One could reasonably say that Trent Reznor has always been drawn to the idea of control. One might more accurately say that Reznor has always been obsessed with the concept. For over two decades, Reznor has been elaborating on this theme via his work with Nine Inch Nails, coming at it from every conceivable angle in ways both implicit and explicit: the control one loses over another following a break-up (the blistering fury of The Fragile’s “Somewhat Damaged”), the control one loses in the pursuit of silly things like money and religion (the quintessentially-90’s rawk of Pretty Hate Machine’s “Head Like a Hole”), the idea that one might be able to find peace by completely submitting to control (the perhaps-a-bit-too-on-the-nose-for-its-own-good shriek of Broken’s “Happiness in Slavery”), and so on. People usually identify Nine Inch Nails with anger, but they’re not digging deep enough. Yes, Reznor is angry, but why is he angry? Because there always seems to be some jackass trying to wrest control away from him.
Following a five-year break (a period during which Reznor took an Oscar-winning stab at film scoring), Nine Inch Nails returned earlier this year with a new album, Hesitation Marks, and now it’s taken the show back on the road with its Tension 2013 tour. A few nights ago, I caught the band’s performance at San Antonio’s AT&T Center, and I’m happy to report that Reznor’s still very much in control: of the ever-deepening catalogue of NIN songs he assembles setlists from, of the arrangements of those songs, and—above everything else—of the eye-popping visuals Nine Inch Nails offers the audience while plowing its way through 25-or-so of those songs.
Before I caught the show, I spoke with a number of friends who’d attended earlier stops on the same tour, and all of them were saying the same thing: it looks and sounds amazing. Of course, these reports were all coming from die-hard NIN fans, the type who’d be happy to watch Reznor quietly mop a bare stage for two and a half hours, so I did my best to keep my expectations in-check prior to the show. If you’re holding tickets to an upcoming stop on the Tension 2013 tour, I invite you to take my opinion with the same amount of salt. That said: the show Nine Inch Nails is currently touring with is as top-to-bottom impressive as the one it brought to the stage back in 2000 following the release of its masterful double album, The Fragile.
Big words, I know, and not ones that I'd throw down lightly. NIN's 2000 Fragility tour was a mind-blowing display of the band's particular brand of technical prowess, volume, and rage. That show featured a trio of massive digital screens that were lowered and raised behind the band during certain songs, each projecting various images, colors, and shapes designed to flesh out whatever the band was trying to convey at that moment on-stage. Eventually these screens raised, were tilted flat, and were then brought out over top of Reznor and the rest of the band as they performed, and-- lemme tell ya-- for as simple as this trick sounds, it was jaw-droppingly cool to see in action from the front of the stage. If you click around this video a bit, you'll get an idea of what that tour was like:
I'd been told that the Tension 2013 tour was equally-impressive from a technical standpoint, and I'd read a couple of interviews with Reznor where he discussed what he'd been aiming for with the effects he'd wrangled together for new tour. It all sounded like something worth being excited about, but none of it sounded particularly...new. I've seen NIN on every major tour since 2000, so by this point I was fairly accustomed to what a Reznor-designed show entails: the digital projection screens, the pulsing lights, the footage of the snake that always popped up during the encore performance of "Hurt". I was curious to see what Reznor's idea of whiz-bang technical effects would look like in 2013, but I didn't expect to come away from the show blown away by them. For as satisfying as a live NIN show has always been for me, it'd been years since that happened.
In this case, the hype is deserved. There were several moments during the new show that left me more than a little baffled ("Wait...how are they doing that?"), and though many of the tools Reznor has assembled to pull off his visual assault will be familiar to longtime NIN fans, you might find yourself stunned at how they're employed. For instance: at one point, the lights, a drop-down barrier resting on the front of the stage, and who-the-hell-knows-what-else were combined to make it appear that the band was performing while surrounded by free-floating digital artifacts. It's difficult to describe the effect (when the moment arrived, I leaned over to my wife and told her, "I'm going to have trouble describing that later", and here we are), and unfortunately I can't seem to find any footage of it via YouTube, but take my word for it: when you finally get around to seeing it-- be it via an upcoming stop on the tour or during the inevitable home video release of the live show-- you're going to be impressed.
The show was filled with these sorts of moments, but the visual component was matched by the band's current touring setlist. The lineup seemed design to roller-coaster the crowd through a hi-tempo/lo-tempo selection of new stuff (nine songs from Hesitation Marks) and older cuts. The show opened with a cut from the band's latest album, "Copy of A", before seguing into an unexpected performance of "Sanctified". Things livened up quite a bit with the one-two punch of "Terrible Lie" and "March of The Pigs" (which is still--to appropriate a term popularized by Spinal Tap-- one of the loudest songs I've ever heard), dialed back down with "Piggy", and then hit an early high point with "All-Time Low", a song from the new album I'd been dying to see them play live. That song, like many of the cuts performed from Hesitation Marks, was even better in-person than it was on the album.
Speaking of which: "Came Back Haunted" is a goddamn powerhouse live, destined to become the next great ass-kicker in the NIN Live rotation since "Hand That Feeds" (which gets better live with each new tour). It gave way to a surprising rendition of "Into The Void" (wherein Trent brought two backup singers on-stage, calling to mind the gospel choir that appears out of nowhere towards the end of Marilyn Manson's "I Don't Like The Drugs (But The Drugs Like Me)") before the band launched into several songs from 1999's The Fragile. After Hesitation Marks, that album got more play on this tour than any other, reaching a high point with a quick-and-dirty performance of "Somewhat Damaged" about three-quarters of the way through the show. Here's what that looked like (starting around the 3:00 mark, after an audience-lulling performance of "A Warm Place"):
From there, the band blew through a triple-header of "Wish", "The Hand That Feeds", and the always-so-goddamn-good-in-person "Head Like a Hole" (if you haven't seen the footage of 20,000 people singing along with that one when NIN performed at Lollapalooza this year, you're missing out) to close out the show. There was, of course, an encore, and it was at this point that fans got their biggest surprise of the night: Reznor and company played "All The Love in The World" (the criminally-underrated and surprisingly-funky opener off their 2005 album, With Teeth) live for what I hear is the first time ever. I was dumbfounded when this song began, and hope that Reznor will consider keeping it for future tours: it's pretty killer live. So killer, in fact, that the four songs that represented the rest of the band's encore-- "Even Deeper", "While I'm Still Here", "Black Noise", and (of course) "Hurt"-- seemed like just a smidge of a letdown in comparison.
That's not much of a complaint, though. On the whole, NIN's Tension 2013 is the band's best live show since 2000's Fragility tour. The setlist features more "new" material than it does "old", but the cuts from Hesitation Marks that Reznor did add to the lineup are of a piece with all the old-school material that's been kept (there were very few "bathroom break" moments in the entire show, in other words). The setlist, combined with the show's lengthy runtime and its mind-bending visual showcase, combine to offer up an experience that'll entertain casual fans of the band as well as the die-hards in the crowd. If you have the opportunity, see this show immediately. If you don't, well, stay tuned for the Blu-ray, and buy yourself a really great surround-sound system in the meantime.