Friday, May 28, 2010

The Downward Spiral

The decidedly antagonistic subjects of chronic anger, emotional despair and self-hatred seem to be Nine Inch Nails' stock in trade, and nowhere is this aesthetic more purely embodied than in the industrial-rockers' 1994 opus, 'The Downward Spiral'. Rapidly attaining multi-platinum status when it was first released back in 1994, 'The Downward Spiral' remains Nine Inch Nails' greatest commercial achievement and most admired album. Filled with lyrics that contain raging wrath, simmering misery and disheartening apathy, it also spoke volumes to a disenfranchised and angsty Generation X that were still getting their heads over the fact that one of their revered heroes (Nirvana's Kurt Cobain) had just taken his own life.

Musically, 'The Downward Spiral' was an artistic step forward for Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor, with its innovative arrangements, sonic trickery, tighter songwriting and intelligent textures. Previously turbulent and seemingly unbridled swathes of noise have now been corralled into more measured vectors of produced sound that provide logical backdrops for Reznor's more securely structured songs. Reznor also made the sensible choice to incorporate more accessible hooks into the music on 'The Downward Spiral', or at least as accessible as industrial rock can get, given its innate cacophonous nature.

'Mr. Self Destruct' is an apt title for the opening song, a harsh blast of industrial rock that flails along on a layer of grinding, distorted guitars. The following 'Piggy' is slower in tempo, with an almost jazzy backbeat and whispered, fidgety vocals, and 'Heresy' almost sounds like a less accessible Depeche Mode, with its bedrock of burbling synths and precise drum programs.

The highlight of 'The Downward Spiral' is undoubtedly the six-minute 'Closer', which became Nine Inch Nails' most notorious (and well-known) number, by virtue of its provocative, expletive-laden lyrics and a highly disturbing promotional video that featured images of bestiality and religious desecration. The oddly titled 'March of the Pigs' is another favourite from the album, with its multi-segmented configuration of abrasive programmed beats and placid piano chords.

Elsewhere, 'The Becoming' is a disconsolate slow-motion crawl in the dark, with echoing percussion rhythms and disturbing animal-scream samples. 'I Do Not Want This' juxtaposes rapid-fire machine-gun cadences and down-tempo piano arpeggios, while the ominously titled 'Big Man With a Gun' features Reznor dementedly, and repeatedly, screaming "I'm going to come all over you, me and my fucking gun". Enough said about that one. 'A Warm Place' provides a much-needed breather, with its cloud of Brian Eno-inspired ambient keyboards, before 'Eraser' picks up the pace again with its shrill, metallic pulses.

'Reptile' is a measured slice of straightforward industrial rock that bristles with strident arena-rock guitars lifted straight from the Red Hot Chili Peppers' playbook, while the title track is the sonic equivalent of a nightmarish trudge through a godforsaken dungeon, with its banks of skittering synth lines and backwards vocal samples. And last but not least, the monumental 'Hurt' (latterly covered in a stellar version by the late, great Johnny Cash) finally gets its proper place, a fury-wracked piece of self-loathing that could well be one of two bona fide anthems of Generation X (the other one being Nirvana's epochal 'Smells Like Teen Spirit').

The remarkable thing about 'The Downward Spiral' is that it still sounds as innovative, emotional and brutal as ever, even more than a decade after its initial release. While Reznor has never produced a masterwork like this again (subsequent efforts were met with popular indifference, and sometimes even outright hostility, in the case of 1999's self-important 'The Fragile'), he can certainly take solace in the fact that 'The Downward Spiral' has long been regarded as one of the most significant rock records of the 1990s, never mind its inherent animosity. A bona fide nihilistic classic.


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