I can just imagine the expression on the faces of record kooks upon hearing the rough mixes of "The Downward Spiral". The guys at Interscope must've been immensely concerned about the mental well-being of Trent Reznor and probably wondered if their industrial cash-cow was about to off himself. On the flip side, they were surely excited about the commercial potential of what they were hearing.
"The Downward Spiral" is, for me, the highest peak that Reznor could ever hope to scale. I see no way for the man to top that album, and I'm convinced that Nine Inch Nails will dwell in its shadow until Trent starts drawing the pension. It lived up to every promise and threat Trent had ever made. I'm not sure why he even bothers anymore.
Please understand, I'm paying Trent Reznor a huge compliment with the above words. I really feel that "The Downward Spiral" is such a great album, such an uncommon masterpiece, that topping it would just be impossible. Everything came together for him here- the anger, the sex appeal, the public hunger for furiously fuzzy industrial madness. He even managed to do something that few are able to accomplish: turn rage into something danceably sexy and not sound pretentious. Kudos, Trent.
When "The Downward Spiral" came out in 1994, the world was ready for Reznor's next. "Pretty Hate Machine" and "Broken" had created a fairly devout NIN congregation, grunge was starting to lose its appeal, and angry new bands like Tool and Rage Against The Machine were whetting the public's appetite for pizzed off heavy noise. The only real competitor Trent had in the pain-inducing industrial genre was Ministry, but Al was heading so far into smack and heavy metal that many of the fans he'd won in the late 80's/early 90's were starting to jump ship. Trent unleashed "Spiral" at precisely the right time.
Like "Pretty Hate Machine", "The Downward Spiral" was written and performed primarily by Trent, and largely assisted in the production area by that fella named Flood. It was recorded in at least three studios, but was mostly completed in Le Pig, Reznor's name for the Beverly Hills mansion where Sharon Tate was butchered by the Manson family. Seems like I once read that he used John Lennon's mellotron on a song or two, which brings the whole Charles Manson/Beatles connection full circle.
"mr. self destruct" is a solid introduction to what the album's all about. Beginning with what would seem to be either a car backfiring or a gun going off, the music comes in with all the pleasant subtlety of a tank column flattening your childhood home. King Crimson's Adrian Belew helps out on the guitar, but very little of this commotion resembles the six-stringed instrument you'd hear in a Johnny Cash tune. Fuzzy machine gun stuttering, lyrics that all seem to be some variation of "i am (insert something not nice)" or "i give (insert something unpleasant)", and Trent reminding us in a whispery way that we let him do this to us.
In contrast to the blitzkrieg we just went through, "piggy" has a topless bar sultriness (maybe I just think that because it was used in a "Millenium" episode in which a stripper gets murdered). Trent menaces us without even raising his voice, while the sparse background of bass, slow drums, finger snaps, demonic yawns of electronic monsters, and organ patches played on expensive synths swirls around behind him. The man doesn't care anymore and cannot be stopped after losing his sh*t to some pig.
I'd say that "heresy" is a throwback to the "Pretty Hate Machine" sound, with its Skinny Puppy-style pulsing synth line, smashing-an-iron-pole-through-the-base-of-your-skull drum beat, and Princely falsetto verses. Reznor breaks out the Nietzsche one moment as he informs us that "god is dead and no one cares/if there is a hell, i'll see you there", then turns around and paints the Lord out to be a barnyard bully who flexes muscles to scare the sheep and comes up with viruses to kill the swine. Make up your mind, dude- is God dead or is he alive and terrorizing farm animals?
The Manson-inspired pig theme comes back on "march of the pigs", which has one of the coolest, most memorable punk-outs on the drum kit. 'Tis a great industrial/metal synthesis, with an unexpectedly pretty piano break. Doesn't all that screaming, smashing, sucking away tender parts, and pulling back skin make you feel better?
Next up is "closer", the song (and video- you know, the one where he licks the boob-shaped mike) that singlehandedly made Trent some kind of post-modern sex guru. The robotic groove and soulful "help me"s are irresistible, as is the "wah-wah wah-wah, wah-wah-wah" synth line. Even though he's dealing with an absence of faith, a sense of isolation, broken apart insides, a lack of soul (not the James Brown kind), and a generally flawed existence, Trent still has time to f*ck you like an animal. After all, that gets him closer to God, and is a helluva lot more fun than blowing oneself up with a handful of infidels to achieve the same result.
A cookin' hip hop beat brings on the "ruiner", where we meet a character who deceives cattle, serves sh*t to flies, and covets what is Trent's. After wondering how ya got so big, hard, long, and strong (must've been that Swedish gadget they sell on the Internet), the song breaks down into a loud, distorted, and weird guitar solo that I initially didn't like. I'm all better now.
Adrian Belew lends some more guitar assistance on "the becoming", easily one of my favorite NIN tracks. The usual chaos is occurring in the sonic department, this time over a non-4/4 beat that one would be more likely to hear in prog rock than industrial. Trent is making the transition to some kind of unfeeling robot, and seems to be in a bad way physically and emotionally. He's broken, sore, covered with scabs, made up of wires, and probably harboring the human papillomavirus that causes genital warts (my doctor recently informed me that 50% of all adolescent girls that he sees are carriers). Reznor mentions the name of "annie", but I don't think he's talking about a little orphan.
Don't you tell Trent how he feels. He'll be the first to tell YOU that "i do not want this", which is what I start repeating whenever the people at Discover card call me with their latest offer. Jane's Addiction's Stephen Perkins kicks in the cool drum line, the piano part is eerie, and Trent, being a particularly ambitious fellow, wants to know everything, be everywhere, lay the pipe to everyone, AND do something that matters. Kind of like a cross between Ben Stein, Coca-Cola, Tommy Lee, and Mother Teresa.
The short bulldozer known as "big man with a gun" finds Trent threatening to "put a hole in your head" with his "big old d*ck". Ouch. The credits list the aforementioned Tommy Lee as playing the "steakhouse", but I don't know if that's some kind of inside joke. Maybe it was where Tommy was working about that time.
"a warm place" is a slow, pretty instrumental that is basically a near rip-off of David Bowie's "Crystal Japan". Trent took Bowie on tour with him in support of "The Downward Spiral", so they're presumably cool with each other. Plagiarism can bring people together.
Things go badly for a member of the 4-F Club on "eraser", where after finding, feeling, f*cking, and forgetting some girl, he turns around and gets erased by her. Like my daddy said- "son, chicks are psychos". All of this takes place over a tense, building yet toppling drum beat that is backed up by chilly synths, buzzes, possibly noises made with a straw, dissonance, screaming, and crunchy Ministry riffs.
The rhythm of "reptile" is similar to Pink Floyd's "Money", in that it is built upon the clicks and clanks of a machine. The song sounds less like music than an assembly plant in operation, and not a happy one at that. The reptile we're dealing with is actually a female who must be a lot of fun to party with. After all, she leaves a trail of honey behind her, spreads herself open for insects to enter, possesses the blood of a cold-blooded vertebrate, and has the "seeds from a thousand others" dripping down from within. I wouldn't date a gal like that unless I had a biologist along as a chaperone and a sixty inch thick condom in my wallet.
The only song on this entire album that I sort of dislike is the title track. Built around the melody found at the end of "closer" (I guess that would make it a motif of sorts), it's mostly suicide noise, a muffled mess, Trent talking and screaming, and problems being "fixed in one determined flash" (a fancy way of saying "blowing one's head off"). I don't know what "mushroom blue" looks like, since the ones I see are mostly some variation of brown and/or white. Trent and I are obviously digging around in different cow patties.
The album wraps up with Trent's noteworthy contribution to the world of ballads, the uncomfortably vulnerable "hurt". The creepy-sad guitar sleepwalks under Trent's attempts to bestow an "empire of dirt" upon us. His buddy Chris Vrenna played the super-simple drums, but went away in the end. Here we have references to needles that tear a hole and my favorite form of headgear, the stylish and snazzy "crown of sh*t". One size fits all and keeps the girls away.
"The Downward Spiral" was a crossover hit in every sense of the word. It drew a lot of people into the web of industrial by turning the genre into something more than a series of clicks and bleeps, yet managed to excel creatively as well. Reznor ran a lot of different influences through his industrial filter; one can hear prog rock in the weird time signatures, the obvious touches of metal and punk in the heavier material, and even slight traces of funk and blues from time to time.
This was NIN's golden moment, and it seemed as though the world was in the hands of Reznor. He toured incessantly, made quite the scene at Woodstock, turned proteges Marilyn Manson into a serious competitor for his own throne, and found himself in the heavy rotation clique on MTV. Then he did what many great Epinions writers do: went on a seemingly eternal hiatus and returned to find that not nearly as many people cared about him as before. We'll deal with the weak-kneed return to glory known as "The Fragile" at some later point, but for the time being, consider your rock music collection incomplete and gaping without this titanic effort from the industrial world's equivalent of the Lizard King. Or Reptile King, if you will.
Pretty Hate Machine http://www.epinions.com/content_184102325892