At 16, I found myself a victim of censorship for the first time. Walking up to the counter at Blockbuster Music (remember those?) with a copy of the newest Nine Inch Nails album, The Downward Spiral, the clerk informed me that I was too young to purchase the disc. He pointed to the PARENTAL ADVISORY sticker on the cover and showed me the door.
Instead of deterring me from buying the album, that experience made me want it even more. I marched into the next, nearest Blockbuster Music and the clerk, who obviously wasn’t as into selling Yanni records as the last guy, accepted my money with no hesitation. Upon first listen, I became a big fan of the band simply known to most as NIN.
Over a decade later, and 20 years into his career, Trent Reznor, the mastermind behind Nine Inch Nails, still finds reason for rebellion. And why not? The current situation in this country and around the globe is ripe for outspoken artists such as the (newly muscle-ripped and sober) man clad in black.
Those subversive undertones ran throughout the set list as the Lights in the Sky Tour rolled through the AT&T Center on Thursday night. On the agenda: the impending regime change, and how the Bush administration has left its dirty footprint on the world. Not surprisingly the President was a direct influence on Reznor’s latest works, most exclusively Year Zero, an album favored heavily in the set list.
Instead of blasting his message across with his hammering industrial tunes, however, Reznor decided to get mellow on us with a load of instrumentals. At one point, I could have swore I was attending performance art. An orchestral breakdown mid-set featured a variety of musical pieces for instruments as varied as the xylophone, the upright double bass, and even pan flute(!). Really, if you haven't seen a dude with a dreaded-mullet-mohawk (guitarist Robin Finck) rocking out on pan flute, you haven't lived.
The eerie and captivating light-screen stage rigging projected videos throughout the show, the musicians intertwining with the set to make it a living, breathing entity. It made for one of the most spectacular visual displays I’ve ever seen at a live show — the chain-link-style curtain provided electronic backdrops that altered to fit the song being played. The best moment utilizing the layered screens came during "The Hand That Feeds," when a projected image of George W. Bush morphed into John McCain over the course of the song.
If anything, the show seemed meant to make the audience think, with many non-vocal pieces dominating the set list, drawing from the methodical, intellectual Ghosts I-IV and the latest, more electronic album The Slip. It must have been something for those dudes wearing their Spurs' hat backwards, popped collars and all, who had most likely come to hear the heavier, beat-driven radio hits. The fact that the most popular expletive-laden chorus of “Closer” came during the early half of the concert let those in attendance know early that this was anything but a greatest hits show.
The songs that made Reznor a household name among music fans were sporadically interspersed through the dense aural and audible mist. “March of the Pigs” got the moshers and crowd-surfers on the floor going early; “Terrible Lie,” from all the way back in 1989, received some of the loudest cheers, and the three-singles punch of “Only,” “The Hand That Feeds,” and “Head Like A Hole” ending the pre-encore set more than satisfied the casual fans.
The encore focused on slow, largely instrumental tracks, and brought the concert to a contemplative conclusion. The well-known "Hurt" came second-to-last, the tale of self-loathing still just as powerful more than a decade after its release. When the spotlight faded out on a lone Reznor onstage, playing a piano outro, the audience showed its appreciation for a performance that had lasted more than two hours.
Reznor might be a different guy now than a decade ago. He's off the drugs and booze and has added about 30 pounds of bulk to his body. He's clean-shaven and his long-haired days are behind him. Still, as long as there's turmoil, there will always be something to rage about, meaning people will be at his shows. This might not have been the concert that many fans wanted, but you have to give it to Reznor — in 20 years, he's never been boring.