Still Dirty On The Inside: Nine Inch Nails Live

On the evidence of last night's Scala show, Nine Inch Nails have recharged their batteries in spectacular style, writes Luke Turner, highlighting the subtle undercurrents that run through their precision techno-metal

Photos by Kate Beard

There’s an air of both chaos and anticipation outside the Scala, where Nine Inch Nails are playing an ultra-rare warm-up show for this weekend’s Reading Festival. Will anyone get in? Is it actually possible to move past NIN’s five-foot-wide American bouncer, stood by the door in a black suit and sending people in three directions at once? Will it be all new material from forthcoming LP Hesitation Marks? Are we all too old for all this buff angst? Clearly not – this crowd (where the hell are all the goths?) can scream enough when the lights drop, dry ice fills the stage lit by flashes of blue… And their voices rise in crescendo as Trent Reznor’s short, muscular frame emerges through the smoke…

And The Scala explodes with ‘Somewhat Damaged’, which takes the recorded version from 1999’s Fragile as a mere sketch compared to the tectonic force it becomes live. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a band this tight, this hard, this physical. Every well-drilled blast has jackhammer impact, more grubby techno than rock band, and indeed much of tonight’s power comes from the focus on electronics over guitars. Yet the fact that NIN so very much are a rock band, and a brilliant American rock band at that, is evident in the leadership of Trent Reznor. Every raw flexed sinew of this music suggests that those muscles in his arms are about to burst through his skin and start writhing around the room. In recent photos he’s looked like a demure, cashmere jumper wearing CEO of a successful dot com enterprise. Tonight he’s a brawny figurehead, still a gladiator taking arms for the disaffected. "Nothing can stop me now" he sings in the digital bum dungeon sleaze of ‘Piggy’, leaning out over the crowd, who scream it back to him.

We are in an age where bands don’t really split, but disappear for a bit before regrouping, calling it what they may. Yet who’s to say that’s actually a bad idea, especially if an honest sabbatical can recharge their batteries like this. It might be a greatest hits sort of evening, with precious little from the new album (it’s actually a shame not to hear this line-up play the Factory Floor-cousin ‘Copy Of A’), but Nine Inch Nails glow with vitality – you get the distinct impression that the new album isn’t likely to the sort of ‘will this do?’ rehash of two decades ago that so many returning veterans limply phone in. Maybe it’s the intimacy of the venue, but Trent Reznor’s young band, as adept with drum machines and synths as guitars, make this feel as searing fresh as a winter’s icy dawn. With guitars, bass, drums back right, keys left, the set-up is rather more compressed on the Scala’s stage than the spread out, black-clad SWAT team Kraftwerk arrangement deployed in larger venues. They grind it out beautifully, from the blast beat rockabilly of ‘Gave Up’ to more cartoony moments like ‘Wish’. Its "you know me I hate everyone" chorus sounds formidable when delivered with this precision, and a man disappears into the circle pit that whirls in front of us, holding his head, mouth agape.

Yet for all the violence, this is pop music, the clue to which is the digi-funk and appropriation of Gary Numan’s Pleasure Principle synths in ‘Closer’ – you could imagine the boys of One Direction doing it as karaoke and their legions of fans not batting an Accessorised eyelid. And ‘Head Like A Hole’ is still a sinister earworm of the highest order.

The pointed focus is especially evident on new track ‘Disappointed’. A violin on one side of the stage and an Erhu (a stick-like traditional Chinese instrument) on the other make a looping, siren sound, drum machine patters out anxiously as high hats and Trent on tambourine create a weird, railway arch grimy nightclub at 4am vibe. Happily for everyone looking forward to the new album, it’s one of the most exciting moments of the evening and showcases the sheer diversity of sound and texture that NIN are capable of within one set. Interestingly, ‘Disappointed’ is closest in feel to the sounds Coil and others brought to Nine Inch Nails in the Further Down The Spiral remix album than anything they’ve done since.

Thinking on the long-time Reznor collaborators Peter Christopherson and Jhon Balance for a moment, until now Nine Inch Nails to me have seemed to be, for all their alternative signifiers, overly macho – Coil’s "ritual accumulation of male sexual energy" de-queered and turned into motivational music for a goth field hockey team. Tonight, though, it all clicks into place and I get that glorious moment as a critic when you realise that you’ve been spectacularly wrong. Nine Inch Nails took industrial’s sedition and heavy sexuality and souped it up, taking electronic extremism into a guitar realm. And yes, they made it more macho – America is a frontier country, it goes with the territory, which is why the rumble of ‘Sanctified’ sounds like the Young Gods smashing out a railway cutting.

For sedition to work it has to adopt and subvert that which it stands against – to be un-American you must also be ur- and uber-American, just as Throbbing Gristle portrayed the slide of late 70s Britain by standing atop Beachy Head, still resonant as a symbol of WWII defiance. This is what the new American supposed alternative has largely forgotten, and why after 90 minutes of precision techno metal assault, a cover of Joy Division’s ‘Dead Souls’ and the hymnal ‘Hurt’ is a finale of moving, infinite grace. It’s why the power and the pomp and the glory of Nine Inch Nails means they’re as important now in matters of the personal and political as they ever were. Still dirty on the inside.

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