1994 was a banner year for rock and roll, and a tremendous number of classic albums were released over that particular 12-month span. This first in an ongoing series that will take a look back at some of the very best of them 20 years later will focus on Nine Inch Nails' industrial-alternative masterpiece, The Downward Spiral.
Trent Reznor's Nine Inch Nails, which is really just him and whoever he is working with at any given time, was well-known in the underground rock and industrial music world long before the spring of '94, but the release of the project's second full-length LP introduced a massive number of generations X and Y to passionate but heavy rock music that thoughtfully challenged religious institutions, society, and dealing with various forms of mental and emotional anguish. Sure, the music is dark, loud, and mostly comes across sounding depressing, but what is the point and purpose of using those tones and moods in any artistic creation? Attempting to represent or reflect the saddest, rawest, and most personal of all hurt feelings and injustices in the world would probably result in some pretty dark and depressing stories, paintings, or poems as well.
What sets Nine Inch Nails, and this LP, specifically, apart from something more along the lines of death and black metal or even heavier goth-industrial acts like Skinny Puppy or Reznor's friends and heroes, Ministry, is the desire to present this type of gothic-industrial rock music as though it is prog-rock instead, which ends up coming across as something different than both of those sub-genres. What if Bauhaus had tried to make a Genesis album? Guest appearances from King Crimson's Adrian Belew, super-producer, Flood, and even a bit of programming assistance from Motley Crue's Tommy Lee show both the range of Reznor's influences and the large musical reach to draw from fans of various styles of rock music, and everyone from Marilyn Manson to emo to screamo owes quite a bit to what Reznor accomplished on this album.
"Mr. Self Destruct" sets the tone for the album, which is a loose concept record about the descent of a character into suicidal madness triggered by a variety of emotional burdens and heavy thoughts, which itself is a nod to at least two of Pink Floyd's classic LPs. The aggressive assault of the song cuts into a collage of guitar flurry which then cuts to one of the album's quietest and creepiest songs, "Piggy." Along with the lead single, the seriously-rocking mosh pit anthem, "March of the Pigs," it is worth noting that much of this album was recorded in Trent's residence of that era, which happened to be the former home of Charles Manson Family murder victim, Sharon Tate. Reznor has since discussed how he chose to move out of the house shortly after a personal conversation with Tate's sister, but this was after the recording was finished, which lends another layer of genuine fear-factor to the album. This was all in a time where rumor traveled by word-of-mouth and verification was difficult prior to wide-scale internet access, though that was just around the corner.
"Heresy" is at least up-front about its lyrical subject matter, mostly paraphrasing some of Nietzsche's quotes and thoughts that are certain to rile up suburban parents a lot more than philosophy students. The biggest hit from the album, and debatably of the entire Nine Inch Nails catalog, is "Closer," a pulsing, electronic, sexual confession that is bent and twisted by guitar loops and noise samples that cross-fade from one speaker to the other and then out of the mix completely throughout the song. This track was undoubtedly popularized also by its savage, nightmare-inducing music video, which was a gnarly view, even in its edited-for-broadcast MTV version. (If you've not seen the director's cut, take a moment and hop over to youtube. I'll wait for you.)
Crazy, right? The album's second half focuses more on the rising action and climax of the loose story line through the hypnotic "The Becoming" and progressing with "The Eraser," "Reptile," and another of Reznor's most recognizable songs, the mournful ballad, "Hurt," later introduced to entirely different audiences by Johnny Cash's unforgettable 2003 cover version. After a successful world-tour that lasted nearly two years and included an infamous, mud-caked appearance at the Woodstock '94 festival, Nine Inch Nails was essentially a house-hold name compared to the project's previous years when they were only known in certain circles. Like any culturally-influential artist or figure, Reznor's style has been imitated and parodied many times over since The Downward Spiral's release and success, but it all really started, at least on a grand scale, with this album.
OTHER ROCK ALBUMS Celebrating 20 Years:
Kyuss-Welcome to Sky Valley
L7-Hungry for Stink
Pantera-Far Beyond Driven