Monday, October 21, 2013

Nine Inch Nails at Prudential Center

CMJ hit the New York City area this week, and an abundance of shows, panels, screenings, showcases and industry parties flooded our town. Artists and businessmen of all sorts flocked through, representing all kinds of music, ideas and levels of success. All of them almost certainly had one thing in common: none of them could compare to the show that Nine Inch Nails brought to the Barclays Center and the Prudential Center this week. For all the talents that might have been performing nearby, there was only one genius playing in the city this week.

25 years into one of the most innovative careers in rock music, Trent Reznor, who is as much Nine Inch Nails as Prince Rogers Nelson is Prince, could have filled the arena with a microphone and a karaoke machine. Yet Reznor brings the passion and perfectionism that marks his best studio work onto the stage. Each song got a different light and LED treatment, with mesmerizing patterns guiding us through much of NIN's terrific new album, Hesitation Marks. A blue screen silhouetted the band for "Find My Way," magnifying Reznor's two-handed microphone tricks and guitarist Robin Finck's guitar god strutting. Strobe lights underscored the intensity of "Copy of A" and "Somewhat Damaged," perfectly supplementing a band that made the most abrasive dance music known to humanity.

Of course anyone with the right budget could afford a light show, but Reznor takes it to another level. For another band, it would have been distracting, either bogging down the pacing or an obvious distraction from inferior songs. Artists like Tool and Rob Zombie have extraordinary light shows, but both employ them at the cost of spontaneity, playing identical shows each night to stay in line with the mechanics. But Nine Inch Nails played a rock show, changing up the setlist, swinging their instruments and blowing through every song with a forcefulness that no machine could match. A pair of female backup singers, including Lisa Fischer from the Rolling Stones, gave NIN's music an R&B swing that worked shockingly well, revealing Reznor's funk sensibilities in the new "Satellite" and the underrated "Into the Void," wherein when Reznor traded stanzas with Fischer like an industrial Mick Jagger and Merry Clayton. At 48, Reznor is still unearthing his talents as an arranger.

But even if he weren't the composer, programmer and producer of every Nine Inch Nails record, Reznor would have been a rock star. Grappling the microphone and hurtling himself toward the crowd, he's a ferocious lead singer, bellowing stories of pain and hatred that transcend the adolescence that he wrote them in. Whether or not he's outgrown the lyrics to "Wish" or "March of the Pigs," Reznor understands that those feelings still matter to a lot of people, and he expresses them beautifully enough for us to keep coming back. By the time he finished "Head Like a Hole," with blazing searchlights dying down for a huge LED screen with the NIN logo, there was no doubt that Reznor's talents as a performer are in a league with his studio wizardry.

For the encore, Reznor introduced the band (it was his first banter of the evening) and treated us to a few more songs, including "Echoplex" and Hesitation Marks standout "While I'm Still Here," the latter including the first-ever saxophone on an NIN record. But best of all were "I'm Afraid of Americans" and the closing song "Hurt," two drastically different compositions that gave two legendary artists (David Bowie and Johnny Cash, respectively) late career comebacks. One could take it as a pat on Reznor's back, or even a reminder that he doesn't need any guest songwriters or producers as he nears 50. Those of us in attendance saw that, like Cash and Bowie, Reznor deserves to be held in the highest regard for the way he's reshaped modern music.

Openers Godspeed You Black Emperor played just one song, the perfectly-named "Behemoth," a droning, 45-minute song that has not yet appeared on an album. Their performance may not have won them any new fans, but it was an appropriate gesture for a band that recently made a mockery of their Polaris Prize and once trashed Radiohead for being " a gigantic multinational corporation."

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