Thursday, August 21, 2008

NINe INch Nails at Scottrade Center

Nine Inch Nails. I love their music. And by "their" I meant "Trent's" of course. But I think I speak on behalf of NIN fans everywhere when I say this:

We're getting too old for this.

Closer was released in 1994, and it first ushered the band into the mainstream public consciousness and propelled Trent Reznor to his demi-god status as official spokesman for youthful angst. Now fast forward fourteen years to present day. I'm 28, and that's young-ish for a die hard NIN-fan. And I'm not nearly as angsty as I was at 14 and 15. Nor, so much, youthful. I'm definitely older and more sedate. And I'm not alone, even the dressed-up aging goth-kids were very polite. But in all seriousness, there comes a time when you just can't scream out "Hey pig, piggy pig, pig, pig" with a straight face. And that time seems to be somewhere between 25 and 28, if my concert-going experience is any indication.

I also must admit that I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this show. Depending on how you count it, Nine Inch Nails have put out between 3 and 6 albums of new material since the last North American tour, including the juggernaut Year Zero and it's somewhat-less-impressive follow-up The Slip, as well as a 4-part instrumental opus called Ghosts that features 36 tracks, none of which anyone bothered to title.

Seriously, you can't call out "#24" for the band to play. It just doesn't work. Who'd have thunk (why did the spellchecker not catch "thunk"?) that Trent Reznor would be an attendee of the Dave Matthews school of song-titling. I say that, but then, DMB's #41 is a favorite of mine.

I digress.

This was the closest I've ever been to the stage for a major show--having purchased floor tickets through the fan club. And note to self: I wore my steel-toed boots thinking of toe-protection. Turned out to not matter, and standing for 4 hours in boots is MURDER on the feet. Next time, I'm wearing tennies. Toes be damned.

The show kicked off with, I kid you not, half of The Slip, with March of the Pigs thrown in for good measure. It was a hard rocking mini-set in which every single song began with drums. At that point, I must confess disappointment. There was a swirly light board in the back, and it was all very big and boisterous, but it wasn't very showy, and there wasn't much in the way of crowd pleasing.

At last, the front-most of the three semi-translucent video screens descended and band members came out to the front and did some Year Zero material while back-lit. Now we're talking. This was much more typical of NIN, and it brings to light an interesting point. Nine Inch Nails shows are much more of a visual spectacle that happens to have some performers in it. That said, you don't gain a whole lot by being twenty feet from the stage. Trent plays to the cheap seats. His light show was at least as sophisticated as the one at Tool's show last fall, but at least his band engaged the audience. They also had a bit more fun with the lights than Tool. During Only, Trent was behind a wall of static that would part and follow him around. Once in a while he would grab the "hole" in the "static" and fling it to one side of the stage. So, yes, this was, in fact, choreographed within an inch of its life. During the encore, Josh Freese walked up to a series of boxes on the light board at the front, and as he touched them they would turn red and would play either a kick or snare hit and repeat. He built up the pattern until it became the drum line for Echoplex.

So, after The Great Destroyer in front of the light board, the band re-assembled behind it for a few tracks from Ghosts. Moving the various light boards around created some great 3-D effects, and there were some interesting vistas playing during the Ghosts songs. This went on while the band played odd instruments--there was a double-bass, a banjo, some interesting tuned percussion. Josh Freese had chimes, a timpani, some tuned pipes, and a kit constructed from jugs and various hardware store items.

I felt conflicted. It was cool, it was conceptual, it was artsy and far-reaching. It just wasn't all that interesting. I'm as much a fan of high-concept folksy art-metal as the next guy. Probably moreso, come to think of it. But part of me just kept screaming "We get it, Trent, you're a genius, now step away from the marimba!" When Aaron would put down his banjo to pick up a guitar, I couldn't help but wonder if he was leaning over to Alessandro and asking "What did we get ourselves into?"

Finally Piggy started, signaling that we had left the land of stuff-I'm-promoting and ventured squarely into stuff-the-audience-wants-to-hear territory. And let me tell you, you've never heard Piggy until you've heard it on a double-bass and ukelele.

The usual suspects made an appearance. Head Like a Hole and Terrible Lie from Pretty Hate Machine, the latter being an absolute staple. Of course there were Pinion and Wish from Broken, and also Gave Up, which was a pleasant surprise. It got a pretty respectable showing, considering it's only got 8 songs on it. Closer made the set list (I have no idea how the band can stand to play this song anymore, but kudos for being good sports about it) including the now-common throwback to The Only Time during the break-down. Also from The Downward Spiral were Hurt, the aforementioned songs about pigs, and Reptile, which is a personal favorite of mine. Year Zero got a handful, including God Given, which made the encore, and Survivalism, which involved a video screens of mock surveillance cameras.

Several of them were pointed at bathrooms.

And then a couple started having sex in one of them.

It was slightly off-putting, which was, I guess, the point. It certainly wasn't the most gratuitous sex scene I've ever witnessed, but it wasn't any chore to figure out what they were doing, either. During the second chorus they finished and left the bathroom. It brought to bear the whole invasion-of-privacy (to the extent that sex in a public loo can be considered "private") thing, but still...


Sadly, The Fragile didn't get much love (neither did With Teeth, for that matter, but I find that to be less tragic), with the band only playing The Frail, The Wretched, and The Big Come Down. Oh well.

The show closed with In This Twilight, which was appropriate enough, although Trent played some strains from Zero Sum as the band was making it's final exit. I would have liked to sing along with that. I can just imagine a stadium full of people all singing that chorus.

Shame on us, doomed from the start
May God have mercy on our dirty little hearts
Shame on us, for all we have done
And all we ever were, just zeros and ones.

Still, it was a good show, and a long show, and I'm glad I went, and I'll likely go next time.

I just sort of wonder where NIN and it's ever-aging fanbase is going to go from here. Trent's putting out music at break-neck pace, now that he's label-free, and selling it for stupidly low prices (downloads of The Slip were free, all 36 tracks of Ghosts could be dl'd for like $5). But the aesthetic has been virtually identacle on everything since With Teeth, settling into a format that sounds much more like a 5-piece band than the industrial weirdness that defined NIN's early career, or the 80's-pop blip-inspired anger that definded their even-earlier career. Time will tell. And I'll be listening. For a while anyway.

But next time I'll get a seat.


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