A Beginner's Guide to Nine Inch Nails
  • THURSDAY, JUNE 08, 2017

  • Posted by: Jake Holzman

It's a good time to be a Nine Inch Nails fan. Last December saw the release of the excellent Not the Actual Events, and, earlier this week, Trent Reznor revealed that the EP is the first in a trilogy, with each release coming out 6-8 months apart. That means that the second EP should be out before July 23rd.

On top of this, there's the upcoming (and delayed, unfortunately) reissues of previous NIN albums on vinyl. All of this is plenty to be excited about, and it's never been a better time to get into the highly influential industrial rock act (if you haven't already). With this in mind, and being a huge NIN fan myself, I thought it would be a good idea to help ease new fans in with this article all about Trent Reznor's famous project.

IN A NUTSHELL…

There's a lot I could say about why I love Nine Inch Nails. There are a lot of overused terms and classifiers I could put in this piece to describe Reznor's music, but I think everything I love about NIN is described much more eloquently in this video:


Dave Grohl says something in there that is so important when discussing Nine Inch Nails: "Trent's using technology as an instrument - not as a crutch. He doesn't need it." When you listen to The Fragile, or The Slip, or even The Downward Spiral, it becomes abundantly clear that Reznor's training in classical piano serves as the bedrock for everything he does. He has a strong foundation as a musician, and from that foundation springs forth everything he accomplishes through digital means.


In a time when musicians are using computers to essentially cheat so that all of the drum beats are perfectly in place, and every note sung is perfectly on pitch, it's important to recognize the artists that find inspiration in technology, rather than easy outs to cover up the faults in their musical abilities. Trent Reznor isn't just one of these artists, he's one of the primary inspirations behind the principle. Chances are that any band you like today that uses technology as an instrument was, at one point, inspired by Nine Inch Nails. Or, if not, they were inspired by somebody else who was.

WITH TEETH IS A PERFECT PLACE TO START

After all, this is where I started. When I began listening to Nine Inch Nails, my taste in music was so far away on the other end of the spectrum. Had I started with The Downward Spiral or The Fragile, it would have been much harder for me to get into NIN. I would have only heard what was on the surface, and therefore dismiss it. I would have only heard the grinding guitars and dark lyrical themes, two things that were definitely not in my wheelhouse at the time. While, yes, those two things are integral parts of Reznor's music, they're not the most important characteristics. Unfortunately, that might be lost on some people. It surely would have been lost on me.

But WITH TEETH grabbed my attention. It's easily (and I use this term very hesitatingly) the "poppiest" album in Trent Reznor's discography. And yet, it somehow manages to produce all of these fantastic hooks without compromising any facets of NIN's dramatic personality. The album is a great starting point, because it's both the easiest of NIN's albums to listen to while also introducing you to what you can expect when you explore the rest of Reznor's music.

The opening track, "All the Love in the World," is a perfect example of this. With lyrics like "Watching all the insects march along/ seem to know just right where they belong" and "It looks as though the past is here to stay/ I've become a million miles away," the track is as thematically dark as anything Reznor released previously. It also features the synthetic drum beats and dissonant guitars that Nine Inch Nails is known for. Then, suddenly… the song becomes so damn upbeat. It's kind of infectious, actually.


But then, the next track, "You Know What You Are?" sounds like it came straight off of The Fragile. The grinding guitars and furious drumming, coupled with Trent Reznor's distorted screams, are exactly what fans of Reznor's earlier work would expect from a NIN track. After that comes "The Collector," which is probably one of my favorite NIN songs. The bass just sounds awesome, it's so memorable. The way the track builds up in intensity is absolutely gripping.


Then comes "The Hand That Feeds," the most openly anti-conformity single that Reznor has ever put out. "You're keeping in step in the line/ You got your head held high and you feel just fine/ Because you do what you're told/ But inside your heart, it is black and it's hollow and it's cold." It's also one of the catchiest songs in the entire NIN catalogue. The lead guitar/bass riffs will stick in your head. It's the kind of melody that guitar-playing high schoolers will immediately want to learn (or maybe that was just me, because I'm obviously speaking from experience there).

Overall, WITH TEETH is just a fantastic listen. I highly recommend it, especially if you're looking for a place to start with Nine Inch Nails.


WHERE IT ALL BEGAN

Pretty Hate Machine, Nine Inch Nail's debut, is probably the only album in the discography that sounds like it's aged. But that doesn't mean it doesn't hold up. It's actually kind of interesting to listen to in retrospect: you can totally hear the sonic ambitions of Reznor's later albums begin to take shape.

And, while it's where the influential industrial rocker began, the album is mostly steeped in 80s synth-pop. The most popular track off the album, "Head Like A Hole," is a perfect representation of that.


TRENT REZNOR IS A MASTER OF AMBIENT NOISE

One of Trent Reznor's primary influences is Brian Eno, ambient music's most important pioneer. That's actually not all that surprising when you really begin to delve into NIN's catalogue.


Reznor even put out an album called Ghosts I-IV, a record that spans 36 tracks, all of which are ambient instrumental compositions. And, in my opinion, it's one of the best things he's ever done. This album is actually what led to David Fincher getting in touch with Reznor to score The Social Network, for which he, along with his frequent collaborator Atticus Ross, won an Oscar for Best Original Score. The sooner you realize how important ambient music is to Trent Reznor, the sooner you'll see him less like an anxious industrial rocker and more like a classically trained composer who happens to make industrial rock.



ONE MORE THING: THE LIVE SHOWS ARE FREAKING INCREDIBLE

Stop. What. You're. Doing…. And watch this (at least for a little bit):


As you can see, Trent Reznor puts his all into making a visually compelling live show. Of course, the music sounds great, but the ridiculous pressure that Reznor puts on himself and everyone he works with to have his vision seen on stage is absolutely insane.

A lot of artists panic about having an "image," and most of the time it's just a BS, incessant need that they think they have to fulfill in order to sell themselves. But the Nine Inch Nails persona extends far beyond the actual music, and bleeds over into the live performances. And the result is completely nuts. Reznor's vision for NIN would not be complete without the live shows looking the way they do.


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