Icon: Trent Reznor

Andrew Parks

By Andrew Parks

on 09.05.13 in Icons

It’s hard to fathom how Trent Reznor went from being a wiry, mud-caked madman (what up, Woodstock ’94?) to a ripped Oscar winner, but one thing’s clear at this point in his career: While his contemporaries are busy shilling Absinthe (sorry, Mansinthe) and struggling to remain relevant in a restless alt-rock landscape, Nine Inch Nails’ string-yanking singer/songwriter is in it for the long haul.

Part of it has to do with the agonizing level of perfectionism that he’s poured into more than two decades of bloodletting pop music. Burning his proverbial candles at both ends, always, he has forged a road-less-traveled path that’s as fulfilling as is it is frightening for everyone involved. Or as Reznor’s longtime art director, Rob Sheridan, put it in a recent tour documentary, “Trent demands, demands, demands excellence with everything. We want the best — always. And that high level of expectation leads to a lot of stressful moments.”

Stressful? That’s certainly putting it lightly. Dude nearly died toward the end of Nine Inch Nails’ aptly titled “Fragility” tour, when a heart-stopping heroin overdose left the fearsome frontman clawing his way back from the light at the end of the tunnel.

“I had to come to terms [with] becoming an addict,” Reznor told MTV News right around the release of With Teeth, a full-length that bared its fangs in more ways than one. “I lied to myself…until I couldn’t lie anymore, ’cause I was either going to die or get better.”

He didn’t just “get better”; Reznor reinvented himself as a harbinger of mangled Top 40 hooks for a century that lost any semblance of hope a long time ago. In many ways, he’s the David Bowie of a crumbling Alternative Nation, a chameleon that’ll be kicking and screaming — or to quote a line from this year’s Hesitation Marks LP, “trying to find my way” — until he’s plopped in a pine box or sent through an incinerator.

Pretty Hate Machine [2010 Remaster]

Nine Inch Nails

Through the rubberized bass lines of "Down in It" or the Tesla coil loops of "Sanctified," Nine Inch Nails' debut album is, at its heart, synth-pop with a sneer, bookending the '80s with steel-plated beats and ragged dance rhythms that wouldn't sound out of place in an S&M club. (See: its smash Buzz Bin single "Head Like a Hole," which could double as a seething political statement — "I'd rather die than give you control" — and a direct order to "bow down before the one you serve" like some poor sucker with a ball gag strapped to his mouth.)

If power dynamics and role-playing aren't quite your bag, Pretty Hate Machine can still be savored as a well-aged introduction to industrial music, although it transcends that scene's tired tropes with severely distorted samples (Public Enemy, Prince, Jane's Addiction) you wouldn't be able to spot even if we told you exactly where they are. Also of note: the producers who helped Trent Reznor sharpen his hooks like a chef's knife, which say more about his eclectic tastes than the music itself, including John Fryer (one of This Mortal Coil's only consistent members), dub demigod Adrian Sherwood, and Flood, who recorded Depeche Mode's definitive album (Violator) right around the same time.

The Downward Spiral

Nine Inch Nails

Not quite poetry, not quite Nietzsche For Dummies, The Downward Spiral is a much deeper listen two decades later than your inner angry teenager ever imagined. And yes, that includes the stripper anthem that smudged an Iggy Pop sample (the neon-lit beat in "Nightclubbing") so convincingly that it singlehandedly established the connective tissue between Nine Inch Nails' most popular album and its "single greatest influence," David Bowie's Low. The difference being that Bowie was battling a serious coke habit when he wrote the first chapter of his "Berlin Trilogy" and Trent Reznor filtered his own frustration through a stylized storyline — one man's own personal hell — two steps ahead of his own. Whether that mercurial character ultimately ends it all doesn't really matter; what happens between the battering ram beginnings of "Mr. Self Destruct" and the shit-stained balladry of "Hurt" does. That includes everything from the borderline hip-hop breaks of "Ruiner" — the remnants of Reznor's once-rumored collaboration with Dr. Dre, maybe? — to the flesh-burrowing build of "Eraser," with 50 shades of crazy coloring outside the lines elsewhere. Nihilism rarely sounds this satisfying.

Further Down The Spiral

Nine Inch Nails

Here's how massive Nine Inch Nails were in the platinum-plated aftermath of The Downward Spiral: Its noisy, single-less companion album sold more than 500,000 copies on its own. Try doing that in the age of digital downloads and streaming! And unlike most remix records, Further Down the Spiral actually had a reason to exist outside of padding some record company's pockets while the iron's hot. On a superficial level, folks like J.G. Thirwell, Rick Rubin and Dave Navarro were able to exploit the mad-for-it melodies and floor-rushing rhythms of Reznor's complicated song stems even further. But where this record gets really interesting is in its multifaceted contributions from Coil and Aphex Twin. While the former gets freaky and slightly frightening with three distinct versions of "Eraser," the latter delivered a pair of original productions that are similar to The Downward Spiral in spirit alone. Or as Richard D. James reportedly said after the fact, "I never heard the originals. I still haven't. I don't want to either, or my remixes for that matter." Well all right, then; this one's definitely for the completists and curious.

The Fragile

Nine Inch Nails

When Trent Reznor howls, "Poisoned to my rotten core/ too fucked up to care anymore," against a pulverized wall of ravenous riffs and malfunctioning synths in "Somewhat Damaged" — a track so terrifying it's reportedly been used to torture Guantanamo Bay detainees — he isn't trying to deliver a hit single. The reclusive crypt keeper is in an even more delicate headspace than he was at the end of The Downward Spiral, a semi-autobiographical disasterpiece that ends with the Nine Inch Nails frontman ruling an empire of dirt and wearing a crown of shit.

The Fragile follows a similar path, raising its curtain to reveal a man who's a "broken, bruised, forgotten sore" and exiting stage right with a bleak but beautiful instrumental that's tellingly titled "Ripe (With Decay)." Like nearly everything Nine Inch Nails has ever released, it's full of melodramatic moments, but it also rewards repeat listens in ways that are unique to Reznor's most exhausting effort, including the feedback-engulfed neo-classical nods of "La Mer," the "Hurt"-caliber balladry of "The Great Below," and the climatic, head rush choruses of "We're In This Together." In the rarified realm of long-delayed, labored-over LPs, it's like Chinese Democracy, only, you know, good.

With Teeth

Nine Inch Nails

After disappearing into his own downward spiral of drugs and despair for much of the mid-to-late '90s, Trent Reznor reemerged a broken but not beaten alt-rock icon around the release of With Teeth, a full-length that was framed as a demon-smothering denouement to the self-immolating bullshit he put fans and friends through for years. If he sounds a tad bitter on the opening track (the steady, piano-spiked build of "All the Love in the World"), Reznor slams that egocentric door shut with the dagger-like drums, backwashed synths and enamel-cracking choruses of "You Know What You Are?" and the downright danceable death-disco rhythms of "The Hand That Feeds," a rallying cry against The Man that was remixed by James Murphy's former DFA duo. Reznor's relatively healthy but decidedly heavy second life begins here, on a record that crackles with newfound energy and welcome surprises like the live drumming of Dave Grohl on half of its tracks.

Year Zero

Nine Inch Nails

Unlike the first couple decades of Nine Inch Nails — an emo-as-hell era that kept its laser-like focus locked on the skin-pricking peaks and valleys of one troubled soul, Trent Reznor — Year Zero favors more of an agitpop approach. From its Question Everything lyrics to the alternate reality game that accompanied its ambitious publicity campaign, this is Nine Inch Nails trying to be Gibson- and Dick-schooled cyberpunks, right down to rumors of a related film or TV project that never quite materialized. That'd be a bummer if the tracks didn't hold up, but the laptop-led roots of this record helped it achieve Reznor's ultimate goal: applying the splatter-paint samples and woofer-wrecking bass lines of Public Enemy's Bomb Squad to his own highly stylized vision of what the world will be like in 2022 — in two words, "utterly fucked." If every NIN album before this left you worried about Reznor's well-being, this one directs that concern back at all of us.

Hatred isn't the only thing lying at the heart of Nine Inch Nails; there are also lots of rigorous piano lessons. Which explains why Trent Reznor decided to make his first post-Interscope release four volumes of Fripp & Eno-isms. Actually, nothing could prepare us for just how sprawling Ghosts is. While instrumental passages have always played a part in cleansing the palette or setting the scene in NIN albums, they've never been embraced to the extent they are here.

"This collection of music is the result of working from a very visual perspective," explained Reznor, "dressing imagined locations and scenarios with sound and texture; a soundtrack for daydreams. I'm very pleased with the result and the ability to present it directly to you without interference."

Why does the world need 36 abstractly titled, largely improvised pieces about who-knows-what, featuring members of King Crimson (guitarist Adrian Belew) and the Dresden Dolls (drummer Brian Viglione)? Listen; you'll see.

That Trent Reznor is still making records — and good ones, at that — is a kind of miracle. Fifteen years ago, the odds were handily stacked against him. If he didn't off himself — which, in 1994, seemed like a terrifyingly real possibility — changing times would handle that task for him. Reznor had the good fortune to be dubbed dark prince of industrial, a movement that was bound to lose mass attention once people noticed the sartorial requirements. Don't believe me? Can you tell me what Nitzer Ebb or KMFDM have been up to lately?

Trent, though, is a whole other story. Rather than disappearing darkly into that dark dark (dark) night, he instead transcended silly genre clichés and made records that were complex and intricate and nuanced — even if all those nuances were just varying shades of black. The Slip is his sixth full-length (not counting the instrumental collection Ghosts I-IV), and it continues his fierce and determined plunge into the void. Reznor long ago abandoned the sculpted beauty of The Downward Spiral, preferring instead to make records that sound like shaking fists. The songs on The Slip have the same fierce rattle as Reznor's last few outings, but are more percussive and harrowing. "1,000,000" is all angry forward motion, one mutilated chord progression walloped repeatedly by furious percussion. "Discipline" is a throbbing danse macabre, Reznor false-starting verses over an undulating bass groove. "Echoplex" is sparer but just as grim, tiny icy pianos dripping down on barren rhythm track, chugging guitars stopping and starting like a stalling car. Even the slow songs beat black blood: "Lights in the Sky" is death-pale and funereal, just a loping piano progression over and over and over, Reznor's parched voice silenced to a hush.

That his music is so reliant on technology works as an incredible plus. Rather than avoiding that quality, he embraces it, writing songs about ice-cold dystopias where machines have trampled men and where the soul is swallowed by The System. Reznor's pain, once personal, is now universal: "On your hands and your knees with your face in the trough," Reznor seethes, "Wait your turn while they finish you off." It plays like a bleak revision of Reznor's breakthrough mantra: we're not any closer to God, we're simply just fucked.

Hesitation Marks

Nine Inch Nails

Between his musclebound makeover, flawless "farewell tour," palate-cleansing side projects (How to Destroy Angels' end-of-days elegies, several sessions with Queens of the Stone Age, a couple of solid David Fincher soundtracks) and some long-overdue props from The Man (a peerless New Yorker profile, the Oscar that now sits on a mantle next to Nine Inch Nails' two dusty GRAMMYs), the Second Coming of Trent Reznor shouldn't be the least bit surprising. And yet, Hesitation Marks exceeds even the loftiest expectations by signaling Reznor's sober sally years with some of his most subtle but satisfying work to date. It's as if he was sharpening his sample banks and synth lines with How to Destroy Angels, only to emerge with material that alludes to everything from death-disco (the groove-locked guitars of "All Time Low") to acid-techno (the snake-like leads of "Copy of A") to Reznor's own impressive oeuvre (the rubber-bullet beats that hammer "Came Back Haunted" home). The notorious perfectionist — witness the fear on everyone's faces in Vevo's new tour documentary to see what we mean — clearly knows it too. Why else would he have brought such long-forgotten old friends as David Lynch and Downward Spiral cover artist Russell Mills back into the fold, giving Hesitation Marks both a seizure-inducing music video ("Came Back Haunted") and several different fluid-splattered record sleeves?

So, yes, this is a return-to-form record in every way, although it must be said that Reznor never strayed too far from his roots at any point in his 25-year career, including the drug-damaged days he spent fighting his own demons in New Orleans. More importantly, while he's a healthy, (relatively) happy father of two — living in Beverly Hills, no less — those thorns never left his side. Reznor may be willing to clean up his act for the love of his life in "I Would for You," but remember, this is also an album that's named after suicide scars. Reznor is still as complicated as ever, and he's entering what may become his golden age as a result.

Welcome oblivion

How To Destroy Angels

A strange thing happened in the years leading up to How to Destroy Angels' debut album: They became an actual band. Not a self-indulgent side project or a way for Trent Reznor to work and tour with his wife (singer Mariqueen Maandig, formerly of West Indian Girl) and a few longtime friends (multi-instrumentalist Atticus Ross and art director Rob Sheridan). Welcome oblivion is a whole 'nother beast entirely, fleshing out the rough ideas of the quartet's patchy self-titled EP with a steady simmer of electrical storms, ambient beats and melodies that are as menacing as a horror movie that keeps most of its killings off screen. Visually and lyrically, Welcome oblivion also continues the apocalypse now narrative of Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero album without being so obvious about it. As for its musical connections to Reznor's other gig, How to Destroy Angels shares some of its sample banks with Hesitation Marks while letting each LP find its own unique voice. How to Destroy Angels simply speaks a little more softly, but don't be fooled into thinking they don't have knives behind their backs as well.

Antichrist Superstar

Marilyn Manson

A song cycle that's "Satanic" in the Anton LaVey sense of the word — an egocentric celebration of the self rather than a rally against an absent, unseen god — Marilyn Manson's second album single-handedly tore the country's moral fabric in half when it went platinum more than 15 years ago. Back then, Brian "I Swear I'm Not That Kid From Wonder Years" Warner transformed himself from a scrawny, pasty Floridian to hell's leading boogeyman by transcending the shock-rock tactics of the band's Bible Belt-baiting debut (1994's Portrait of An American Family, their first collaboration with Trent Reznor) right before our eyes.

Having Reznor in one corner and Skinny Puppy's Dave Ogilvie in the other certainly didn't hurt Antichrist Superstar in the production department either, as Warner dug his meaty hooks into a massive mix of skittish drums, sinewy samples and locust-like loops. The three-part storyline — a blow-by-blow Metamorphosis of Giger-like proportions — may sound like a laughable midnight movie in retrospect, but there's no denying the blind ambition of an album that offset a few obvious singles ("The Beautiful People," "Tourniquet") with chain-gun choruses ("The Reflecting God"), fluttering falsettos ("Wormboy"), lyrics that'd make Ozzy and Alice blush, and the nagging sense that it'll all be over soon and we'll be all the better for it.

Natural Born Killers

Various Artists

In some ways, Natural Born Killers was a warm-up session for the David Lynch soundtrack (Lost Highway) that'd arrive three years later. This particular Trent Reznor production is much more scatter-brained however, reflecting Oliver Stone's retina-singeing, ultra-violent images with more of a frenzied mixtape feel. Or as Reznor put it in an interview with MTV, "[I tried] to turn the soundtrack into a collage of sound, kind of the way the movie used music: make edits, add dialog, and make it something interesting, rather than a bunch of previously released music."

Here's a short list of who's on here: L7, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Dr. Dre, Patti Smith, Patsy Cline, Tha friggin' Dogg Pound. Not to mention a couple of Nine Inch Nails cuts that leave a mark for different reasons — the speaker-spraying fantasies of "Burn" and the dire comedown music of "A Warm Place." Too bad Oliver Stone hasn't made a movie like this since then.

Lost Highway

Various Artists

Who could forget the Rolling Stone cover that featured a young David Lynch and a Rasputin-looking Trent Reznor in a rare joint interview meant to promote Lost Highway? Lynch's 1997 film worked partly because of the manner in which Lynch married Reznor's soundtrack to his peerless visuals. Aside from featuring the greatest Nine Inch Nails song (the skittish beats and nightmarish melodies of "The Perfect Drug") outside its own albums, we're treated to the kitschy film score cuts of Barry Adamson (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Magazine, The Birthday Party) and longtime Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti; standout selections from Smashing Pumpkins, Lou Reed and Marilyn Manson; and an excuse for Reznor to give David Bowie a shout-out with his otherwise overlooked Outside track "I'm Deranged." We could do without the Rammstein nods, but hearing Reznor develop a couple interludes with Peter Christopherson (Coil, Throbbing Gristle) more than makes up for it.