The first time I heard Nine Inch Nails was around 1990, when my then-grade nine girlfriend played me her copy of Pretty Hate Machine. The last time I saw Nine Inch Nails, not including Friday night's pummeling performance at Toronto's Air Canada Centre, was the 2009 "Wave Goodbye Tour" when my now-wife was nine months and a bit pregnant.
Though I'd stuck close by for days because she was overdue, missing NIN's purported last-ever tour was too much to ask. I said "text me if your water breaks" and headed to the show. It was amazing. But NIN shows are always amazing, be they playing a relatively tiny warehouse club or rocking a sprawling festival field. And a big part of that is because they always feel uniquely in the moment.
That is an incredibly rare accomplishment for an act nearing its 25th year. Most have either dissipated or dipped deep into nostalgia by that age. The Pixies, for instance, are probably a better live band now than they've ever been -- but they've been milking their past with reunion shows forever and though they finally put out a new EP recently, it came after the latest departure of Kim Deal.
The beloved bassist, of course, had finally left the Pixies to focus on her other band, the Breeders, another iconic 90s alt-rock act that still exists now only because of how amazing Last Splash still sounds two decades later. They're not alone. Mazzy Star is back. Sebadoh, too, and Soundgarden. Not to mention lesser lights like Goo Goo Dolls and Matchbox 20.
Nine Inch Nails, however, do not trade in nostalgia, no matter how many alt-anthems Trent Reznor has in the back pocket of his black leather pants.
Ironically, NIN's Tension 2013 Tour does seem a bit like a reunion, if only because Reznor had previously declared in 2009 that he "isn't done creating music under the moniker, but that Nine Inch Nails is done touring for the foreseeable future."
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Reznor said Nine Inch Nails would "disappear for a while" though that turned out to mean Reznor would win an Oscar for The Social Network score under his own name (alongside partner Atticus Ross). And that by 2012, he'd be writing NIN songs again and that by September 2013, he'd release the album Hesitation Marks and head out on a world tour, the one which just rolled through Toronto. (In other words, he wasn't even gone as long as the five years between '94's Downward Spiral and '99's The Fragile.)
The '90s generation grew up with an antipathy for nostalgia tours thanks to the money-sucking monstrosities of our youth like Rolling Stones' "Steel Wheels" tour, The Eagles' "Hell Freezes Over" tour, and, most ironically thanks to their indelible "hope I die before I get old" lyric, The Who's 25th anniversary tour in 1989 which came a mere seven years after their "farewell" tour.
Fair or not, these legacy artists were dismissed as dinosaurs of rock, especially when seen beside the revolutionary rock music that was being produced by upstarts like Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana and Jane's Addiction (who have been reuniting off-and-on since Perry Farrell broke them up after the very first Lollapalooza tour in 1991).
I have no inherent problem with reunion tours -- seeing the Pixies' play both versions of "Wave of Mutilation" on their first reunion tour in 2004 is still a live music highlight for me, and I'd see the Breeders anytime just for the chance to watch them play "No Aloha" live. But it's like re-watching Pulp Fiction rather than going to see Django Unchained or whatever Tarantino comes out with next. The new movie might not be as good as the old favourite, but there's something special about a longtime artist whose creativity remains a going concern.
Nine Inch Nails' new album Hesitation Marks isn't The Downward Spiral 2.0, but it's great and new and feels inspired. The same goes for the live show which follows Reznor's usual routine of completely reconfiguring every song from his massive back catalogue to sound like it came from the same current album.
Maybe it's because he's always built his music by himself, so he feels no loyalty to arrangements or even genre. On some tours he's turned out a proper moshpit-fuelling barrage of alt-anthems to keep festival crowds roiling all the way back to the port-o-lets. Other tours have amped up his songs' dark disco subtext to become something close to an industrial rave.
On the aptly titled Tension tour, Reznor has hired a whole new touring band (not counting longtime live guitarist Robin Finck) and reformatted his music with a new noise-rock aesthetic that was applied as equally to new tunes like "Copy Of A" and "Came Back Haunted" as it was to mid-90s classics like "March of the Pigs" or "Terrible Lie."
In fact, the older tunes were often recognized primarily by their familiar lyrics, which helped bring fans along on the new, harder-edged arrangements of jackhammer beats and aggressive guitars. There were some handclap and singalong moments, but mostly the fans stood there grinning amidst the punkish sonic assault which never quite delivered a slam-danceable groove.
The production emphasized this more minimalist approach, especially in the early half, as industrial lights lowered down directly above the band members so that it felt like they were playing a small strobe-lit basement club rather than a cavernous hockey arena.
As the band jumped into The Fragile-era tunes "The Frail" and "The Wretched," the production opened up, with a big screen behind them and an LED light cage surrounding the stage that created a surreal digital aesthetic. Back-up soul singers, new to this tour, gave several songs an unfamiliar twist as he mixed more new tunes like "Find My Way" and "All Time Low" in with must-plays like a chunky bassline-driven "The Hand That Feds," headbanging set-closer "Head Like a Hole" and final everyone-sing-together encore "Hurt."
Last month, the Associated Press became the subject of much ridicule when whichever intern they assigned to review Nine Inch Nails praised Reznor's "cover" of the Johnny Cash tune. To be fair, Cash certainly made "Hurt" sound like a Cash song, a testament to how well-written Reznor's original is.
But interestingly, Reznor is also entering the Johnny Cash phase of his career. At no point did Cash's continued performances or records ever feel like nostalgic cash-grabs, no matter old he got.
And Reznor, at 48, has achieved a similar timeless vitality. Every new album adds at least a few new songs that stand up to the old ones, and every tour reimagines them anyway in an exhilarating new context, so Reznor could easily continue hurting us for another 25 years.