Nine Inch Nails (The Fragile) : Angst, Trent Reznor style
Daily News-Unv.Wash October 1999

For the past few years, mainstream alternative bands have grown rather smug, complacent with their easygoing brand of ska, swing or punk-lite radio hits that dominate the airwaves. Only artificially "heavy" acts such as Korn, Orgy and Limp Bizkit have offered any variety, but the cure is often far worse than the disease. All of these acts revel in their idiocy and their ignorance, Limp Bizkit especially. Aside from a smattering of soundtrack offerings and production work, Trent Reznor, the essence of Nine Inch Nails, has remained nearly invisible during the latter half of the 90s. In his absence, such lackluster bands were allowed to flourish virtually unopposed. Perhaps The Fragile, the third Nine Inch Nails LP, will strike fear into a languid rock scene.
It's hard to imagine that a whole generation of disenfranchised teenagers have grown up without the guiding influence of Reznor's dynamic soundscapes (especially those who receive all musical knowledge from listening to the radio or watching MTV and not from perusing their older brother or sister's record collection). Yet, it has been approximately five and one-half long years since The Downward Spiral was released in early 1994.

The Fragile, a 23-track double CD, makes up for lost time and gives fans what they have been craving for during the interim. Unlike the aforementioned travesties, Nine Inch Nails albums always deliver that which should be required on any album: intelligent, well-written lyrics; solid musicianship; genuine soul; and perhaps most important of all, boss album art (The Fragile case was created by legendary print designer David Carson).

Reznor is a perfectionist, spending nearly three years to record The Fragile. The result is a solid 23-song collection divided between a "left" disc and a "right" disc. The left disc concentrates on textures, waveforms and atmosphere, while the right disc focuses on aggression, distortion and accentuated vocals. Of course, nearly every Nine Inch Nails song in existence operates on some continuum of these elements, but there are definitely the fast songs and the slow songs.

The first two radio singles off of The Fragile best represent the divergent temperaments of the two discs, and the split-personality of the album as a whole. "The Day the World Went Away," the first official release, features a wealth of ambient instrumental forms, subdued vocals and only an occasional burst of guitar noise. "Starfuckers, Inc.," the B-side of the single, appears on The Fragile's other disc, and charges forth immediately with loud guitars, shouted lyrics and oppressive beats. Furthermore, the album version of "Starfuckers" is far superior to the radio version, as the LP segues seamlessly into "Complication," an instrumental complement that completes an already riveting track.

"Please," also on the same CD, is a self-starter fueled by a prominent bass line and rapid drums, and "Into the Void" is classic My Bloody Valentine distort-fuzz. Like all of Nine Inch Nails material, there are always styles within styles, each song propelled by intelligence, taste and an analytical mind.

Presumably, the right disc is going to be favored over the left, at least initially. It can be roughly compared to the entire Broken EP, or to the first half of the songs on The Downward Spiral. In contrast, the left disc of The Fragile is similar to the other half of Spiral, and certainly more challenging. This disc will certainly require several concentrated sessions to appreciate and develop an ear for it. Listening with headphones, of course, will expedite this process. Nine Inch Nails, after all, has always made music to listen to, to investigate, to probe - not just to passively hear on a radio.

- Sean Moriarity