Nine Inch Nails/Deerhunter Tuesday, September 2, 2008 Red Rocks Amphitheatre Better Than: The last time I saw NIN, when I was in the nosebleeds at the Pepsi Center and could barely hear.
I arrived at Red Rocks last night under threatening skies (would any other sort be appropriate for a Nine Inch Nails show?) just in time to hear Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox greet the crowd, saying, “It’s great to be playing in this…canyon,” obviously unsure of what else to call it. The band began with an extended version of “Calvary Scars,” from its excellent new album, Microcastle, and from there proceeded to play a short but rewarding set drawing from that album, the Flourescent Grey EP and the second half of the outfit’s breakthrough, Cryptograms. The band seemed a bit stiff and unsure of itself for the first few songs, but once the members hit “Hazel St.,” they loosened up, dug into their effects pedals, and started to really fill up the venue.
As excited I was to see Deerhunter, and as happy as I was for the band for getting such an opportunity, I did wonder beforehand how well the act would work as an opening band for Nine Inch Nails. But as I listened to Cox sing about rotting corpses, crucifixion, and the decaying bodies of lovers — all in that beguilingly delicate voice of his — I thought, well, maybe these guys are not so inappropriate after all, though Cox is, ahem, a bit more eloquent than Mr. Reznor. Deerhunter closed with “Strange Lights,” from Cryptograms, which it turned into a righteous squall of white noise at the end, which seemed to get the attention of any remaining dismissive NIN fans. My ears were already ringing, and the headliners hadn’t even shown up yet. Sweet.
This concert, to be honest, was a bit of a nostalgia trip for me. When I was in high school, I fancied myself the biggest Nine Inch Nails fan in the world. When I first heard The Fragile, I was completely blown away. To my fifteen-year-old ears, it was a revelation, an entire world to get lost in and overwhelmed by. When I saw NIN eight years ago, it was an event, though one I remember mostly vicariously through the And All That Could Have Been live album since my seats were so bad. But the five and a half years between The Fragile and With Teeth were enough for me to come to see the former as less a masterpiece than a self-indulgent mess, and by the time the latter finally came out to middling notices, I had pretty much moved on. Since then, I haven’t paid much attention to Nine Inch Nails, but I did recently hear The Slip, the act’s most recent album, a surprisingly good back-to-basics toss-off that Trent Reznor is giving away on the NIN website. So I came into this show as a lapsed fan hoping to be won back, and Reznor and company happily obliged, kicking my ass all the way out to the furthest of Red Rocks’ many parking lots.
The band took the stage as Slip opener “999,999” played on the PA, and ripped right into “1,000,000,” following it with “Letting You” and “Discipline,” all three featuring the fat beats and good hooks that Reznor made his name with. Then drummer Josh Freese tore into the furious 7/8 of “March of the Pigs,” and I was completely hooked, banging my head with a complete lack of critical detachment and reveling in Reznor’s surprising amount of energy (dude turned 44 this year). With his hair now cropped rather close and his neck about the size of my upper thigh, he looks rather imposing these days, and he was like a motivational speaker on speed, not quite humping the microphone but definitely directing all his sexualized rage at it.
The stage setup in this first part of the show was fairly spartan; minimal instrumentation, lights that were cool enough but nothing special. But after a fist-pumping as ever rendition of “Gave Up,” a giant screen descended on the front of the stage while the lights went out and “Corona Radiata” played on the PA. When the lights came back up, the band had rearranged itself in front of the screen into a row with keyboards a la Kraftwerk. The group then played a few songs from Year Zero, which, based on what little I’ve heard, seems to be some of Reznor’s strongest material since The Downward Spiral; the beats were dense and electro-ish, and the hooks were more sophisticated than those from The Slip or With Teeth.
Just then, the lights went out again, and when they came back up, the group had rearranged itself yet again, into something resembling…a chamber ensemble? A jazz combo? Reznor had parked himself behind a keyboard and a marimba(!), bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen had picked up an acoustic upright(!!) and guitarist Robin Finck was brandishing a huge wooden flute(!!!). Here they played what I can only guess were a couple of songs from recent 4xCD(!!!!) instrumental album Ghosts I-IV, and this, predictably, was the weakest part of the show.
Reznor’s biggest weakness, aside from his terrible lyrics, has always been his self-indulgent Brian Eno-wannabe side; as good of a songwriter as he can be, he’s a pretty simplistic composer, and while one or two of his best instrumental pieces — like, say, “A Warm Place” from The Downward Spiral — can work well on his albums, he misses far more than he hits with his instrumental work.
So that combined with the equally simplistic visuals on the giant screen behind them (rain turning into sunny sky that then literally shattered) had me biting my lip a little bit. When Finck started playing a ukulele, I started really worrying, but it turned out to be an intro to “Piggy,” and all of a sudden the whole setup seemed absolutely, absurdly perfect, especially when Finck put down the ukulele and drenched the outro in queasy white noise. “Piggy” turned out to be one of the highlights of a show absolutely brimming with them.
After that, the band returned to its original setup, though the giant screen remained, on and off — during “Only,” Reznor appeared to emerge from and disappear back into visual static projected onto it; at another point, a crew member waved a flashlight at it and appeared to “erase” it — and focused on its more muscular material, old and new, including “Wish,” “Terrible Lie,” and in the evening’s unintentionally funniest moment, “Survivalism.” (OK, so we all know that Trent Reznor isn’t particularly good with subtlety, but projecting an image of a cross that turns into a gun? Yikes). The band closed its main set with “Head Like A Hole,” then came back with The Downward Spiral’s “Reptile,” which was a bit of a surprise, followed by Year Zero’s “The Great Destroyer.”
When, inevitably, it came time for “Hurt,” I even found myself singing along with everybody else; as sublimely stupid as lines like “I wear this crown of shit/Upon my liar’s chair” are, I couldn’t help myself. As that final menacing chord petered out, I figured Reznor and company would leave the stage, but instead, they decided to end with “In This Twilight,” from Year Zero. This initially seemed jarring, but in light of Reznor’s attempts to pry his eyes from his navel, as he does on Year Zero, it sort of made sense.
This or that oddity aside, this was simply a stunning show, both musically and visually; the visuals were definitely the most creative I’ve ever seen, and Reznor’s band is immensely powerful. By the time I walked out, I felt like I was fifteen again, and I remembered why I used to draw that iconic logo on every surface possible. Now if only Reznor could get somebody else to write his lyrics for him.
-- Kyle Smith
Personal Bias: Well, on the one hand, I was almost more excited to see Deerhunter than I was NIN. On the other hand, I owe my interest in electronic music to Trent Reznor, and despite his occasionally glaring faults and declining significance, I still think he’s a fantastic producer and under-recognized as an ambassador between the worlds of rock and electronic music. Not to mention, he’s a pretty decent songwriter. Think about it: Did anything else on the radio in the ’90s sound anywhere near as interesting as, say, “Closer”? Random Note: The band dropped the synth refrain from “The Only Time” — one of the best melodies on Pretty Hate Machine—into the middle of “Closer.” Awesome. By The Way: I felt sorry for the infant two rows down from me, crying while its mother danced obliviously to the noisy end of Deerhunter’s set. It did have giant earmuffs on, but still, they were only seventeen rows up. God knows what Nine Inch Nails sounded like to the poor kid. Seriously, people, why bring infants to shows?