“We want our heroes on the stretch of concrete, enduring one blackout night and hungover morning after another, because it enables us to witness the very extremes of human existence from a safe vantage point,” music critic Steven Hyden writes in Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock. One of the year’s best books on music, Twilight of the Gods examines the specter of death that’s spreading across classic rock. Part of the appeal of classic rock is the mythic images bands like Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and The Who projected: debauched, drugged-out, and indestructible. Roger Daltrey sneering “Hope I die before I get old” is more than a hook: It’s a mission statement, a gospel handed down to the entire genre. But what happens when legends get old?
Twilight of the Gods chronicles the winding down of an entire culture, cataloging the few legacy acts from the '60s and '70s who are still kicking. Hyden’s book asks a provocative question: When artists like Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Fleetwood Mac, and other classic hit machines are no longer able to tour stadiums, who will fill that void? What rock acts are left that have the cultural capital and clout to pull in Black Sabbath numbers at the box office?
One group immediately comes to mind: Nine Inch Nails.
Trent Reznor’s industrial-rock project occupies a unique space in the rock landscape. Aside from Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam, there aren’t many other '90s rock bands of NIN’s stature that are still going concerns. Most of the big '90s rock gods have already receded into the twilight, either through suicide or drug overdoses. Meanwhile, Reznor has managed to keep producing music that feels fresh, putting him ahead of all his other industrial contemporaries. It’s hard to imagine Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson, or Ministry putting out a record as forward-thinking and risky as Bad Witch in 2008, let alone 2018.
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Much like his mentor David Bowie’s embrace of dissonant jazz on Blackstar, Reznor gets his sax on all over Bad Witch. Mixing NIN’s trademark electronic sounds with wild blurts of saxophone and breakbeats, Bad Witch is the sound of a band evolving into a new form. For an infamous perfectionist such as Reznor, Bad Witch feels loose and wooly. Chaotic and unpredictable is a good look for Reznor; he’s taken his “Brian Wilson in a mesh shirt” shtick as far as it can go.
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And while Reznor continues to tweak his sound in the studio, he knows how to give people what they want in concert. NIN can still pack arenas, buffeting their fans with hits like “Head Like a Hole” and “March of the Pigs.” They’re also smart enough to tour with openers that are their spiritual descendants: Cold Cave, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Oneohtrix Point Never, to name a few.
For this year’s Cold and Black and Infinite tour, they’re taking a different approach by letting one of their sonic ancestors open for them. Scottish noise-pop legends The Jesus and Mary Chain will be unleashing their brand of morose, feedback-laced pop upon arena audiences across America. Both bands have something crucial in common: They understand how to Trojan-horse classic pop sounds into noise music. Scrape away the white noise on JMC's tunes and you’ll hear Phil Spector. Smooth out the sharp edges of most NIN's tracks and you’ve got yourself a banging Gary Numan track.
When the last of the old rock gods departs for Valhalla, it’ll be up to younger gods like Reznor to keep the stadium rock fire burning.
Nine Inch Nails. With The Jesus and Mary Chain. 7 p.m. Thursday, September 13, and Friday, September 14, at Comerica Theatre, 400 West Washington Street; 602-379-2800; comericatheatre.com. Tickets are $55 to $125 via Live Nation.