Trent Reznor isn’t one for stage banter. For most of NIN’s September 13 set at Comerica Theatre, the debut performance of their Cold and Black and Infinite Tour, the quintet onstage approached their set like they were The Ramones: next to no talking, one song bashed out after another, every amp cranked to the max. Aside from the occasional “Thank you,” Reznor saved his voice for crooning and shouting his way out of the din roaring around him. But there was one moment in the evening where the man of few words suddenly got verbose.
“This is one of those speeches that doesn’t necessarily go anywhere and have a tidy resolution,” Reznor said with a kind of weary, wry self-awareness. After playing an ambient soundscape dedicated to David Bowie, Reznor reflected on his friend and mentor’s passing on the mic. Talking about the passage of time and the loss of friends, there was genuine sadness and resignation in Reznor’s voice. It wouldn’t be the first or last time Bowie would haunt the show: his mournful Low instrumental “Warszawa” played as part of the preshow music, and Reznor followed his untidy speech with a fierce rendition of “I’m Afraid Of Americans” (a spotlight moment for longtime NIN touring guitarist Robin Finck, who got to close out the song with a short and nasty solo).
Reznor’s off-the-cuff moment of vulnerability embodied the strange mood of the night: It was equal parts triumphant and sad, brutally noisy and just plain brutal.
Before NIN took the stage, they had Tobacco and The Jesus and Mary Chain open for them. Tobacco played a banging electronic set, finishing off with a warped and robotic cover of Eric Carmen's schmaltzy '80s tune “Hungry Eyes.” Flanking his table were a pair of circular screens, on which projections of bizarre video clips and freaky horror films played. Anyone who’s seen Tobacco at venues like Crescent Ballroom know that the AV element is a big part of his show; his music paired up with a big screen flashing a steady stream of nightmarish and hilarious images can make for a hallucinatory experience. But when those screens are shrunk down to the size of bathroom mirrors, his show loses its power to derange the senses.
Noise-rock legends The Jesus and Mary Chain didn’t disappoint. Opening up with “Reverence,” Jim Reid sneered about wanting to die like Jesus Christ while his brother William and the rest of the band cut loose with their feedback-laced brand of alternative rock.
Despite the band’s legendary reputation for being noise polluters of the highest order, most of their records sound pretty tame. Even classic LPs like Psychocandy and Darklands sound quiet compared to most other feedback-friendly rock music (the only recording to catch the band’s stabbing-you-in-the-fucking-ear live energy is their debut single, the cacophonous “Upside Down”). Hearing songs like “Some Candy Talking” and “Head On” in person was revelatory: All the noise that they couldn’t get on tape came pouring out of the amps. Even their poppiest numbers were drenched in sharp peals of noise.
After they wrapped up their set, NIN’s stage was thrown together. It was a casual setup: a ring of lighting rigs and a gray, worn screen hanging in the background. The Cold and Black and Infinite Tour stage looked a lot more spartan and desolate than the gleaming, high-tech setup the band used for their 2013 Tension Tour at Talking Stick. This new austerity was a good look for them: It matched the loose, chaotic energy of recent NIN records like Bad Witch.
Opening up with a trio of Broken cuts (“Wish,” “Last,” and “Happiness in Slavery”), the band were shrouded in smoke. Flickering red and white lights onstage threw up their shadows on the gray backdrop and phased them in and out, making their silhouettes look like shadow puppets or stop motion animations. Whereas on their Tension Tour the band was clearly defined and easy to see, they were now looming shadows, huddled and determined bodies tearing into their instruments in the fog like a gang of Jack the Rippers.
NIN have never been an easy listening group, but the intensity of their live show for this tour took me aback in a good way: They played songs like “Suck” and “March of the Pigs” with such force that it pushed those tracks past industrial and landed them in metal country.
That heavy approach to the songs helped give their set a cohesive feel. Newer songs off Add Violence and Bad Witch sounded right at home alongside cuts from The Downward Spiral and The Fragile. And that heaviness also helped to offset the creeping melancholy in so many of their songs. It wasn’t just the Bowie tributes; It’s that songs like “I’m Afraid of Americans” and “Survivalism” feel even more relevant in 2018.
But that undercurrent of sadness and dread didn't overwhelm their set: They played a rousing show that clocked in at over an hour. They even managed to pull off a pretty nifty cover of Adam Ant's "Physical (You're So)." The only way it could have been better is if Reznor busted out his sax to do some live Bad Witch skronkin'.
NIN came back on to do an encore after closing their set with “Head Like a Hole.” Fans hoping to sing along to “I wanna fuck you like an animal” during the encore were disappointed: The band didn’t play “Closer” (nor did they play absolute banger “The Perfect Drug”). After playing “Less Than,” they closed out the night with a pair of elegiac songs that crescendo into head-splitting noise: “The Day The World Went Away” and “Hurt.” Two sad apocalyptic songs: one about a doomsday out in the world, the other internal.
“Here’s another song about the end of the world,” Reznor cracked during one of his song intros earlier in the set. I laughed along with him, but it was an uneasy one: That end feels a lot closer than it used to.
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Last Night: Nine Inch Nails’ Cold and Black and Infinite Tour at Comerica Theatre in downtown Phoenix.
The Crowd: A massive cross-section of Gen Xers, millennials, baby goths, alterna-dads, industrial rock chaperones, aspiring Suicide Girls, record nerds, metalheads, and dudes in Utilikilts. It's a law of the Universe that there must be at least a dozen bearded dudes in Utilikilts at any dark music show.
Overheard: “Oh, fuckin’ hell!” — Jesus and Mary Chain singer Jim Reid, venting his exasperation as his brother WIlliam wrangled with technical problems in the middle of “Head On.”
Random Notebook Dump: It’s crazy how good Reznor looks. Dude is the Platonic ideal of health goth. Compare him to his contemporary Marilyn Manson, who seems to grow ever more decrepit, dissolute, and Slenderman-ish with age. Sometimes I wonder if the two of them have some sort of Dorian Gray deal going on and Manson got stuck playing the portrait.