In 1992, Nine Inch Nails and its leader Trent Reznor had one of the most incredible periods that year when their 1992 EP Broken was an instant success while their 1989 debut album Pretty Hate Machine was still in the mind of fans and critics who saw Reznor as a promising genius. In the summer of 1992, Reznor took his team of engineers and musicians to Los Angeles where they would create Reznor’s second full-length record. He obtained the services of his Pretty Hate Machine and Broken producer Flood along with Reznor’s old buddy and NIN drummer Chris Vrenna, members of his live band from the ’91 Lollapalooza tour Richard Patrick and James Wooley, engineers Sean Beaven, Bill Kennedy, and a new member to the team, Alan Moulder who had previously mixed the widely-acclaimed 1991 album Loveless by shoegazing rockers My Bloody Valentine. Reznor then bought an old house in the posh area of Bel Air where he learned that the house he bought was an infamous landmark in American history.
The house was addressed 10050 Cielo Drive where it was once owned by acclaimed filmmaker Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby & Chinatown) and his then-wife model/actress Sharon Tate. On August 9, 1969, members of a deranged cult that was led by a former musician named Charles Manson viciously murdered Sharon Tate along with several guests over an issue with a record producer named Terry Melcher (who wasn’t present during the murders) over a song Manson wrote that was later renamed and recreated by the Beach Boys whose drummer Dennis Wilson had become friends with. The murders were an infamous moment in America and made Charles Manson an infamous icon among the world of serial killers. When Reznor learned it was the Manson house, he saw the blood stains of the house that the words “pigs” and “helter skelter” which was referenced to the song Helter Skelter by the Beatles from their 1968 album known as The White Album. Reznor renamed the studio Le Pig and went to work on his new album.
During the early sessions of the album, Reznor worked extensively throughout and had planned to release it in early ’93 for Interscope Records. Unfortunately, Reznor suffered a case of writer’s block where whatever he created; he wasn’t completely satisfied with it. While dealing with his writer’s block, NIN suffered a tragedy when NIN live drummer Jeff Ward who had toured with the band in ’91 committed suicide early in 1993 that halted productions for a brief period of time. When production for the album went underway again, NIN touring guitarist Richard Patrick and engineer Brian Liesegang left NIN to form their own project, which became Filter that released a successful debut album in 1995 Short Bus. Reznor then brought in multi-instrumentalist Danny Lohner of the industrial band Skrew for guitar tracks and Lohner would end up becoming a full key member of NIN. During the sessions for the new album, Reznor befriended singer-songwriter Tori Amos who was working on her sophomore release Under The Pink and Reznor recorded a track with Amos where he sang backup on Past The Mission. At the same time, Reznor was producing a debut album for his protégé from his new Nothing Records label named Marilyn Manson, a shock rocker from Miami, Florida.
Finally in 1994, Reznor completed the album and was ready to release what some consider one of his greatest achievements of recording career titled The Downward Spiral.
In his past recordings, Reznor always acknowledge his influences like Ministry and Skinny Puppy along with pop acts like XTC, Depeche Mode, Human League, and Prince that had been rampant through his records like Pretty Hate Machine and Broken. In The Downward Spiral, Reznor reveals his true influences which was 70s art-rock. For years, Reznor has always admitted that theatrical rockers like Kiss and Alice Cooper have influenced him but for The Downward Spiral, he reveals the influences of Pink Floyd, Iggy Pop, and most notably, David Bowie. In the late 1970s, Bowie and ambient music pioneer Brian Eno collaborated on a trilogy of electronic-music driven albums titled Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger that all went into the depths of minimalism which was an area that many rockers never dared to go. Reznor was extremely influenced by those records and for The Downward Spiral; he too would go into the depths of minimalism.
While Pretty Hate Machine was an industrial record with pop elements and Broken was an abrasive industrial-metal album, The Downward Spiral is a mix of abrasive industrial music productions, hard rock, art-rock musical structures, pop hooks, and minimalist music approaches. While some call The Downward Spiral a full-on concept album, it is in some ways a concept album about a journey into the world of self-destruction, sex, alienation, and death. Trent Reznor’s lyrical mastery goes into new heights with the album along with its approach to hard rock and pop music itself. Overall, The Downward Spiral is truly a landmark album for the 1990s and for rock music itself.
The album starts off with the song Mr. Self Destruct that begins with a twenty-five second hard-hitting, hammer-like sound that just sounds brutal and punishing and it goes faster until a loud, pulsating, and wall-to-wall layers of synthesizers and drum machine tracks accompany Trent Reznor’s dark and powerful lyrics of “I am the voice inside your head (and I control you)/I am the lover in your bed (and I control you)/I am the sex that you provide (and I control you/I am the hate you try to hide (and I control you)” then comes a powerful guitar blast performed by King Crimson and former David Bowie guitarist Adrian Belew who accompanies the chorus of “I take you where you want to go/I give you all you need to know/I drag you down I use you up/Mr. Self destruct”. Reznor goes further into his lyrics of self-destruction along with its powerful chorus where the song then goes into a soft and quiet mode with its melodic bass and ambient-like synthesizer track as he sings quietly “I am the needle in your vein/I am the high you can’t sustain/I am the pusher I’m a wh*re/I am the need you have for more” where the song goes back into its pulsating and brutal sound until the end where a loud and maniacal solo from Belew ends the song.
Piggy is a bass-driven inspired track that is led by a melodic-tinged bass track along with a slow but smooth rhythm from Reznor's drum tracks as Reznor sings dark but catchy lyrics of “Hey pig/Yeah you/Hey pig piggy pig pig pig/All of my fears came true/Black and blue and broken bones you left here I’m all alone/My little piggy needed something new” and it is followed by a chorus that is accompanied by wind-like keyboard tracks as Reznor sings “Nothing can stop me now/I just don’t care (anymore)”. The song is definitely inspired by the murders made by Charles Manson and the song for some time has been interpreted as Reznor crawling into the mind of a serial killer (not just Manson but anyone). Though the song is dark and brooding, there’s a certain catchiness in its thumping rhythm that makes Piggy a classic NIN track along with its layers of atmospheric synthesizers, a crashing drum solo, and a lovely classical-like keyboard solo at the end from Reznor.
Heresy is a powerful and blistering assault on the theme of religion as its led by its hard-hitting drum tracks and pulsating synthesizer hooks that accompany as Reznor sings lyrics of “He served his eyes shut because he is afraid to see/He tries to tell me what I put inside of me/He’s got the answers to ease my curiosity/He dreamed a god up and called it Christianity” that is then followed by a strong chorus of “Your god is dead, and no one cares/If there is a hell, I will see you there” which is accompanied by a droning-guitar track along with a noise-driven synthesizer track as Reznor goes further into his anti-iconic lyrics that might offend some but it’s really more of an attack of what religion has been bringing especially now with our current war in Afghanistan.
The next song is the hard-hitting March Of The Pigs that is bolstered by its fast-paced drum tracks that sound like live drums but were programmed by Reznor, Flood, and Alan Moulder to make it sound live when they’re really made by machines. The track is then followed by its noise-droning synthesizer and Reznor’s loud vocals while being accompanied by its metal-driven guitar tracks as he sings “Step right up, march, push/Crawl right up on your knees/Please, greed, feed (no time to hesitate)/I want a little bit, I want a piece of it, I think he’s losing it/I want to watch it come down/Don’t like the look of it, don’t like the taste of it, don’t like the smell of it/I want to watch it come down”. The song then goes into a slower and softer turn driven by its soft, pulsating synthesizer tracks as Reznor sings the chorus of “All the pigs, all lined up/I give you all that you want/Take the skin and peel it back/Now doesn’t that make you feel better?” which is followed by a lovely piano break. The song goes hard and back into a soft mode again as Reznor finishes the song with “The pigs have won tonight/Now they can all sleep soundly/And everything is all right”.
The next song Closer is pretty much a full-on NIN classic and it is for many reasons. Inspired by the Iggy Pop classic Nightclubbing from his 1977 seminal debut album The Idiot that was produced by David Bowie, Nightclubbing featured a heart-thumping rhythm from its drum machine track that was the basis for the rhythm of Closer that also featured a similar heart-beat rhythm that is the main part of the song that accompanies the entire track including a quirky synthesizer track and Reznor’s sexual-laden lyrics of “You let me violate you/You let me desecrate you/You let me penetrate you/You let me complicate you/Help me, I broke apart my insides/Help me, I got no soul to sell/Help me, the only thing that works for me/Help me get away from myself”. There, the song leads to its famous chorus that is pretty much a Prince-inspired lyrical stance where Reznor sings “I want to f*ck you like an animal/I want to feel you from the inside/I want to f*ck you like an animal/My whole existence is flawed/You get me closer to god” that is accompanied by theremin-like synthesizer chills and a brooding and pulsating keyboard tracks to give the song its eerie and haunting tone. Reznor then goes further into his sexual-driven lyrics along with its famous chorus that is then followed by a powerful instrumental break of pulsating synthesizer layers, soft and distorted guitar tracks as Reznor sings quietly “Through every forest, above the trees/Within my stomach, scraped off my knees/I drink the honey, inside your hive/You are the reason, I stay alive”. The song starts to finish with instrumental break that leads to a powerful and thumping synthesizer solo that then ends with a melodic and eerie keyboard track at the end.
Ruiner is an industrial-driven track features scratchy and pulsating layers of synthesizers along with hard-smashing drum tracks, metal-like guitars, and Reznor’s tough and angry lyrics of that were probably addressed to his former TVT employer Steve Gottlieb who was the subject of the entire Broken EP that featured questioning lyrics of betrayal and anger that started out as a pulsating electronic-driven track then goes into a hard-rocking power as Reznor sings “The ruiner’s got a lot to prove/He’s got nothing to lose and now he made you believe” which is then followed by a brilliant synthesizer solo that is loud and confrontational as Reznor sings “How did you get so big/How did you get so strong?” which then goes back into its electronic-rock mode until later on when a melodic bass and guitar track comes in for a brief instrumental break until the electronic-driven structure comes in as Reznor sings “You didn’t hurt me, nothing can’t hurt me/You didn’t hurt me, nothing can stop me now”.
The Becoming is a brilliant blend of acoustic-minimalism and scratchy electronic-productions that is led by its distorted drum machines and scratchy synthesizer tracks that are all manipulated by Reznor and Flood that sounds like a manic typewriter as Reznor sings lyrics of physical pain including scabs, bruises, and other types of injuries that are uncomforting to hear that includes an acoustic guitar solo break from the always brilliant Adrian Belew as Reznor sings in the end of “It won’t give up, it wants me dead/Godd*mn this noise inside my head”.
I Do Not Want This is a powerful rock-driven track spurred by former Jane’s Addiction/Porno For Pyros drummer Stephen Perkins drumming mastery along with a lovely piano background that is then surrounded by distorted layers of synthesizers as Reznor sings “I do not want this” repeatedly until he sings the chorus of “Don’t you tell me how I feel” three times where it becomes a powerful hard-rocking track from its blistering guitars and then returns to its piano-laden track as Reznor sings angst-ridden lyrics of his own emotions and anger that is bolstered by its strong production layers of synthesizers and drum machine tracks at the end of the song. Big Man With A Gun is fast-pacing industrial track that features blistering drum tracks, droning synthesizers, hard-charging guitars, and Reznor’s satirical lyrics of guns that is a satire on the gangsta rap that always have references to guns where Reznor sings “I am a big man (yes I am)/And I have a big gun/Got me a big old d*ck and I/I like to have fun/Held against your forehead/I’ll make you suck it” that sounds incendiary but it’s really more satirical than what people think it appears to be.
The next track is a lovely instrumental track titled A Warm Place that is dominated by its layers of atmospheric and eerie synthesizer tracks that are reminiscent to the instrumental tracks David Bowie made with Brian Eno in their late 70s collaborations that went further into the depths of minimalism and Reznor takes the track to those depths that shows his experimental and challenging side as an artist, performer, and producer. Eraser comes in with a brief and soft sound that accompanies the rest of the track along with a blistering drum track that again sounds live but Reznor and Flood again manipulate it to make sound live as if a machine isn’t playing it. A pulsating synthesizer comes in along with melodic-driven guitars and bass tracks to build up the song that would lead to Reznor singing “Need you, dream you, find you, taste you, f*ck you, use you, scar you, break you” as the track softens up on that part by a synthesizer until it becomes an abrasive and loud rocking track when Reznor sings “Lose me, hate me, smash me, erase me, kill me” and he repeatedly says “Kill me” throughout the rest of the song.
Reptile is a slow but strong track that is bolstered by its powerful drum and synthesizer tracks that accompany the song with its slow but menacing rhythm as Reznor sings dark and sexual-driven lyrics of “She spreads herself wide open to let the insects in/She leaves a trail of honey to show me where’s she been/She has the blood of reptile just underneath her skin/Seeds from a thousand others drip down from within” as it goes from a slow and minimal-based track to a powerful hard rocking chorus of “Oh my beautiful liar/Oh my precious wh*re/My disease, my infection/I am so impure” that shows Reznor mastery as a lyricist that is then followed by a brilliant instrumental break of clashing programmed gong-like sounds, guitars, drums, and brooding synthesizers accompany the rest of the track as Reznor goes further into his lyrics that becomes darker.
The album's title track is a melodic-based track that is led by a melodic-tinged guitar track as Reznor whispers suicide-based lyrics of “He couldn’t believe how easy it was/He put the gun into his face/Bang! (So much blood for such a tiny little hole)” where the track also features layers of atmospheric layers of synthesizers to accompany the melodic guitar track. The song then becomes a bit louder where the guitars go from melodic to more brutal along with drums from Reznor’s former Exotic Birds band mate and current Stabbing Westward drummer Andy Kubiszewski as Reznor whisper more lyrics of suicide.
The album’s closer is a powerful and emotionally driven ballad that is the height of Reznor’s ability as a songwriter in this album. Hurt is led mainly by a soft and wind-like synthesizer background as Reznor starts to sing “I hurt myself today/To see if I still feel/I focus on the pain/The only thing that’s real/The needle tears a hole/The old familiar sting/Try to kill it all away/But I remember everything”. Then a melancholy-driven guitar track comes in with a melodic-piano track and Chris Vrenna’s brooding drum tracks as Reznor sings tortured lyrics of “What have I become/My sweetest friend/Everyone I know/Goes away in the end/You could have it all/My empire of dirt/I will let you down/I will make you hurt”. After a brief instrumental break, Reznor goes into his heart wrenching lyrics that reveal his pain and vulnerability as a song writer that then goes into his powerful chorus that leads him to sing the final lines of “If I could start again/A million miles away/I would keep myself/I would find a way” that features a powerful coda of a guitar and cymbal crash at the end of the song.
On an imported Japanese version of The Downward Spiral, there’s a bonus track on the album that originally appears in the soundtrack to The Crow which is a powerful cover of the Joy Division classic Dead Souls that featured a slower rhythm than the original track along with a melodic bass track and powerful guitar assaults and Reznor singing Ian Curtis’s tortured and demonic lyrics. Another track that was supposed to be on the imported version but never came to fruition was a cover of the Kiss song Love Gun that was supposed to appear in the Kiss My *ss tribute album for Kiss but Reznor never got it recorded due to Reznor’s busy schedule.
When The Downward Spiral was released in late March of 1994, it surprised many people when the album debuted at number two in the Billboard 200 album charts behind Soundgarden’s Superunknown album, which also debuted in the charts. Spurred by the powerful “Self-Destruct” tour of ’94-’96 including a infamous performance at Woodstock ’94 that had the band drenched in mud and destroying their instruments that made Reznor a superstar overnight. In late ’95, NIN received the biggest prize when they were asked to open for David Bowie and the two acts performed together throughout the tour. Today, The Downward Spiral has now sold a total of five million copies worldwide and it is widely considered one of the best albums in the 90s.
The Downward Spiral is brilliant achievement for Trent Reznor and company. Reznor proved that he could blend elements of pop, hard rock, minimalism, and art-rock into the world of industrial music. For fans, it’s an essential album by NIN and it’s a favorite for some fans. While it’s an album not for everyone, it’s a great non-compromise record that goes into the dark world of pain and alienation from a modern standpoint. The Downward Spiral achieved all of that and more that not only proved there was an audience for the disaffected but it was album that people could relate to. While it’s a great achievement for Reznor, he would later see that his best work is in the years to come.
Pretty Hate Machine/Broken Era (1989-1992): halo 1 - halo 2 - halo 3 - halo 4 - halo 5 - halo 6
The Downward Spiral Era (1994-1997): halo 7 - halo 8 DE - halo 9 - halo 10 - halo 11 - halo 12
The Fragile Era (1999-2002): halo 13 - halo 14 - halo 15.1 - halo 15.2 - halo 15.3 - halo 16 - halo 17 DE - halo 17 DVD
With Teeth/Year Zero Era: halo 18 - halo 19 - halo 20 - halo 21 - halo 22 - halo 23 - halo 24 - halo 25
Ghosts I-IV/The Slip Era (2008): halo 26 - halo 27
Soundtracks/Miscellaneous: (The Crow) - (Natural Born Killers) - (Lost Highway) - (Tomb Raider) - (The Limitless Potential) - (Strobe Light)
Promos: (seeds 1) - (seed 2) - (seed 3) - (seed 4) - (seed 5) - (seed 6)
Live Shows: (NIN/Bauhaus/TV on the Radio-6/7/06 Atlanta, GA Hi-Fi Buys Amphitheater) - (NIN/Deerhunter-8/13/08 Duluth, GA Gwinnett Arena) - (NIN/Jane's Addiction/Street Sweeper Social Club-5/10/09 Atlanta, GA Hi-Fi Buys Amphitheater)