Deconstructing Trent Reznor's Legacy

I was listening to An omen_, the just-released EP from Trent Reznor’s How to destroy angels­_, and it made me feel a little warm inside. Odd, considering I was sitting in a frigid office building, listening to a song called “Ice Age.” Such is the power of nostalgia — Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails made a massive impact on me at an early age, and the music that defines you has the power to give you a snifter-full-of-brandy feeling. And then I wondered, where did that feeling come from: the music or the man? How to destroy angels­_ does not sound much like Nine Inch Nails. Then again, what does? (More on this later.) Still, underneath the vocals and instrumentation, there is a texture to Reznor’s work that is his signature, and like too much of that brandy, it is both deeply intoxicating and a bit dangerous.

Rewind 20 years: In 1992, Reznor was, in his own words, “26 years, on my way to hell,” and his then-newest music, the Broken EP, sounded like the mouth of damnation itself. Noisy and abrasive, full of glitch sounds (not a Reznor innovation, though Broken was probably the first commercially successful album to use them), the EP took a huge step away from the frigid synth-pop found on NIN’s 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine.

That 1992 EP is in almost every way the inverse of An omen__, from the fiery red cover art to the rapid rhythms and heavy metal guitars that compose the EP’s signature songs, “Wish” and “Gave Up.” By contrast, the aforementioned “Ice Age,” moves at a languid pace and serenades with acoustic instruments and folk twang. How the hell did we get here?

Obviously, Reznor has accomplished more in the last 20 years than most musicians would manage over the course of three or four lifetimes. He took Nine Inch Nails from a band that could not perform live to an arena draw, and in so doing put on some of the most elaborate stage shows in modern rock. Offstage, Reznor embraced file sharing and remix culture in unprecedented ways — Radiohead received the acclaim for releasing a major album for free, but Reznor did it with more conviction (In Rainbows had major-label backing as a pay-what-you-want release; The Slip was independent and exclusively free). Reznor’s soundtrack for The Social Network is the first primarily electronic score to win an Oscar. His improbable metamorphosis from strung-out dance-club gadfly wrapped in VHS tape to tuxedo-clad and happily married Academy Award-winning composer could be the subject of its own Oscar-bait biopic (directed by Reznor accomplice David Fincher, naturally).

Still, massive though Reznor’s circle of influence has become, it remains oddly invisible. Bands that draw openly from NIN are rare in 2012. According to cliché, everyone prefers an artist’s older work, but industrial — the genre that birthed Reznor and NIN in the late ’80s — shows him little deference today. In 2012 the industrial trend du jour is still EBM, and I don’t hear Reznor in Combichrist or any of their disciples. Did Reznor veer too far from his roots too early on? Twenty years ago, Reznor was remixing Megadeth and KMFDM, artists whose music was as abrasive as his own. At the same time, Reznor’s collaborators on Fixed, the remix album that couples with Broken, were by and large other electronic and industrial producers.

Nine Inch Nails followed with a remix companion for every studio album until 2008, and while those records are pretty spotty as listening experiences, they provide a good roadmap for Reznor’s interests and — perhaps more importantly — other people’s interest in his work. For example, Further Down The Spiral featured remixes and original compositions by Aphex Twin right before Twin ditched analog synths for laptops and Phillip Glass collaborations.

That little inch toward IDM, and by extension all non-industrial music, bloomed on the Every Day Is Exactly The Same remix EP, with remixes by El-P, and Carlos D. of Interpol. By that time NIN was already a legacy act. It’s unclear whether Reznor was listening to synth-pop or industrial at that time. His own remix output expanded to include hip-hop with N*E*R*D, and big arena rock with U2 and Peter Gabriel. Queens Of The Stone Age opened the With Teeth tour. Something in the time between 1992 and 2005 — sobriety, maybe — blew apart the possibilities for sound on Nine Inch Nails’ ambitious 2007 concept album, Year Zero. From that release onward, it is impossible to put any distinct limitation on Reznor’s signature sound.

Underneath its clunky concept, Year Zero predicts current trends in electronic music. Composed on a laptop during the With Teeth tour, it plays with a host of genres. Reznor segues into funk on “Capital G,” flirts with depressed soul on “Zero-Sum,” and drops one hell of a dubstep break at the climax of “The Great Destroyer.” The glitch sound that made its debut on Broken is integral to most of Year Zero’s percussion loops — by that time, though, Glitchcore had become its own defined genre. More than anything, Year Zero borders on hip-hop. Saul Williams contributed backup vocals and several remixes of “Survivalism”; Reznor himself rapped on “God Given.” Traces of Reznor’s hyper-distorted take on hip-hop show up in Lex Luger’s work (“Niggas In Paris” shares structural tropes with Year Zero’s bifurcated songs, hooky opening to ominous close) as well as the music of Death Grips.

What never changed, through, was Reznor’s knack for a hook, and his use of abrasive sounds in pleasing ways. From Broken’s guitars to Year Zero’s digital loops to the more subdued, organic sounds on An omen_, Reznor wrings big choruses and catchy beats from imperfect-by-design pieces. His re-imagined “Hall Of The Mountain King” from The Social Network soundtrack (that suite’s highlight) just applies the NIN formula to Edvard Grieg’s best Kiss riff.

But you can’t distill an artist like Reznor down to a formula. The man has paranoid obsessions, and his music explores those obsessions (and the act of obsessing). BDSM sex and drug abuse are lyrical motifs, but focusing on them too much ignores the ways in which Reznor explores his fears and his ambivalent relationship with technology. You could call the whole of his work a stab at making electronics sound organic, trying to find the ghost in the machine. Both of his concept albums, The Fragile and Year Zero, take place in William Gibson-inspired cybersecurity states. The Fragile in particular focuses on circuitry replacing human flesh, a grim mirror of Reznor’s compositions, using analog synthesizers to create futuristic samples.

Reznor’s other big contribution to pop culture in 2012 — his theme song for Call Of Duty: Black Ops II — also fixates on technology and security. This isn’t the first time he’s lent his skills to videogames; Reznor composed the soundtrack to classic shooter Quake in 1996. But where Quake’s future war was a grim fantasy, Black Ops II focuses on realistic future warfare technology — a future not dissimilar to the dystopias Reznor presents in his concept albums.

The real inheritors of Reznor’s legacy aren’t just the groups that follow his musical example, but those that echo his lyrical sentiment. The obvious choices, the Knife and its component parts, Oni Ayhun and Fever Ray, might agree with this sentiment — Olof Dreijer remixed “God Given” on Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D. The brooding, taboo sexuality and chain-of-communication lyrics in “Pass This On” are pure Reznor. Crystal Castles frequently out-noise Nine Inch Nails while screaming paranoid tirades like “Repeat every word that you say to me / They put you to use or put you to sleep” (from “Pap Smear”). Even NIN collaborator El-P brought out his tinfoil hat on 2012′s Cancer 4 Cure.

Trent Reznor may be resurrecting Nine Inch Nails in the near future — no hiatus is truly indefinite. What form the group takes next remains to be seen: Reznor’s current work focuses on mood and ambience, but his career has zigged and zagged, always playing against his last release. In addition, his current projects have all drawn from NIN as source material — tracks from The Social Network soundtrack appeared on NIN’s Ghosts, for example. (And how will it be distributed? The world has caught up to Reznor’s digital, label-free release strategy in the four years since The Slip.) An omen__ takes only the most subdued bits of Reznor’s repertoire: the acoustic instruments of The Fragile; the ambient brooding on the last half of The Slip. The Black Ops II theme brings more bombast, and a fraction of ominous mood from The Downward Spiral. Neither feels revolutionary compared to Reznor’s past work, but they do have a sophistication that his early music did not. I’ve been listening to Reznor since adolescence, and unlike almost every musician from that time, he’s produced work that has matured alongside me (and many other people). Broken is the sound of smoking in the bathroom stall; The Social Network is searching for a job armed with an undergraduate degree; An omen_ is the sound of a frigid office building. Whatever permutation of genre or instrumentation Reznor employs next, it will no doubt continue to reflect the many imaginations and lives for which Reznor has long been providing the soundtrack.

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Stream How to destroy angels_ An omen_.

Comments (36)
  1. As a huge fan of NIN and Reznor’s work, it has been hard for me to get into How to Destroy Angels’ stuff. The more upbeat tracks are great, but the slower songs, and particularly the instrumentals, feel off. I always have faith in Reznor, but I think he needs to experiment a little farther to make a good HtDA’s album.

    • I agree with Nicholas Nissen. Trent is a musical genius for his ability to blend genres and offer scores that break trends and in a lot of times, conventional wisdom. But I think with HtDA, he’s being safe. That’s not to say the work is bad, I just believe it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. What I mean is that power for recognition that NiN had, or that awe insuring tingle that a Reznor production garners. A lot of it is off kilter and far from the norm, but not enough of it memorable. maybe a venture into some more unfamiliar territory would do HtDA some good. Less we ask for too much and recieve a messy compiling of alt-rock tracks. But nevertheless, Trent is a genius, and HtDA still have some good stuff to live by.

      • I like all of the HTDAs stuff, but I can’t stop hearing Trent sing the songs in my head. I have nothing against his wife, but Reznor’s voice is a huge part of the affect his music has on people. IMO, HTDA would be better with Trent singing everything.

  2. A musical hero of mine. In time, I hope everyone else will consider him a godfather of music as I do.

  3. Interesting read, but I have to ask: When you reference NIN’s two concept albums, did you mean The Downward Spiral instead of The Fragile? The “circuitry replacing human flesh” line makes me think of “The Becoming” more than any Fragile track.

    More on topic: HTDA is decent studio work, but I really want to see how they perform live.

  4. Great article, well done sir.

  5. Let’s no forget Trent’s work on Saul William’s ‘The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!’. Amazing album that needs more attention.

  6. I’m a bit surprised at the lack of love for the HTDA material. I’m not arguing that it’s not as accessible as NIN, but I think there is plenty to immerse oneself in on both of their EPs. Can’t wait to hear the full length!

    Trent will get his due eventually, although that may not be in his lifetime. Let’s face it, there are still a lot of people who hear his music and think he’s just wanking on a computer somewhere talking about feeling bad. There are still Linkin Park fans out there, and while I mean no offense to them, I simply don’t understand how they could be considered better than NIN by any standards, let alone industrial, a term that still doesn’t seem right to label NIN. I guess it comes down to who you are and where you heard the music that shaped your life, much like Joseph said.

    I’ve been listening to NIN since Junior High School when I got a tape of Broken and played it till the emulsion wore off. Bought The Downward Spiral and connected to that with my family falling apart. The Fragile helped me get through being diagnosed as clinically depressed. I guess it’s like the guy who’d say how Dylan helped him get through being an outsider in school, albeit a hell of a lot louder and meaner. It’s nice to see Trent enjoying his success and branching off in different directions, and it’s not like you’ve got to hear everything he does to prove you’re a “true fan”. Still, I’ll always be watching out for whatever he does next, although I’m glad that never included the supposed Fight Club musical. Let’s just forget the words Fight Club, musical and NIN were ever spoken in the same sentence.

  7. I respect everyones’ opinions on HDTA, as I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I’m enjoying the new HDTA work, but also looking forward to perhaps hearing more NIN one of these days. I wanted to say as both a writer and a Reznor fan, that this is simply the best piece I’ve ever read on my favorite musician. As someone who has also been listening to his work since I was just a kid (one probably far too young – 8 at the time – to be listening to “The Downward Spiral”), I feel like his music has grown up with me as well. The idea of “trying to find the ghost in the machine” is probably the most accurate way I’ve heard the common theme of Reznor’s work explained. An exceptional article on an exceptional artist.

  8. First of all, nice write up. I’m far from a Renzor superfan but I would defend the guy to anyone, anytime. I think that everything he has done has some merit and he has produced at least two (I think three) musical masterpieces. He also has one of the most identifiable production sounds in modern music. The thing I’ve always thought about Renzor is that his lyrics range from good to borderline awful but he somehow is able to make them work an amazing percentage of the time. It’s a testament to just how rock solid his songwriting and production skills are.

  9. I’m ‘one of those’ NIN fans. The kind who had a big NIN sticker on every car he owned for about 15 years. The kind who has every release, in the correct Halo order, quite a few of them on CD and vinyl. I bought pretty much every release, starting with Broken, on the day of release. I have the Closure double VHS and have kept a VCR attached to my tv for JUST that release. I have the $300 Ghosts set and I don’t regret it. I’ve downloaded, burned and watched ALL of the fan made DVDs – those made with the officially filmed video and the crowd sourced stuff.

    So, clearly, I’m not going to have an objective opinion here. Which means there really isn’t a lot of reason for me to say anything else.

    Great piece, though. Always nice to see some Trent Reznor love. I particularly liked this sentence, “What never changed, through, was Reznor’s knack for a hook, and his use of abrasive sounds in pleasing ways.” That pretty much nails (heh) it.

    However, I’m pretty sure that there is nothing from the Social Network soundtrack that was previously on Ghosts (seeing as how I own them both and have played them bunches – I could be wrong about that, but I don’t think I am). And that sentence should say “previously appeared”. “Tracks from The Social Network soundtrack previously appeared on NIN’s Ghosts, for example.” Ghosts was 2008, The Social Network was 2010. Jus’ sayin’.

  10. One more thing; Atticus Ross has clearly had a HUGE influence on Trent musically and personally. He’s become a much more prolific and confident musician since they starting collaborating. I think it’s also safe to say that the inclusion of so many acoustic instruments beyond just guitar and piano was probably triggered by them working together.

  11. N***as in Paris wasn’t produced by Lex Luger…

  12. No trying to be a troll or something, but for me everything after The Fragile was more of the same more or less… With Teeth and Year zero was huge disappointments.. And ghosts and social network was nice background music. Way to much focus on production, and not enough on actual music. I can’t really see any creativity in this music anymore.

    • I have to agree with you – I’ve been a fan from the VERY beginning and have become less of a fan since The Fragile. HOWEVER…… I do have to say this: even Radiohead have not REALLY gone in a new direction since Kid A….. (translation: it’s impossible to keep on innovating if you want to keep on making great music)

      The thing is – the albums have not become more surprising… the music though has matured and become have a depth that the other albums did not have. And Each album has at least one song that blows the mind Sonically (With Teeth: Beside you in time, Year Zero: The Great Destroyer, The Slip: The Four of us are Dying)

  13. What a wonderful article. I agree with 100% of what you wrote.

  14. Great article. More people need to recognise Trent Reznor ‘s impact on alternative music in general. For me the fact that he is getting farther away from the signature noisy sound of NIN is absolutely natural. He is obviously not in the same place he was 15 years ago and he has said himself that he prefers to be true to who he is.

    • Regardless of what direction that he strays from the Broken and PHM days, I feel that he recognizes his potential. I think Trent realizes that he doesn’t have to be that guy playing Wish for the millionth time and that he can branch out sonically. What I think he does with his instrumentals are great. Still is one of my favorite NIN pieces. What he does beyond the abrasive noise is fantastic. I’m not discounting his more “aggressive” work; those pieces laid the foundation of what Trent has transformed himself to become. And that, folks, is pure genius.

  15. Not to crap on your great article, but I think Vangelis has Reznor beat on winning an Oscar with a primarily electronic score by 30 years.

    I was obsessed with NIN through the 90s, and that lead to a fascination with industrial as my favourite type of music. Unfortunately I feel that it’s mostly dead now … that bands like Combichrist, while profitable, are an artistically bankrupt dead end.

    Younger people just don’t seem to be getting into it. The fans are aging out, not having time for shows and the clubs now with kids and mortgage payments. The bands themselves are getting significantly older and either giving up or moving on.

    Some younger bands that I think are still pretty exciting though are Ashbury Heights, Din [a] Tod and Encephalon.

  16. This was a really interesting read. I have to point out though that Giorgio Moroder was the first person to win an Oscar for a fully synthesized score for Midnight Express. It’s nowhere near as interesting as the score for The Social Network though.

  17. Best way to make friends on this thread: start every dissension with “As a huge NIN fan”.

  18. Music trends are cyclical- just because nobody’s drawing from Trent’s work at the moment, doesn’t mean that future generations won’t mine NIN records for inspiration. Who knows, maybe once the whole dubstep scene peters out, a harder, more industrial influence will take hold.

  19. Great article on one my idols. Recently, my home music production studio and indie record label were devastated by the hurricane here in NYC. Makes you think about the future of your art, and also about the history of it. Trent Reznor still remains part of both – I reflect upon it in detail – the deconstruction of it all – and my own reconstruction – here: http://baldfreak.blogspot.com/2012/11/post-sandy-post-broken.html

  20. Good article man.

  21. As a member of a band that proudly draws influence from pretty much all eras of NIN, it’s been very interesting hearing people’s reactions when they notice that in our songs. On tour, we heard a fair amount of disgusted reactions from people when we mentioned it (or they noticed our NIN covers EP on the merch table). I grew up listening to them pretty obsessively and so did my friends, and the people I knew that weren’t particularly into them just ignored them. I never saw the outright distaste for them that I see now. But people that stuck with them over the years seem to feel pretty possessive of a band that sold out arenas and had platinum records. It’s an interesting phenomenon. I haven’t read an actual well thought-out piece on Reznor/NIN in years. Great article!

  22. It’s really awesome to read a positive article about Trent Reznor. I am a musician myself, (classically trained pianist & anlogue synth nut) and have been pretty much looked down at and somewhat made fun of for being a fan.

    My admiration for Trent goes beyond the fan status; I look at him as a teacher, a Master.

    I like to ask people this question “If Beethoven lived today, what kind of music do you think he would be making?” Then I go on to say, Trent Reznor is a modern day Beethoven, Bach, Schubert, Liszt, Bartok …

    cheers~ pulsewidthmod (maeghan)

    oh, i’m not much of a fan of Mozart since his music was written for the Aristocrats, but his Fantasy in D minot is quite amazing.

  23. I think the article leaves out the huge influence has had on sound tech and music people in the industry. How many times have you heard NIN music playing for an into/outro, or sports montage, or the million times a day I hear a piece of music on teevee in which I say to myself ‘is this person a huge NIN fan or what?’. Truly his influence is far reaching.

  24. This guy claims to be a lifelong NIN fan, but I really cannot get behind much of what he says in this article. He comes across sounding like a guy who’s pretending to know what he’s talking about.

    Dubstep breakdown in Great Destroyer? Yeah, no.

    Rapping on God Given? Yeah, no.

    Glitchcore? Who *is* this guy?

    Maybe I’m nitpicking, but all of that really stood out to me. I enjoyed the article, but those things were glaring, to me.

    Also, I’m reading people in the comments saying that NIN has gotten worse since the Fragile. I can’t get behind that, either. With Teeth is an absolutely fantastic album, and Year Zero is encoded with a very subtle brilliance deep in its DNA. I’ll agree that everything since Ghosts sounds heavily influenced by Atticus Ross, and I’ll like to see NIN move *away* from that sound into something new. Ghosts, The Social Network soundtrack, this new HDTA stuff … all of it good (though HTDA is sort of unremarkable. they need more portishead, less Ghosts) but none of it really blowing me out of the water.

    I’m excited for the future, and I support Trent in all his creative endeavors. I feel he’s going through a lot of changes right now, and I anticipate the forthcoming NIN album will be his most INTERESTING release to date. How many artists, after 20+ years, can you say that about??

  25. Oh, I should mention The Slip as well. That is definitely *NOT* a throwaway. Echoplex is vintage NIN, and “Discipline” just might be the best pop song in Trent’s catalogue. And Demon Seed is just … well, fun.

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