Show Review + Setlist + Photos: Nine Inch Nails, A Place to Bury Strangers at the Scottrade Center, St. Louis, Wednesday, August 20
Before introducing the rest of Nine Inch Nails during the encore, a hoarse-sounding Trent Reznor rhetorically asked the crowd (collectively) if it had ever had a day when everything was against it. Roars of agreement ensued. He then said that the two hours he and the rest of Nine Inch Nails spent on stage at the Scottrade Center Wednesday night were the best part of his day, and sincerely thanked everyone for coming to the show.
Perhaps Reznor was especially referring to the Downward Spiral vinyl reissue that’s coming out. His comment on nin.com about it, just yesterday? “You may have heard there's a new re-release of The Downward Spiral on vinyl. I heard that, too. I have no idea what it is or what's on it because the band has had no involvement in it.” Or maybe the small crowd at the Scottrade Center -- the entire upper concourse was empty, and the lower bowl and floor was full, but not uncomfortably so -- bummed him out. Either way, Reznor channeled his rage/angst/upset into an emotionally cathartic, if not exhausting, two-hour-plus show.
It’s hard to imagine screaming your demons onstage every night like Reznor does when he cycles through NIN’s back catalog; effectively, this amounts to him revisiting the darkest corners of his mind night after night, in the public eye. Obviously, there’s some emotional disconnect between the person he was then and the person he is now, but what remains intact is his performance intensity.
“Come on, stand up! Pigs!” he screamed before a scabrous, chaotic “March of the Pigs” – and those who weren’t standing obliged, while the writhing mass of fans in the general-admission pit pumped their fists and sang along. Reznor teased the crowd several times during this song by refusing to give it resolution. The middle pause of the song stretched out longer, and the band never finished the quiet piano outro. Instead, the band rammed straight into one of The Slip’s many industrial-metallic bone-crushers, “Head Down,” which featured deep red lights and synthesizers plucked straight from the movie War Games.
Keyboards indeed play a much larger role on this tour than in previous ones. For starters, Alessandro Cortini – who’s worked with Ladytron – staked out an elevated platform for his keyboard textures. During several songs, Reznor played one set up near the drumkit to add color, while the murky pond electro tune “Me, I’m Not” and harder-edged “The Great Destroyer” featured the band members inducing twitching, seizure-inducing electronic riots in front of an LED screen which projected haywire static. (The keyboard stands, incidentally, resembled IKEA tables.)
Much has been made of the light and elaborate stage set-up on this tour – and for good reason. Seeing the stage and show in an enclosed venue (rather than at a festival) was an awe-inspiring experience. The red and blue lights intermingling on “Gave Up” were arranged so that the stage truly felt like it was shaking, or about ready to blast off into space. “Wish” featured blinding white lights that perfectly matched the raging angst within the song. Songs from Ghosts I-IV had backdrops ranging from a desert scene with storm clouds to a LED screen projecting docile pond and rain. The instrumentation onstage matched such nature-laden visions, including marimba, xylophone, cello and auxiliary percussion.
Now, having such a sedate section during a NIN show is ballsy; that’s akin to Rage Against the Machine taking time out for an a cappella interlude during one of its sets. And in fact, “Piggy” was totally a rhythm-heavy, groove-laden hippie jam, causing my friend to say, “We’re at an Ingrid Michaelson show now.” (Bizarrely enough, during this quiet part we also saw a feisty, fighting girl get hauled off by at least three security guards.) It was sort of an odd place to have such a quiet interlude, as it drained energy from the set. (I texted a friend that was there that it felt like “new age Trent,” while said friend responded with “Trent Teshner.”) In fact, the pacing of the set in general felt off, like it didn’t click until seven or eight songs in.
But when NIN is on, few bands can match its talent. The Fragile’s skyscraping rock jag “The Wretched” – whose chorus hook “This is what it feels like!” climbs along with guitar melodies like a feral howl – was amazing, as was an encore version of Spiral’s “Reptile.” For the latter, the stage and band were bathed in ectoplastmic neon-green light, which matched the eerie, troops marching to war rhythms and vibe. Year Zero cut “God Given” and With Teeth's “Only” – the latter of which featured Reznor behind the LED screen emerging through a sheet of static, as if he were repelling a collection of magnetic iron shavings – also smoked. And “Closer,” despite its ubiquity, exudes all sorts of sex live, thanks to drummer Josh Freese’s funky groove and the eternal bedroom dirty talk.
Reznor’s voice, which has been a concern as of late, did at times seem tired. On a few songs – “Head Like a Hole” for one – new touring bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen and returning guitarist Robin Finck sang the chorus together, while other songs featured a fair amount of vocal delay on the microphone. But Reznor’s boundless stage energy made up for any vocal misgivings. He worked so hard, in fact, that he sweat through his red shirt by the fourth song, “Discipline.” Muscular and brawny, Reznor tossed mic stands, launched a tambourine into the crowd and generally made the stage his bitch by attacking it – more specifically, attacking it like you’re attacking someone you’re so attracted to, you just want to rip off his (or her) clothes.
A Place to Bury Strangers – which is returning to town on October 11 at the Bluebird – was the perfect NIN opener. Strobe lights, gigantic walls of noise, murky vocals and shuddering rhythms abounded, like its show here in March. The sensory overload of the lights and noise together, in fact, was almost hard to take it was so all-consuming. Had Bauhaus grown up in Brooklyn in 2008, it might have turned into APTBS.
Critic’s Notebook: There really is something comforting about a Nine Inch Nails crowd – mainly because it’s like walking into a room full of every stubbornly iconoclastic misfit within a 100-mile radius of the city. (Many of whom still dress like it’s 1994.) Marilyn Manson T-shirts, fishnets, corsets, tattoos and more black clothing than the eye can see. Ah, my people.
Reznor’s keyboard stand, incidentally, was in the shape of an “S,” which made me wonder what it stood for. Superhuman? Sex? Superman? Synths? Sky? All of the above?
Personal Bias: The friend who turned me on to Nine Inch Nails during the Downward Spiral era just had a baby. This made me feel old. The friend I went with to this show last saw NIN in 1993. That made her feel old.
“March of the Pigs”
screen comes down:
“Me, I’m Not”
“The Great Destroyer”
Ghosts stuff…which ones – three
“The Greater Good”
screens back up:
“The Big Come Down”
(interlude -- a Ghost?)
“Head Like a Hole”
“Love Is Not Enough”
“In this Twilight” (right?)