Features I by I 05.06.13

Another version of the truth: the alternative Trent Reznor story in 20 deep cuts

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Another version of the truth: charting the career of Trent Reznor

Last week, Trent Reznor confirmed what had been rumored ever since he reformed Nine Inch Nails earlier this year: that a new album is on the way.

“I’ve been less than honest about what I’ve really been up to lately,” Reznor admitted, saying that a new, full-length NIN record is complete “and frankly fucking great.” It was the news that fans of the industrial-rock legends had been waiting to hear ever since Reznor’s decision to “make NIN disappear for a while” in 2009.

It has been five years since Reznor surprisingly self-released a free album, 2008’s The Slip, and the intervening years have seen the 48-year-old musician start a new band and burnish his composition credentials; he also got married and fathered two children. Yet while the five year hiatus of new NIN music may seem like an eternity, diehards will remember that such feast-and-famine periods defined the band for much of its twenty year existence.

While the long delays that preceded the releases of 1999’s The Fragile and 2005’s With Teeth can partially be attributed to his struggle with alcohol and drugs (he’s been sober since the recording of the latter), Reznor’s studio perfectionism has also played a part, as has the fearlessness of reinvention that has seen Nine Inch Nails evolve from downbeat synth-pop to fist-pumping industrial-metal to sprawling concept records to instrumental soundscapes and back.

With new Nine Inch Nails material on the horizon, FACT takes a look at the defining moments of Reznor’s career, along with some of the lesser-known compositions and collaborations that have made him one of the most compelling figures in rock music for over two decades.

NINE INCH NAILS
‘Maybe Just Once’
(Unreleased, 1988)
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NINE INCH NAILS
‘Sin’ / Pretty Hate Machine
(TVT, 1989)
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In the late 80s, Reznor worked at Cleveland’s Right Track Studio, moving from janitor to studio engineer and recording his own material during off hours. The demos that would form the basis for 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine were a lighter, gentler Nine Inch Nails, bridging the gap from his early new wave/AOR bands (Option 30, The Innocent, Exotic Birds) to the industrial-inflected synthpop that would become the band’s trademark.

The scintillating ‘Maybe Just Once’ was left on the cutting room floor in favor of aggressive, blasphemous, and sexual songs like ‘Head Like a Hole’, ‘Terrible Lie’, and the sex club soundtrack of ‘Sin’. Yet while Reznor would borrow from progenitors like Ministry Skinny Puppy (‘Down In It’ bears a striking similarity to the latter’s ‘Dig It’), his ear for anthems and hooks has always been central to Nine Inch Nails. “I think it’s easy to make impenetrable music and hide behind that,” he said in a 2005 interview. “Making a pop song is a fucking hard thing to do and making one that’s not idiotic is even harder.”

1000 HOMO DJS
‘Supernaut’
(Unreleased, 1990)
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NINE INCH NAILS
‘Gave Up’ [Coil & Danny Hyde remix] / Fixed
(TVT/Interscope, 1992)
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As Nine Inch Nails’ profile grew, Reznor battled with TVT over the band’s direction; the label wanted synthpop, and he did not. Translating the electronic uneasiness of Pretty Hate Machine for live audiences had given NIN a visceral and violent edge, as did the influence of Reznor’s collaborations with industrial supergroups Pigface, Revolting Cocks, and 1000 Homo DJs; he contributed to the latter’s cover of Black Sabbath’s ‘Supernaut’, but TVT prevented the band from using his vocals (it would be bootlegged before appearing a decade later).

Reznor eventually won the battle and was “slave-traded” to Interscope, who would release Broken, a scathing, metallic EP, that he had surreptitiously recorded. Like the band’s live incarnation, Broken cranked up the guitars and the malice; a pseudo-snuff longform video directed by Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson was recorded but (until very recently) never officially released. Reznor also commissioned the Fixed EP, which found industrial innovators Coil and J. G. Thirlwell remixing Broken into something even more abrasive.

NINE INCH NAILS
‘Reptile’ / The Downward Spiral
(Nothing/Interscope, 1994)
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NINE INCH NAILS / APHEX TWIN
‘The Beauty of Being Numb’ / Further Down The Spiral
(Nothing, 1995)

Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral was a giant creative step-forward, a critical and commercial success, and quite possibly the defining moment of Reznor’s career. Recorded in the house where the Manson Family murdered Sharon Tate, TDS is a staggering concept album about its protagonist’s titular descent into nihilism, disease, corruption, and eventually suicide. Musically, Reznor, inspired by Bowie’s Low, went harder and darker than ever before, layering bits of techno, metal, and industrial into a densely textured tribute to the macabre.

While ‘Closer’, ‘March of the Pigs’, and ‘Hurt’ are more well-known, ‘Reptile’ is the album at its most ambitious: it develops in movements, fusing pneumatic drums, angular riffs, and Reznor’s sneering, lovelorn vocals with mechanical samples from films Leviathan and The Texas Chainsaw Massace. TDS was such a smash that the Further Down The Spiral remix album (featuring Coil, Thirwell, and Rick Rubin, among others) reached #23 on the Billboard Top 100. ‘The Beauty of Being Numb’ joins NIN’s backmasked reworking of album opener ‘Mr. Self Destruct’ with an Aphex Twin original, but a Trent Reznor-Richard D. James collaboration this is not: “I never heard the originals, I still haven’t. I don’t want to either, or my remixes for that matter,” James has said.

NINE INCH NAILS
‘Perfect Drug’ / Lost Highway OST
(Interscope, 1997)
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TRENT REZNOR
‘Driver Down’ / Lost Highway OST
(Interscope 1997)

In 1994, Reznor took his first foray into soundtrack production, assembling the soundtrack for Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers; a collection of ambient instrumentals for the video game Quake followed in 1996. In 1997, Reznor released the first new music as Nine Inch Nails since The Downward Spiral on the soundtrack for David Lynch’s Lost Highway, which he also produced. A bit unloved by its creator, ‘The Perfect Drug’ was a change of pace for NIN.

“At that time I was listening to a lot of Drum ‘n’ Bass and Jungle and stuff,” says Reznor. “And I think that’s the most I’ve ever seen external influence come out in my own music.” Along with ‘The Perfect Drug’, Reznor would craft two instrumentals under his own name, including ‘Driver Down’, which shares the industrial cacophony of The Downward Spiral but finds Reznor performing a frantic saxophone piece (a rarity for the classically-trained musician).

NINE INCH NAILS
‘Into The Void’ / The Fragile
(1999, Nothing/Interscope)
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NINE INCH NAILS
‘La Mer’ / The Fragile
(1999, Nothing/Interscope)
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For Reznor, The Downward Spiral became a self-fulfilling prophesy: the five years between his breakthrough album and its follow-up were marked by alcohol and drug abuse, a falling out with protege Marilyn Manson, and the death of his grandmother, the woman who had raised him. Even more ambitious than The Downward Spiral, both conceptually and compositionally, the two-disc The Fragile finds its post-TDS protagonist trying to put the pieces of his life back together but never quite achieving his goal.

The slow-burning ‘Into The Void’ underpins the album’s theme with its “tried to save myself but myself keeps slipping away” refrain, and it also shares a melody with sister-song ‘La Mer’. Inspired by the Debussey composition of the same name, ‘La Mer’ is the result of a period when Reznor was cloistered, allegedly to write music for the album, but with the actual intent of committing suicide. Sung in Creole French by Denise Milfort, the final line finds hope in hopelessness: “Nothing can stop me now.”

NINE INCH NAILS
‘All The Love In The World’ / With Teeth
(2005, Nothing/Interscope)
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NINE INCH NAILS
‘Only’ [El-P Remix]
(2005, Nothing/Interscope)
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Reznor hit the proverbial rock bottom in 2000, accidentally overdosing on heroin before a London show. After attending rehab and getting sober, he set off to work on the follow-up to With Teeth, and the process was easier than the long delay would suggest: “As my brain started working, the songs just started to come out. I regained my self-confidence.” After two concept records, With Teeth pushes the reset button with a simple collection of songs, at times brutally rocking (thanks to some powerhouse drumming by Dave Grohl) and at others refreshingly danceable, like during the breathy, pulsating breakdown of ‘All The Love In The World’.

Likewise, ‘Only’ takes the half-sung lyrics of ‘Down In It’ and flips them over a four-on-the-floor beat. On the remix, however, Def Jux’s El-P discards the latter for something that sounds more like NIN than the original. With Teeth may not be as memorable or beloved as Reznor’s early albums, but it marks the beginning of a highly prolific period that has accompanied his sobriety.

NINE INCH NAILS
‘The Great Destroyer’ / Year Zero
(2007, Interscope)

SAUL WILLIAMS
‘NiggyTardust’ / The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!
(2007, FADER)
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With Reznor’s newfound sobriety came two new driving forces in his work: American politics and upending the record industry. After dabbling with politics on With Teeth’s anti-Bush ‘The Hand That Feeds’, Reznor decided to turn his focus to the rightward shift of the US political system for an entire album. Year Zero demonstrated that Reznor is at his best with a conceptual underpinning, which he and collaborator Rob Sheridan would flesh out with an “alternate reality game” that is possibly more impressive than the album. The four month project — complete with USBs left in concert bathrooms, a network of websites, messages hidden in waveforms — detailed a resistance movement from the future attempting to subvert their timeline a la Terminator… and makes Boards of Canada’s recent campaign look amateurish in comparison.

Meanwhile, Reznor would undertake his most hands-on production role since working with Marilyn Manson over a decade earlier, collaborating with rap-poet Saul Williams on The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!. Fusing Williams’ similarly-political lyrics with new compositions and outtakes from The Fragile, the release of the Bowie-referencing album was an experiment in non-label distribution.

NINE INCH NAILS
‘14 Ghosts II’ / Ghosts I-IV
(2008, The Null Corporation)
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NINE INCH NAILS
‘Echoplex’ / The Slip
(2008, The Null Corporation)
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Year Zero marked the end of Reznor’s contractual obligations to Interscope, which he greeted with uncharacteristic exuberance. Just a year after that album, he released two more, each with just two weeks notice and little fanfare. Unlike Radiohead’s temporary pay-what-you-want release of In Rainbows, which Reznor characterized as an “insincere” “bait and switch,” the instrumental double-disc Ghosts I-IV was an entirely labeless “freemium” release. Described by Reznor as “a soundtrack for daydreams,” Ghosts continued the musical themes of The Fragile and is comprised of fragments, half-finished sketches, and the remains of dead demos: a non-starter if NIN was still bound to a label.

Later that year, Reznor would release The Slip, a free full-length album (“this one’s on me”). Atypical of his usual process, the album was recorded in just three weeks, giving it the feel of a loosely-sketched career retrospective that revels in lean precision; not since Broken did Nine Inch Nails seem to be a real-life rock band and not just the brainchild of a studio obsessive.

TRENT REZNOR & ATTICUS ROSS
‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ / The Social Network
(2010, The Null Corporation)
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TRENT REZNOR & ATTICUS ROSS FEAT. KAREN O
‘Immigrant Song’ / The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
(2011, The Null Corporation/Mute)
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The culmination of Reznor’s late 90s soundtrack work and his ambient experiments on Ghosts are scores that he composed with Atticus Ross for a pair of David Fincher films. (Fincher had directed the video for ‘Only’; plans for Reznor to compose the score for ‘Closer’ / ‘Perfect Drug’ video director Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo had fallen through). The Reznor/Ross score for 2010’s The Social Network resembles Ghosts — two of the songs were reworked versions of songs from the album — but the centerpiece of the Oscar-winning set is a “Wendy Carlos version” of Edvard Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’.

Reznor and Ross reunited to score Fincher’s next film, the US-version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. An ambient, sparse offering befitting the film’s Swedish setting, the score is punctuated by two covers: How to destroy angels’ take on Bryan Ferry’s ‘Is Your Love Strong Enough?’ and a rollicking cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ featuring Yeah Yeah Yeahs siren Karen O.

HOW TO DESTROY ANGELS
‘The Space In Between’ / How To Destroy Angels
(2010, The Null Corporation)
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HOW TO DESTROY ANGELS
‘Ice Age’ / An omen_
(2012, Columbia Records)
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In 2010, Reznor shook off the 20-year-old yoke of Pretty Hate Machine’s liner note pronouncement “Nine Inch Nails is Trent Reznor” by forming How to destroy angels_. Joined by wife Mariqueen Maandig (formerly of psych-pop outfit West Indian Girl) and longtime collaborators Atticus Ross and Rob Sheridan, the group took its name from a 1984 Coil EP.

“It has to be the right thing – genreless and raceless, but soulful,” Reznor said of such a project, way back in 1999. “Not Nine Inch Nails with a girl singing.” Reznor was half-right: at times, How to destroy angels_ is certainly soulful, but it’s hard not to hear Reznor’s machinations in the music. Still, it turns out that “Nine Inch Nails with a girl singing” might be enough: Maandig’s vocals give new shading to familiar compositions, like on ‘The Space In Between’, and when the band plays outside their sandbox, like on the folksy ‘Ice Age’, it can be transcendent. The question of whether or not How to destroy angels_ can do more of the latter will have to wait: with the return of Nine Inch Nails, the side project will now go on hiatus.

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