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Nine Inch Nails - Pretty Hate Machine CD (album) cover


Nine Inch Nails


Crossover Prog

3.44 | 105 ratings

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4 stars While it doesn't keep me awake at night (few things can) I do wonder why many reviewers have issues with Nine Inch Nails being tagged progressive. One of the definitions of the word is "continuing by successive steps" and Trent Reznor's musical concoctions fit comfortably into that description. Face it, all musicians/songwriters stand on someone's shoulders and when King Solomon wrote that there's nothing new under the sun he wasn't just whistlin' Dixie. It's the very nature of civilized man to often recognize not the inventor but the charismatic pioneer who best took the idea and made it practical and/or accessible to the masses. In other words, don't slight Reznor for taking what other artists were dabbling in and framing it in a format that John Q. Public considered "cool." Those that dwell in the rock & roll penthouses didn't come up with the genre; they just made it irresistible to the average guy and gal. Basically put, Trent saw the potential in industrial rock and seized the moment to mold it into something that appeared to be new. That's progressive creativity at its core.

I have a lot of admiration for folks who disregard long odds and figure out a way to do what they feel they were meant to do by any means necessary. In the 70s one of my closest friends longed to be a studio engineer but had no degree other than the one he'd earned from the school of hard knocks by spending years as a sound tech for club bands. He took a job mopping floors at a Dallas recording facility, absorbed everything he could from the pros that came through the door and eventually got into the control room. He's now one of the top engineers in the southwest. Reznor took a similar route. He, too, took a menial position as a studio's janitor and bartered for free time in the wee hours of the morning when the place was deserted to hone his craft. The result was a demo called "Purest Feeling" and it got him a record deal with an independent label. The lesson is that all things are possible if you're willing to stoop to do whatever it takes. Giving his one-man outfit the catchy title of Nine Inch Nails, Trent reworked his rough tracks and added a few more to produce his debut, "Pretty Hate Machine," releasing it on October 20, 1989 as the strange 80s came to a close.

"Head Like a Hole" is the opener and it's the song that initially drew me into Reznor's universe. I've always been keen on discovering fresh music and this ferocious number was exciting stuff, indeed. The tune's crawling synth riff is so menacing it put me in a deer-in-the-headlights trance and the uncompromised honesty in Trent's voice made it realistic and impossible to turn away from. Being a born-again Christian you'd think that his uncensored, vitriolic lyrics would be off-putting to me but I'm not at all intimidated by the rantings of a tortured soul because I used to be one. I can relate to his skewered outlook and even agree with him more often than you'd predict. Here he warns those who consider wealth to be their entitlement that "God money don't want everything, he wants it all." Amen. "Terrible Lie" is more dramatic and features needle-sharp accents that pinch and tear. Reznor's approach is subtler here but his voice retains all the inflamed bitterness that's essential to getting his message across. He addresses God directly with "There's nothing left for me to hide/I lost my ignorance, security and pride/I'm all alone in a world you must despise" and that's not far off the mark. A busy drum track boils underneath "Down In It," supporting his spoken-word verses that drip with edgy sarcasm. "Everything I never liked about you is kind of seeping into me/I try to laugh about it now/but isn't it funny how everything works out/I guess the joke's on me, she said," he wryly intones. The repeated chorus with its echoing rally-at-Nuremburg synthesized chant is slightly terrifying and oddly enticing at the same time.

A semi-world beat, rhythmic beginning to "Sanctified" is soon reinforced by a strong funk bass line and the track's subdued atmosphere provides a change of pace at this point. A recurring theme in this album concerns the mysterious spell that lust/love casts over a man's psyche. "I still dream of lips I never should have kissed/well, she knows exactly what I can't resist," he sings. The monks-in-a-monastery-on-acid interlude is an inspired moment. The song segues into "Something I Can Never Have" where a cavernous space opens up in the background behind Trent's restrained voice. Hot steam and sheet metal percussion effects are ominous and by now it's obvious that Reznor was intent on bringing novel, transfixing sounds to the prog rock table. The tune's nightmare-ish aura is captivating as he cries, "This thing is slowly taking me apart/grey would be the color if I had a heart." The pseudo hip-hop groove below "Kinda I Want It" is misleading for this is anything but happy dance music. The cut's motif allows him to experiment with an array of mechanical and electronically-conceived noises and devices that I find fascinating. From there he slides seamlessly into "Sin" (as we all do sometimes), where a disco-in-hell pounding bass drum drives an exercise in intensity as he angrily spews out contradictory lines like "I gave you my Purity/My Purity you stole." Yet Trent never loses sight of the difference tactfully-placed dynamics make in music no matter the genre and that's the mark of an aural artist.

Brittle synths set the stage for "That's What I Get" before the landscape widens for his in-your-face vocal. A technique that's one of the most interesting aspects of NIN is the contrast of an unadorned human voice in juxtaposition to artificial instrumentation. Here he expresses the universal angst of the jilted with "Why does it come as a surprise/to think that I was so na´ve/maybe didn't mean that much/but it meant everything to me," he sings. The album receives a real jolt of energy from "The Only Time." Its infectious funk establishes the heavy, unrelenting feel of a dangerous undertow and Reznor employs alien sounds I'd never heard before in a way that forced me to pay strict attention to what he's creating. He's not just tossing buckets of paint on a canvas willy-nilly; this is intelligent and well-designed material. Most of us can empathize with his line of "My moral standing is lying down." Another pulsating bass drum lays down a monotonous pattern for him to layer electric colors on top of in the finale, "Ringfinger." A stinging guitar is wielded like a chainsaw to cut through the song's glossy veneer, supercharging the tune's persona. His "relation frustration" rears its scarred head one last time to spit out "If I was twice the man I could be/I'd still be half of what you need" before the disc ends with what sounds like a disastrous short circuit.

Here's the deal. "Pretty Hate Machine" may not be your idea of time well spent but dull or condescending it ain't. I admit that it has all the earmarks of a roughly-hewn debut but one can't deny the raw enthusiasm contained in nearly every song that captured the interest of millions worldwide as the 90s got under way. It's a good album, all things considered. It peaked at #75 but, more significantly, it roamed the Billboard 200 chart for 113 weeks, making it one of the first indie label releases to go platinum so it's fair to say that Trent struck a nerve and filled a need with his creations. Three and a half stars.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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