If, as John Lydon once wailed, anger is an energy, Trent Reznor could power a pretty good-sized city all by himself. The Pennsylvania farmboy turned Cleveland industrial auteur virtually perfected the tantrum-rock genus, spewing lyrical vitriol at an astounding array of targets (not the least of which being himself) and obsessively sequestering himself away, Macintosh at the ready, to craft the caustic isolationist anthems that made him the anti-hero to a blanker-than-blank generation of young devotees. Despite revisionist attempts to make him seem like one, Reznor wasn’t exactly a novice when he recorded Pretty Hate Machine: he’d released singles with a number of Cleveland and Erie, Pennsylvania bands, including the synth-pop Exotic Birds (wherein Reznor’s intricate coif was but one of the Flock of Seagulls influences), the pomp-pop Innocence and dance act Slam Bam Boo (a gig that helped land him a brief role in the Joan Jett/Michael J. Fox film, Light of Day).
But, like Ministry’s Al Jourgensen — his most direct progenitor alongside Jim “Foetus” Thirlwell — Reznor had some demons that needed exorcising, and exorcise them he did on Pretty Hate Machine. The album initially seemed to be little more than an overly derivative compendium of industrial-pop clichés — albeit one with impeccable presentation — but proved to be a turning point in the genre’s development. In “Head Like a Hole” and other songs, Reznor synopsized all of its indigenous themes — authority is very bad, sado-masochistic sex is quite good — with uncommon vigor. With a nod to David Bowie (and another to confrontational performance troupe Survival Research Laboratories), Reznor subsequently synthesized a stage persona unrivaled in its turbulence (keyboard banks and hired musicians alike risked damage when the singer hit his, er, “stride” in performance).
Angered by what he saw as antagonistic management, Reznor spent the next three years on a very vocal strike against his record label — a label that declined to return his volleys, since Pretty Hate Machine spent most of that time on the pop charts. Eventually, a non-amicable divorce was hashed out, and Reznor was able to set up his nothing label and begin draining the reservoirs of psychic pus that had built up. The first lancing loosed Broken, a quickly recorded, unequivocally venomous collection of songs that portray the performer as more than just a dilettante. Yes, the martial “Last” resounds with all the banality of a Hellmark greeting card, but the EP’s more straightforward pieces (like the gradually intensifying hairshirt anthem “Wish”) betray more than a few tangible psychological afflictions at play. Unfortunately, more attention was paid to the Grand Guignol, pseudo-snuff videoclip that accompanied “Happiness in Slavery” (not to mention the hidden-track cover of Adam Ant’s “Physical”) than to Broken‘s more human virtues.
For Fixed, a limited-pressing companion piece, control freak Reznor ceded jurisdiction over his songs to a battery of industrial sound-sculptors. The head Nail does stick his hand in here and there (as on “Screaming Slave,” a gnarled reconfiguration of “Happiness in Slavery”), but the results are more intriguing when Reznor goes out for a smoke. The Coil remix of “Gave Up” refracts the song in funhouse mirror style with sparks of sound and snippets of voice growing less recognizable with every gyration. Thirlwell demolishes the superstructure of “Wish,” leaving only the kettle drums that pound out the tribal foundation. Interesting, but of limited use, unless you have access to the sort of dance club-scaled sound system required to exact full response from the disc.
According to Reznor, the often-delayed, twice-aborted The Downward Spiral came to fruition when he realized “I’ve done everything I’ve ever wanted to and I’m still pretty miserable.” Whiny? A bit. Self-important? Certainly. Fascinating? You bet! Even though he’s still taken enough with his own carefully cultivated image to make a point of noting that parts of the album were recorded in his home studio — in the same home (yawn) the Manson family murdered Sharon Tate — Reznor manages to impart enough real substance to accommodate non-adolescents this time around. The significant increase of diversity on The Downward Spiral arises from Reznor’s crafting some serious (read: hook-free) industrial music (such as the suicidally void title track) and a fair number of comparatively tranquil pieces. Like, say, Bowie’s Low, The Downward Spiral generates plenty of tension in its quieter moments. “A Warm Place” is actually quite touching in its surrogate-womb quest; the bleak “I Do Not Want This” worrisome in its self-loathing. Even though the album’s hues seldom moderate past deepest indigo, the few escape valves — like the INXS-esque sexfest “Closer” (which contains the memorable couplet “I want to fuck you like an animal/I want to feel you from the inside”) — make Reznor seem more corporeal, less like a character in his own Oz-like fantasy world. With the tinkering done by Rick Rubin, the Aphex Twin, Foetus, Coil and Reznor, the superfluous eleven-track Further Down the Spiral deconstructs a half-dozen songs from its companion album. Demand the originals.