "My god comes in a wrapper of cellophane... my god pouts on the cover of the magazine... my god's a shallow little bitch trying to make the scene".

Perhaps the most important trait of The Fragile is its humanlike qualities . Its tones of optimism are catchy; in the upbeat, 7 ˝ minute single "We're In This Together", he sings "none of them can stop us now/ you and me/ we will make it through somehow". Conversely, its mental valleys are low and ominous in the tracks like "Somehow Damaged" ("drink the fountain of decay/ tear a hole exquisite red/ fuck the rest and stab it dead") or "Even Deeper" ("do you know how far this has gone? Just how damaged have I become? When I think I can overcome, it runs even deeper"). The percussion breaks in "I'm Looking Forward To Joining You Finally" are deceptively bouncy and open- sounding, but the juxtaposition of whispering and screaming Reznor voices underlines the uneasiness of the chorus, "The smell of sunshine, I remember sometime".

The personality that drips from Reznor's music starkly contrasts with that of the entertainment world, which is usually based on guise. Reznor's had a lot of experience mastering this field-his liaison with music and entertainment was struck long ago. A young Reznor dabbled with piano when he was all of five years old, but it wasn't until the theatrics and rock music of Kiss that he was forever hooked. It was his grandparents who encouraged him to take piano lessons in his early teens.

"I'm not sure why they forced me into that, but I'm glad they did", he told Kerrang recently. It had filled a gap for a young boy raised in the small town of Mercer, Pennsylvania who was far isolated from the urban life or the idealism he saw on the television shows he watched. "I was always pissed off about that, because it looked like everyone was having fun on TV. You're being trained you should have a family, it's normal and everyone's smiling and happy, and there's an ocean that I didn't even fucking see until I was 18".

As for acting, he performed in a few high school plays, like "The Music Man" and "Jesus Christ Superstar". He displayed the acting bug still alive in him when he took on a bit part in the Michael J. Fox- Joan Jett movie "Light of Day", and as a paranoid, "Taxi Driver"- type character in David Bowie's "I'm Afraid Of Americans" video.

As Reznor's reputation remains well- founded, his ability to reach and affect millions of listeners is comparable to being nothing but superhuman. Perhaps, hmmm... bionic?

Circus - December 21, 1999 By Edward Fruchtman