By Mark Guarino
How can it be a coincidence? The week Chicago temperatures nosedive from summer highs to fall lows is timed with the arrival of Trent Reznor, the architect of self-loathing doom rock that’s chilling in more ways than one.
Nine Inch Nails, Reznor’s flagship since his debut album in 1989, played the Allstate Arena Friday to a crowd of mostly suburban mall Goths, some toting their parents behind them. The fact that Reznor, 40, continues to groom a young audience long past his signature MTV days in the mid-‘90s testifies to the fact he remains a touchstone for music possessing a deep emotional reservoir, with lyrics that refuse to hold anything back and a protagonist who confesses he has troubles and wants to tell you all about it. Nine Inch Nails had a monopoly on psychological arena rock before the frat metal heyday of Limp Bizkit and Korn and, unlike those latecomers to the therapist couch, Reznor survives today with both his integrity and fan loyalty intact.
He looked fit for fighting in sleeveless black, brandishing arms that look like they spent more time in a gym than a recording studio. Joined by a four-member band that were mostly tucked into shadows, Reznor was the model of perfectly poised rage. The emotions revealed in 19-song, 90-minute show did not unravel by circumstance, instead they were bottled into songs that manipulated them through machine-gunning rhythms, the crunch of heavily processed guitars and fist-raising melodies.
The music is made for the dance floor, thanks to the rhythm overload provided by the mix of machines and live drummer (chest pains caused original drummer Jerome Dillon to bail the tour a week ago — he was replaced with Alex Carapetis from Australia, starting Friday). Early songs like “Closer,” “Terrible Lie,” “Head Like a Hole” and the recent single “The Hands That Feeds” were pushed to the extreme, with sheets of synthesizer providing a bedrock of funk, razorwire guitars front and center and lyrics worth chanting with. The songs represented the primary appeal of Reznor’s world, where defiance is packaged into music that demands an instant connection, no matter who’s listening.
Late into the show, a thin scrim fell on all sides of the stage, creating a screen for continual projections. Because Nine Inch Nails became synonymous for its controversial videos starting over ten years ago, the marriage of visuals and music became the most effective moment of the night. The film followed the evolutionary model, progressing from herds of animals and insects engaging in battle to humans dropping bombs and the glories of war. As images of dead refugees were interspersed with footage of President Bush dancing with his wife at a gala ball, Reznor sang, “You can live in this illusion/you can choose to believe … is that all you want to be?” (“Right Where It Belongs”).
That instant created the biggest reaction of the night. While most performers challenge their audience between songs or through projects outside the music, Reznor, who hardly talked and exited without an encore, said it all with just the songs.