The last time I saw Nine Inch Nails in concert was 2000, when frontman Trent Reznor, after suffering a five-year bout of perfectionism and doubt that would make Axl Rose proud, reemerged with "The Fragile," a double-disc follow-up to his critically-acclaimed "The Downward Spiral."
Sadly, the record was a self-indulgent letdown — more of the same, only worse. (We get it, you're still depressed.) To be sure, there were some gems in the rough (See: "The Great Below."). But live, the band stuck to its blistering back catalog of aggressive anthems. The new numbers, even with the help of a triptych video display, were markedly weak.
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Then Reznor got sober, recorded a comeback in 2005 ("With Teeth") and threw in two more full-length albums ("Year Zero" and "The Slip") and a double dose of instrumentals ("Ghosts I-IV") — all within the span of three years. If Saturday's show at Planet Hollywood's Theatre of Living Arts is any indication, Reznor is again comfortable in his own skin.
The band, sounding tight as ever, charged through a number of newer songs — all of them strong — before hitting the classic "March of the Pigs." Reznor was in full swing, tossing tambourines and water bottles into the crowd, abusing keyboards and flipping mic stands. During "Closer" he took a backseat to the band, singing to a camera that projected his face — red, grainy and distorted — onto a huge video screen. The crowd went nuts.
Then came "Gave Up," from 1992's "Broken" EP. Guitars have rarely sounded so loud and so good. As that number closed, the real spectacle began, with what appeared to be a fence descending from the ceiling, separating the band from the audience. Nine Inch Nails then launched into an instrumental stretch, with the fence serving as high-tech video screen. The band played behind a giant wall of static and then a waterfall. At times Reznor, playing DJ and rocking the xylophone (yes, that's possible), pierced the image with a touch, revealing the band beneath.
When it comes to rock as theater, it doesn't get much better.
The band closed its set with crowd favorites and live staples: "Piggy," "Wish," "Terrible Lie," and an epilepsy-inducing "Head Like a Hole."
All told, it was a solid two hours, complete with an encore that featured two of the best "Downward Spiral" tracks — the industrial "Reptile" and the ballad "Hurt."
It was the last show of the tour, and Reznor, while thanking the crew and the crowd, closed on down note, announcing drummer Josh Freese and keyboardist Alessandro Cortini would be leaving the band. Reznor said he would be "deconstructing everything" and taking the band down to a four piece, to play some shows in Australia early next year.
Here's to hoping he continues at this clip, and doesn't get obsessed with the next "Chinese Democracy." One of those is more than enough.