Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral

Island CID 8012 [UK] (1994) Total Running Time: 65 min 10 sec 1. Mr Self Destruct (4:30) 2. Piggy (4:24) 3. Heresy (3:54) 4. March Of The Pigs (2:58) 5. Closer (6:13) 6. Ruiner (4:56) 7. The Becoming (5:31) 8. I Do Not Want This (5:41) 9. Big Man With A Gun (1:36) 10. A Warm Place (3:23) 11. Eraser (4:53) 12. Reptile (6:51) 13. The Downward Spiral (3:56) 14. Hurt (6:14)

Trent Reznor isn't a very happy person. We know this because he's told us so. Repeatedly. In fact, most of Reznor's musical output to date (2 albums, 2 EPs, several singles) has been lyrically centred on how terrible life and the universe in general are. To be honest, I'm getting a little tired of it, especially when, as in the case of this new album, it detracts from what is otherwise a rather interesting release.

Not that I'd suggest that Trent jump ship and join the socially-aware "isn't capitalist society awful?" brigade or indeed, start recording songs that include the words "Cyber" or "Virtual" anywhere in the title. That'd just be moving from one cliche to another. It's just that perpetual teenage angst-ridden "music to whine to" gets very tired, very quickly, especially coming from someone who isn't exactly a teenager any more.

That's enough about what's obviously wrong with the new album though, now for some of what's right about it. The Downward Spiral is musically interesting. His first album, Pretty Hate Machine was a reasonably skilful piece of synth-based rock given an industrial edge, while Broken downplayed the synthesisers considerably in favour of a harder, Ministry-style guitar based sound. This new effort, however, is a more musically mature effort entirely - if Reznor hasn't progressed much lyrically he's certainly moved forward musically - as The Downward Spiral fuses the best elements of all his previous releases, throwing in a few new tricks besides. The synths are back in force, but the harsher, guitar-driven sound of Broken has survived, and considerable (excessive?) use is made of the juxtaposition of loud (guitars, distortion, screaming) with quiet (pianos, whispered vocals, silence).

Proceedings get off to a good start with "Mr Self Destruct". The intro's worthy of mention, with an irregular thump gradually increasing in speed until it becomes a regular beat that lies behind a wall of rhythmic electronics over which Reznor's vocals and thrashy guitars are added. Trent's favourite new trick, the sudden but brief quiet interlude, manifests itself briefly, before normal service is restored and the track comes crashing back. The second track, "Piggy", reveals another development - Reznor's bacon fixation. Two tracks here feature pigs in their title and this is just evidence of a further animalistic trend, whereby the lyrics mention pigs, generic animals, cattle, flies and insects in general. The song itself is unlike most NIN material to date - a slower track with Trent almost whispering over a background of quiet guitar and subtle electronic effects.

"Heresy" opens very nicely indeed - good solid driving beat - and the vocals hark back to the Prince comparisons that were occasionally made with regard to Pretty Hate Machine. High-pitched, decidedly Prince-like, but distorted. The chorus (screamed) and the guitar backing are rather more typical of Broken-era material though. There's more of those electronic noise effects too, which by now are becoming a little overused. "March Of The Pigs" is the first single from the album. I believe it's already out in the US and is due here in the UK on 28th March. It's definitely one of the harder, thrashier tracks on the album and, despite the techno-ish bleeps in the intro, would have fitted in quite well on Broken. The by-now standard formula of hard, fast verse and slower chorus is livened by a decidedly odd and equally brief piano melody which pops up occasionally for a moment or two before disappearing beneath a wall of noise. I find it a surprising choice for the single - with the exception of those few seconds of piano, the song doesn't really stand out much and I can think of several tracks which'd make a better single. "Closer" is stylistically much closer in feel to Pretty Hate Machine - vaguely funky synth-line, more subdued vocals - but has considerably more sexually explicit lyrics than anything that appeared on that album. About as subtle as a brick between the eyes. "I drink the honey inside your hive" indeed.

Next up is "Ruiner", another synth-based track but one that's considerably noisier than "Closer". Lots of electronic noise, big grandiose synth brass in the chorus, a borrowed-sounding beat and a little synth melody that's rather reminiscent of the theme of the old TV show Knight Rider. The loud/soft contrast appears yet again, with a quiet-ish guitar bridge leading back into the chorus. "The Becoming" features, in order of appearance, sampled screams and cries, a nice meaty analogue synth line and Trent Reznor doing his "average" voice (ie neither screaming nor whispering). The percussion's interestingly fuzzed and there's a decent assortment of electronic clinks and ticks buzzing around too. Oh yeah, and Adrian Belew on ring modulated guitar.

I think it'd be fair to say that the lyrics to "I Do Not Want This" pretty much sums up Trent Reznor's attitude to life. Musically it's more interesting - quiet vocals and piano over jerky stop-start percussion. Of course, it eventually thrashes up (almost all the tracks on the album do) creating yet more of those loud/soft contrasts. It's a nice idea musically that's quite effective the first half dozen times, but I think it's been a little overused here. "Big Man With A Gun" vies strongly with "Closer" for this years Unsubtle Sexual Lyrics award. Yawn. So blatant that if you're looking for hidden meaning here you have to conclude that maybe he actually is talking about a gun. "A Warm Place" makes a pleasant change from the rather formulaic material that precedes it, and is a quiet, emotive, subdued and downright pretty instrumental. I'd like to hear more of this - it demonstrates that there's considerably more to TR than meets the ear elsewhere on this album. "Eraser" would best be described as a pseudo-instrumental - quiet noise gradually building, adding synths, drums, guitar until (what a surprise!) all goes quiet and Reznor intones the minimalist lyrics then (how unusual!) everything gets loud and thrashy again.

"Reptile" has an interesting clanking intro, some nice whirring electronic noises (didn't the same sample appear in FLA's "Mindphaser"?), rather odd lyrics and an interesting brooding rhythm that disappears during the choruses. Not a bad track at all, the samples and noises add a lot of texture. The title track's another interesting one - badly tuned guitar over strange electronic effects, piano, fuzzy guitar, screams, half-spoken (over-)distorted vocals. Again, not bad. The final track, "Hurt" finds Trent in familiar mood, quietly singing about how awful life in general is over gentle guitars (nice melody) which some sort of distortion or gating hanging around to make you wonder if your headphones are faulty. While the chorus is rather less fragile than the verse, it's nice to find another track that manages to avoid bringing on the thrashy guitars except for one brief burst towards the end.

As you'll have guessed from the length of this review (or by the more immediate method of reading the track listing at the top of this article) there's quite a lot of music on this disc. That in itself might be part of the problem with this album. I want to like it - Reznor's obviously put considerable effort into hauling his sound into something of a new direction after Broken - but I keep getting the impression that he's come up with one or two new approaches and tried to squeeze ten to twelve tracks out of them. Too many of the songs here use the same "synth-based verse/thrashy guitar chorus" (or vice versa) technique, while the "unexpected quiet bit" would be much more effective if it didn't feature on so many of the songs here. These similarities tend to mask the fact that in other ways the songs are quite varied. For this reason the standout track for me was the most atypical one - "A Warm Place", the quiet instrumental that's totally unlike anything else on the album and that most fans of Broken will likely loathe with a vengeance.

A bit of a shame really - full marks to Trent for trying, and the album is technically excellent in places, but the lasting impression for me is one of too few ideas spread too thinly.

Erland Rating: +1

Al Crawford / awrc@dcs.ed.ac.uk


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