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.


Stream How to destroy angels_ An omen_.