Tales From The Stage – Nine Inch Nails

Gonna turn back the clock to the year 2000 and talk about a much-anticipated show I took in. The gig was Nine Inch Nails with A Perfect Circle opening and it took place at the end of May in St. Louis. It was a gig with some marquee names and – well, something of a crowd, anyway.

No massive build-up for this one, it was pretty simple – NIN booked the gig, we got tickets and went. The show was at what was then called the Riverport Amphitheater outside St. Louis. If that name sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it was the scene of the infamous Guns N’ Roses riot in 1991. (As opposed to the 1992 riot in Montreal, which was indoors). We had pretty decent seats that were under the awning, which extended a bit past the stage. The bill was simple – APC first, then NIN. No other openers or anything that I recall, and online archives seem to back me up.

A Perfect Circle were just getting started in 2000. Their debut Mer De Noms had just released a few days prior to the show, while the lead single Judith was getting a lot of play on the airwaves. The band was formed by Tool mainman Maynard James Keenan and his friend, guitar tech wizard Billy Howerdel. The album and touring cycle would prove immensely successful for the group and defined the band on their own terms as opposed to being Maynard’s side project.

APC would air a 40 minute set out in their opening slot. Given the compact nature of their songs this gave them time to play all but one song from Mer De Noms. Maynard opted to sing the gig front and center as opposed to his usual antics he gets up to in Tool, though I don’t recall any stage banter from him. The band played well and ran through the album, though not in album order. Future singles The Hollow and 3 Libras saw time and they wrapped their set up with the hit Judith.

One of the few clips I could find as opposed to full shows. This show is from a date after the NIN tour but still in 2000.

During their set a bit of rain fell from the sky. Our seats were a bit under the amphitheater roof but still close enough to the edge to get wet. It wasn’t a downpour or anything and it only lasted a moment but I did take a mental note to get seats closer if I wanted to avoid being caught in anything. The weather wouldn’t be a factor at future gigs there (rain-wise, anyway).

After the stage changeover it was time for the main event. Nine Inch Nails were touring the US on their 1999 double album The Fragile. While the album was lengthy it had gone over pretty well with the fanbase so the tour served as a showcase of that album as opposed to being a hits set with just a few newer tunes sprinkled in. The 19-song set would feature 3 tracks from the debut Pretty Hate Machine, 3 from the seminal Broken EP, 4 from the magnum opus The Downward Spiral and the remaining 9 all from The Fragile.

Trent and company made their way through their romp without much fuss. Much like Maynard and APC, there was not a ton of inbetween-song banter to be had from Trent Reznor. He did comment “fuck you pigs” at one point, without elaborating on who exactly he was referencing. He might have belched out another thing or two but it was pretty much get one song done and get on with another. Of course, one doesn’t go to a show that Trent Reznor and Maynard James Keenan are fronting for stage banter. Sammy Hagar was around a few months later, if memory serves.

One of The Fragile’s best songs with bad video but great audio from the same tour

I will say one thing – the crowd was very much not about energy that night. I mean, I suppose we can consider Nine Inch Nails a more ponderous experience than a straight up rock n’ roll band, but there just wasn’t a lot of life in the crowd. I thought it was a bit lame but honestly it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the set. It would mark the start of generally lame Missouri concert crowds I would notice in the future, though (with some exceptions).

There was a bit of energy in the crowd at one point – in the aisle not far from our seats, a few people got into a fight at one point. I have no clue what they were into fisticuffs about since I was, like, listening to Nine Inch Nails, but they had it out over something. The fight didn’t last long – security came out and absolutely messed these two up. One of the combatants got thrown straight into the concrete. Remember, this is the very place that Axl Rose tore to the ground nine years earlier and the birth of pre-9/11 big concert security. The fight got broken up in far more brutal fashion than the fight itself went.

Undaunted by action they probably didn’t see, Nine Inch Nails pressed on with their visit through The Fragile and other works. They played a handful of other hits, stuff like Sin, Wish, Gave Up and Terrible Lie were all welcome inclusions. They wrapped up the set proper with obvious hits Closer and Head Like A Hole, before coming back for an encore that featured a few Fragile tunes as well as the finale Hurt. We were still a few years away from Johnny Cash working his magic with that song.

I was a bit stumped that they did not include The Fragile single We’re In This Together Now, but it was not to be found that night. And while it wasn’t a breaker for me, I would’ve loved to hear Last and Burn, though I think the former wasn’t played much live until several years on from this show.

Overall the concert was a good experience. It does mark my first and, to date, only time seeing either band. I would like to see them again, especially Nine Inch Nails, but we will see what time and circumstances have on hand. Both bands did great in the house that Axl Rose tried to unbuild.

One other note – at one time I had the Nine Inch Nails performance on burned CDs. This was back in the wilderness days of eBay and they let people get away with selling bootlegs. I didn’t pay much for it, less than $10. It was a cool memento to have but sadly I lost the discs before the age of digital ripping really caught on and I don’t have access to the set anymore.

Sin, from an earlier stop on the same tour

Album Of The Week – January 3, Zero

America is reborn in 2022. A series of attacks and disasters have led to a global rebranding. Previous civil liberties have been suspended in the interest of survival. The Bureau of Morality ensures citizens are in lockstep with the current message and agenda. The government is now a Christian theocracy in partnership with the First Evangelical Church of Plano. Water supplies have been treated with a drug to ensure immunity to biological agents as well as complicity with the new order.

Welcome to Year Zero.

Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero

Released April 17, 2007 via Interscope Records

My Favorite Tracks – My Violent Heart, Capital G, The Beginning Of The End

The introduction is a dystopian fantasy, of course. This work of fiction, composed in 2006 and released in early 2007, is simply the figment of Trent Reznor’s imagination. Thankfully the world we enter in 2022, the fabled “year zero” of this album, looks nothing like the hellscape depicted on the record. (…)

Year Zero was released into the world in spurts with a viral campaign to distribute digital music files on USB drives in random locations. While fans ate up the media, the Recording Industry Association of America did not and began issuing cease and desist orders to people who were uploading the songs. They did this even while noting that the record label Interscope was on board with Reznor’s ideas and fully promoted the effort.

The album promotion did not stop with this viral distribution. An entire subsection of the Nine Inch Nails website was dedicated to lore about the story behind the new album, and a phone number on an album insert featured a faux message from the Bureau of Morality. A web-based “detective” game would also see release over a few months that provided a great deal of storyline for the events of 2022/Year Zero.

The lore and message of Year Zero can be (and has been) studied extensively. At the end of the day though, this is a recorded album of music and is also deserving of evaluation on those merits.

The album remains in the general realm of industrial rock that Nine Inch Nails had made a pioneering career of. This record would depart from its more accessible predecessor With Teeth by incorporating more electronic and what has been termed “digital hardcore” elements. Even for an unconventional act like Nine Inch Nails, the songs stand apart from others in the catalog.

Though the record features 16 tracks, the runtime is kept just over an hour and only one song breaks the 5-minute mark. The songs are lean and get to the point, even when invoking atmosphere and instrumental exposition rather than communicating a direct lyrical message. It’s a strange balance of concise music and extended passages that somehow work to elevate the work well above standard fare.

While some songs provide atmosphere, others stand out as highlight tracks. The Beginning Of The End, Survivalism, and Capital G all invoke their own individual meanings outside the context of Year Zero’s themes. The latter two especially stand out as real-world influences on this dystopian nightmare. It isn’t hard to make the links between 2007 political discourse and these tracks, and especially today both are ever-present themes in how things have wound up.

As a musical document, Year Zero is a standout effort from Nine Inch Nails. Electronic soundscapes give shape to these disturbing themes of fascist government control and the resistance fighting it. The album requires a degree of attention above and beyond casual music enjoyment, but this has long been the case with Nine Inch Nails. It is, in my canon, one of the band’s best records.

It is a bit challenging to access the themes and lore provided in supplemental material through these songs but the overarching story is still present. Songs like Survivalism and Capital G highlight the base greed and selfishness that brought about this grotesque future, while The Good Soldier and My Violent Heart question the status quo and establish a resistance. Something cataclysmic happens toward the end in the album’s final tracks In This Twilight and Zero-Sum. Whatever happened to this timeline, it was not a happy ending.

While this record is turning 15 this year, there is still a trove of information about the story behind Year Zero. The nin.wiki compiles a great deal of info taken from pre-release materials as well as the web game. Though incomplete, it appears that America and the world resets on 2022 to start a new age. Year Zero does not last very long as a mysterious Presence, thought to have been a drug-induced hallucination, appears over Washington DC and heralds the apparent end of the world. The album and supplemental products tell a tale of the heavy-handed government and the various resistance factions that pop up. One group attempts to send data back in time to warn people in 2007 of the coming problems. This message is symbolized by the instrumental Another Version Of The Truth.

Of course reality is not in line with the nightmare portrayed on Year Zero. But how far away really is it? We have not adopted a theocratic government in America, though many are still trying to make that happen. It might be year zero here, but there certainly is a downward spiral that doesn’t seem to be reversing itself.

I don’t have real answers to those kind of questions. I have little to no role to play in whatever might be unfolding, here in the US and in the world at large. While I don’t really expect a pair of ghostly hands to appear over the White House and end the world next month, I can’t act like I don’t see frightening real-world prospects that parallel the themes of Year Zero. The course of the world isn’t looking great, with pandemics, disasters and bitter arguments over how to handle it instead of any real action.

Year Zero the album is a landmark release from Nine Inch Nails. Its inventive viral distribution techniques captured the attention of many and the music behind the campaign went on to be considered among the group’s best by many. Year Zero the concept, however, is a much different issue that seems to be scarily playing out in front of us in some form or another.