Illuminated Tensions: Nine Inch Nails live at the Barclays Center
No one really took Trent Reznor - the single man/machine behind Nine Inch Nails - seriously, when he announced his retirement from touring as Nine Inch Nails in 2009. Possibly because we were all afraid of a world without NIN, but also because - as Reznor would prove in the ensuing years - he is an insatiably creative, insatiably active artistic force. This is a man who spent his retirement becoming the first musician (along with Atticus Ross), to compose an electronically based score to win the Best Score Oscar, for his work in The Social Network. Last year saw the debut album of How To Destroy Angels, a sort of more ethereal Nine Inch Nails side project featuring his wife Mariqueen Mandig Reznor on vocals. In short, Trent Reznor does little but create. Now, thankfully, he has returned to his richest creative identity, Nine Inch Nails.
The Nine Inch Nails live experience is nothing if not a multi-modal, multi-media, full-on sensory attack. Beginning with their now legendary Woodstock ’94 set, in which the band rolled around in mud before crawling on all fours onstage, Nine Inch Nails has found ways to continuously subvert and reinvent the live concert experience.
At my first NIN concert, in Tel Aviv in September 2007, this involved burying the band behind a thin mesh LED screen and having waves of light and smoke manipulate their corporeality through the set, the bodies of the musicians mirroring the music’s dissonant ebb and flow. The next time I saw them, in 2009’s “Wave Goodbye” tour, a full stack of lights were aimed directly at the audience, at once drawing us in and pushing us away, the music’s heavy crush entrancing but the atmosphere unforgiving, just how the average Nine Inch Nails fan likes it. That show’s encore featured Peter Murphy, lead singer of Bauhaus and a primary influence on Nine Inch Nails, singing “Reptile”, off the classic “The Downward Spiral”, whilst suspended upside down from his ankles fifteen feet above the stage, an inverted crucifixion singing about lust and pain. It was a marriage of sound and form that defines Nine Inch Nails.
Reznor brought his comeback tour, entitled “Tension 2013” to the Barclays Center Monday night, before a packed house of 20,000 mostly black-clad 20 and 30 somethings. Coming off the more spacious and loose sounding album “Hesitation Marks”, Reznor confirmed that NIN has lost nothing in its hiatus. This tour features a stage set about 40 feet deep, about 20 feet deeper than the average stage, with 5 LED mesh screens set about five feet apart from each other, creating a full 3D forced perspective that allows the band to get lost within the lights and images. In “Disappointed”, the band shimmered and grooved amidst a ring and then a rotating box of golden light, reifying and reconstituting over and over, like computer code caught in sunlight. Dissonant electronic tracks like “In Two” and “Find My Way” pulsed and flailed in seas of red and blue lights, the band playing now you see me with what could only be described as shadow manipulation. You would keep an eye on the stage, paying attention to the drummer and guitarist, who would then glimmer, and reappear elsewhere. It was as sensuous as it was disorienting, and it provided a cerebral counterpoint to the ragers played, both new and old. “Terrible Lie” and “Wish” may both be pushing into their mid-twenties, but joined by newer bangers like “Came Back Haunted” and “Survivalism”, their anger felt like it could sustain a fire for some decades yet, a fact underscored by Reznor’s tossing his guitar 20 feet across the stage after the former song, a youthfully punkish act that belies his 48 years of age. Mostly though, the band stayed within their digitally layered cocoon for the two-hours-plus show, each band member playing their part in the synesthesia-like display, made up of only lights and LEDs. For a band begun by one person on one computer, it made up the fullest circle of all.