It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
With his depressive outlook, innate pop smarts and composer's gift for dynamics, Trent Reznor has always come off a bit like industrial rock's answer to Kurt Cobain. Cobain, of course, hid behind lyrical ambiguities we only truly learned how deeply the Nirvana frontman was hurting after he took his own life. Reznor, on the other hand, seeks therapy in public. Beneath his monomaniacal working habits and harrowing first-person lyrics, there's a desire to connect with the world outside his head and with 1994's The Downward Spiral, he did so on a grand scale. Released a month before Cobain's April 1994 suicide, Nine Inch Nails' second studio album had grunge's loud/soft cadences and general spirit of self-loathing to thank for helping pave its way onto the charts. For the millions who bought The Downward Spiral on its pop merits, the album also provided a gateway to Reznor's more leftfield influences. "Heresy" and the surprise smash "Closer" with its radio-defying refrain, "I wanna fuck you like an animal" wed Reznor's industrial roots to the electro-pop influence of English bands like Soft Cell (whom NIN would later cover) and Depeche Mode. "Mr. Self-Destruct" and "March of the Pigs" infuse Ministry's detached, digitized metal with a broken human heart. And the nihilistic ballads "Piggy" and "Hurt" the former a fuck-you to ex-bandmate Richard Patrick; the latter most famous for becoming a Johnny Cash cover plumb the depths of lost friendships and substance abuse, respectively. The visceral immediacy of its songs, of course, is just half the reason The Downward Spiral casts such a long shadow. The other half reveals itself when you strap on headphones. Unlike the industrial bands that would cite him and only him as an influence, Reznor brought decades' worth of obsessive, catholic listening to The Downward Spiral's mix. Crackling amid the album's broken pianos, evocative samples and long stretches of eerie not-quite-silence, you can hear traces of David Bowie's crestfallen masterpiece Low; Pink Floyd's dystopian epic The Wall; even the 200-track grandiosity of Queen and Brian Wilson. Presumably, many of these nuances were lost on the casual listeners. But for the future genre-benders who would draw from The Downward Spiral's palette (see: AFI, Thursday, future NIN touring companions the Dillinger Escape Plan), these nuances make Reznor one of the only grunge-era icons still relevant today.
Trent Reznor has called David Bowie's Low the first of three classic late-'70s albums produced by fellow Reznor idol Brian Eno the single greatest influence on The Downward Spiral. So it must have been mind-bending for the NIN leader to learn that for 1995's Outside, the Thin White Duke was finding similar inspiration in The Downward Spiral's dark corners. Co-produced by Eno, the dark, electronically driven dystopian concept disc returned Bowie to critics' good graces following the 1993 flop Black Tie, White Noise and, thanks to a 1995 tour with NIN, the album also put Bowie on the radar of younger listeners. Two years later, Reznor would self-effacingly play a stalker in the video for Bowie's "I'm Afraid of Americans" (itself eventually released with a NIN remix), but the real-life adoration between Bowie and Reznor after the Outside tour would remain mutual and mutually beneficial.
Trent Reznor has called David Bowie's Low ï¿½ the first of three classic late-'70s albums produced by fellow Reznor idol Brian Eno ï¿½ the single greatest influence on The Downward Spiral. So it must have been mind-bending for the NIN leader to learn that for 1995's Outside, the Thin White Duke was finding similar inspiration in The Downward Spiral's dark corners. Co-produced by Eno, the dark, electronically driven dystopian concept disc returned Bowie to critics' good graces following the 1993 flop Black Tie, White Noise ï¿½ and, thanks to a 1995 tour with NIN, the album also put Bowie on the radar of younger listeners. Two years later, Reznor would self-effacingly play a stalker in the video for Bowie's "I'm Afraid of Americans" (itself eventually released with a NIN remix), but the real-life adoration between Bowie and Reznor after the Outside tour would remain mutual ï¿½ and mutually beneficial.
Nine Inch Nails spent their salad days opening for Skinny Puppy, and by the late '80s, Trent Reznor and Skinny Puppy were collaborating as part of the industrial all-star collective Pigface. Creatively speaking, though, Skinny Puppy always came off like NIN's weirder, more poetic older sibling ï¿½ a condition that likely explains why NIN beat Skinny Puppy to the charts. Where the jackhammer beats and precision-tuned distortion of 1986's Rabies prefigured NIN tracks like "March Of The Pigs," the overall mood of Too Dark Park feels crucial to The Downward Spiral's framework. At once weirdly detached and deeply personal, Too Dark Park takes a stream-of-consciousness nosedive into a life undone by drug abuse ï¿½ a topic with which both Skinny Puppy and Reznor were intimately familiar. Though it offers nothing close to a single, Too Dark Park is a masterpiece of high-concept sound design, and one of the most harrowing (if commercially hopeless) headphone albums of the 1990s.
The parallels between Trent Reznor and these eventual NIN gig openers don't just begin and end on stage. Like Reznor, whose 1989 NIN debut, Pretty Hate Machine, made him an industrial-club darling, Dillinger built their rep in an extremely narrow genre: In their case, the hyper-technical world of "math metal." With album No. 2, however, Dillinger did a similarly Reznor-like turn ï¿½ one that, 250,000-plus album sales later, changed the course of their career. Miss Machine starts fierce (the polymetric windshear "Panasonic Youth") but takes its time progressing through dramatic peaks and valleys that reflect both the band's diverse background (jazz, industrial and Latin tinges all appear) as well as the Mike Patton/Trent Reznor influence of then-new singer Greg Puciato. The album title, incidentally, isn't inspired by Reznor's first album, even if Reznor probably kicked himself for not writing Miss Machine's dark, danceable single "Unretrofied" first.
The Young Lion
Thursday singer Geoff Rickly has talked about having his life changed by Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine, but it wasn't until album No. 5 that Rickly's band would display any real NIN influence. Working with Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann (who also produced their 2006 major-label bow A City By The Light Divided), Thursday balance their trademark angular, emotive post-hardcore (the searing "Friends in the Armed Forces") with atmospheric A-bombs (the downright creepy "Time's Arrow") that bring synths and soundscapes to the forefront. Though they've never been a "singles band," Thursday threw any hope of commercial appeal out the window with Common Existence and yet, much as Trent Reznor found with The Downward Spiral, the result was some of their most memorable material ever.