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Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral CD (album) cover

THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL

Nine Inch Nails

 

Crossover Prog

3.73 | 98 ratings

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Chicapah
Prog Reviewer
4 stars "The Downward Spiral" is a concept album that, via confrontational music and lyrics, documents a man's self-induced annihilation. Its brutal and often vulgar portrayal of the protagonist's tragedy may be impossible for some to endorse and the idea of finding anything enjoyable in it might suggest to those harboring that opinion that the willing listener suffers from a deficiency in the morals department. I can understand that mindset but I certainly don't agree with it. "Whoa, old geezer," you may be saying, "if you're the 'Christian' you claim to be isn't it sinful and downright blasphemous for you to admire a project that is so rife with obscene, abhorrent and loathsome language?" To that I respond that a love for God and for worldly art is not incompatible. Picasso's "Guernica" is a striking expression of the horrors and atrocities of war but it still enthralls me. Beethoven was a frustrated grouse who often shook his fist at the creator for allowing him to go deaf but his symphonies never fail to astonish my senses. Hardy's novel "Jude the Obscure" reveals the very worst in human nature yet its literary grandeur floors me. My point is that, regardless of the mental state of the artiste or the subject matter they opt to exploit, my decision to indulge or not to indulge in their offering is always based on whether or not I feel they're being honest with me. I have no tolerance for those whose only aim is to offend. In the case of "The Downward Spiral" there was no avoiding the incorporation of vile and sordid words if a realistic, unflinching look into the deteriorating world of a desperate, suicidal nihilist was to be achieved so that aspect of this endeavor was never an issue for me. If it's good, it's good. Period.

Released right smack dab in the middle of the 90s, Trent Reznor's uncompromising, raw approach was perfect for the disillusioned Generation X'ers that bought over 5 million copies of this CD. He was pissed off and so were they. It also appealed to aging proggers like me because it pushed the envelope of the accepted norm. I simply had never heard anything like it and it kicked serious tail, to boot. In essence, a lot of us were wondering what became of the utopian society that was supposed to blossom into being before the glorious new millennium arrived and Nine Inch Nails captured that frustrated despondency even better than the snarling grunge movement did. Though not to this extreme, each of us had brief moments when we felt as disgusted with the planet's population as the album's poor sap drowning in his percolating angst did and sometimes misery just adores company.

The aptly titled "Mr. Self Destruct" opens with what sounds like a person being physically sick while using their head to bludgeon a hole in some cheap drywall with ever-increasing gusto. It's unnerving, to say the least. The song's percussive impetus is akin to a pinball being tossed into an empty washer on spin cycle and the result is taut tension on the order of a heart attack. What I can only describe as melodic white noise surrounds Reznor's frantic vocal as he screams "I am the bullet in the gun/I am the truth from which you run/I am the silencing machine/I am the end of all your dreams" (every line is completed with a whispered "and I control you"). The sudden breakdown midway through is like flying into the calm eye of a hurricane before they re-enter the storm and peak in a gaseous billow of neurons gone haywire. Not for the faint of heart and, if this freaks you out, exit now. "Piggy" has a foreboding, sparse bass/drum backdrop in the early going, then a thin organ summons ominous clouds of dark matter as our boy (let's just call him Bo going forward), devastated by his lover's abandonment, sings of lost hope. "Hey, pig, there's a lot of things I hoped you could help me understand/what am I supposed to do?/I lost my s**t because of you/nothing can stop me now/I don't care anymore," he intones. The tune ends in a cacophony of haphazard drumming as if individual bricks in his mind's wall were breaking loose.

Not satisfied to limit blame to his failed relationship, Bo takes on his pastor and religion in general. "Heresy" features deep synthesizer notes and a heavy, lead-footed drum pattern that wouldn't be out of place in Goliath & Samson's Disco. Trent's mix of mad ranting and airy falsetto is an inspired juxtaposition on the verses but his in-your-face spewing of "Your God is dead/and no one cares/if there is a hell/I'll see you there" pulls no punches. The number's weird bridge section is like a glimpse into an abyss where demons run amok. The urgent "March of the Pigs" is next and it's an intense, frenzied polka-on-speed-in-7/8- time jitterbug comparable to unrelenting tidal waves washing ashore. This time it's crass consumerism Bo targets with "step right up march push/crawl right up on your knees/please greed feed." The simple piano breaks Reznor injects are temporary respites from insanity. What follows is the guess-the-missing-word FM radio hit that is "Closer" in which we learn that anti-hero Bo has foregone romance altogether, finding immediate enlightenment and a reprieve from his troubles by immersing himself in the lust of the flesh. In graphic terms Bo informs his concubine-for-hire that his desire is to copulate with her like a Rhesus monkey. (Which is humorous because, as anyone who has taken a gander at the Animal Planet channel knows, the sex act in all but the realm of homo sapiens is pretty much a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am happening and not particularly gratifying for either party.) But all that aside, this iconic song is an infectious collage of industrial synth samples and exasperated vocalizations that works on many levels and the patient piece by piece buildup to the finale is pure genius. Trent's frequency manipulations are nothing short of cubist paintings with sounds used instead of colors and the haunting theme performed on what brings to mind a broken toy piano during the coda is unforgettable.

"Ruiner" sports a looped rock beat pounding in front of a noisy verse that leads to a deliciously pompous ascending chorus. It's a very disorienting yet engaging tune where we discover that Bo has grown paranoid and is striking out at an unspecified adversary. "You had all of them on your side, didn't you?/the ruiner's got a lot to prove/he's got nothing to lose/and now he made you believe/the ruiner's your only friend/well, he's the living end/to the cattle he deceives" he spits. Reznor weaves in another eerie breakdown where a highly distorted guitar wanders about like a bewildered phantom. On "The Becoming" the album falters a bit. The repeating pattern in 13/4 time is overly busy and borders on annoying. Bo is slipping farther into psychosis and loss of identity, evidenced by his acknowledgement that "the me that you know doesn't come around much/that part of me isn't here anymore." The track's arrangement allows it to flow into some less- distracting acoustic guitar strumming and that helps to save it from dulling monotony. "I Do Not Want This" is next and its discordant piano slithering underneath synthetic drums makes for a macabre aura on the verse. Here it would seem that even professional therapy isn't getting through as Bo sings "you extend your hand to those who suffer/to those who know what it really feels like/to those who've had a taste/like that means something" as evidenced by his startling, irate outburst of "Don't you tell me how I feel!" on the chorus. During the extended instrumental section Trent gets a little too gimmicky with studio trick overkill. However, one can't ignore Bo's emotional, impassioned cry of "I want to know everything/I want to be everywhere/I want to f**k everyone in the world/I want to do something that matters!" that speaks directly to our egos without discretion. Powerful.

"Big Man with a Gun" is exactly what you think it's about (the makers of Viagra should jump on this pronto to use in their ad campaign) and its non-stop pulsating beat fires this short piece of guttural malice to a white-hot glow before you know what hit you. "A Warm Place" is a mystery-shrouded instrumental that delivers a much-needed break from the usual NIN churning bulldozer approach and is almost peaceful. "Eraser" starts with rat scratches in the night accompanied by mindless human hums. TR then spices it up with the world's fattest drum kit laying down a massive 6/4 superhighway, blends in a snaky synth line and tosses in random guitar snippets and voila! He has himself a trippy deal going down. The vocal enters at the 3:30 mark with some bare, esoteric lyrics and quickly the thing turns into a subliminal torture chamber. Bo has crossed a dangerous line, giving himself over to the deadly escapism of opiates. "Reptile" has the echoes of a train rumbling along tracks in the distance, then evolves into a dense dirge with a throbbing undertow roiling beneath the vocal. The more "normal" chorus of "Oh, my beautiful liar/oh, my precious whore/my disease, my infection/I am so impure" is welcome here but the verses' inventive guitar effects are anything but ordinary. The cut's gargantuan climax is exhilarating.

"The Downward Spiral" is akin to a murky pool of indecision joined by a ghostly reprise of the theme from "Closer" in the first half, then it morphs into a slippery muted swirl as if we suddenly jammed cotton balls into our ears. The disturbing words explain the muffling explicitly. "He couldn't believe how easy it was/he put the gun into his face/BANG!/(so much blood for such a tiny little hole)," we're told quietly. Problem is, the wound wasn't fatal and now Bo's just maimed. It ends with the poignant, heartbreaking "Hurt" that says it all. It's intentionally distorted like we've got a bad connection but Reznor's subdued voice is clear as a bell as he moans "What have I become?/my sweetest friend/everyone I know/goes away in the end" and "you could have it all/my empire of dirt." The droning music gives the impression that something essential inside Bo is damaged beyond repair and the ambiguous finale is as if someone forgot to turn the universe off when they left. The effect is devastating.

While not as emotionally disemboweling, I found Porcupine Tree's masterpiece "Fear of a Blank Planet" to be just as bleak and, in its own way, the Who's "Quadrophenia" in '73 presented an equally dismal outlook on life and I treasure them both (and that's just in Progville). What, you might inquire, does a follower of JC find interesting about depression and self-doubt? I won't get preachy (I hear your applause), but they all showcase existences lived separated from God and therein lies the lesson. Let those who have ears... well, you know. Anyway, what Trent Reznor did here is pretty dang amazing and it's no wonder that he fell into his own downward spiral in the years that followed this release. The darkness he conjured moved in with him for a while but it doesn't take away from the fact that he made something unique with this album. Is it prog? In my book it is. Music doesn't have to be upward-looking to be progressive. 4.4 stars.

Chicapah | 4/5 |

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