After a weekend of eclectic celebration from the likes of a Tribe Called Quest, Iggy Pop and Missy Elliott, the conclusion of FYF Fest’s three-day jaunt in Los Angeles was an incendiary cutting of the wheel into the forests of discontent. Following an air-raid set of crushers from Run The Jewels, headliners Nine Inch Nails took the stage for its first “real show,” as frontman Trent Reznor put it, in three full years.
Unlike the treasonous disappearance of Rage Against The Machine as the Bush era sank its teeth into American psyche, Trent Reznor has been anything but stagnant during a sociopolitical era that’s ripe for musical excoriation. Pivoting back into his core project this year after an Oscar-winning run scoring films and reshaping Apple’s Beats Music service, Nine Inch Nails has delivered two thus far of a three-part EP spiritual sequel to the impending authoritative & institutional doom of 2007’s prescient Year Zero – the most recent being the intensely confrontational Add Violence collection.
And so Reznor, after months of “hiding out, watching the world go crazy” in the studio with his bandmates, delivered us from the evils of swipe-culture ignorant passivity with a searing counterpoint to the gentle performance-art headliner experience of Frank Ocean the night before. Balance the idea of Brad Pitt and Spike Jonze onstage with Ocean against the grinding industrial S&M juggernaut of Nails, and you’ll get an idea of the juxtaposition in play.
Nine Inch Nails had played just once in the last three years before FYF Fest, but the show was a meticulously-tuned production that saw the expansion and transformation of a number of songs, blending the dystopian grind of opener Branches/Bones with the white-knuckled entry-to-hell wailing of Wish from the band’s explosively transformative 1992 EP Broken. Though the sound of Nails’ brand of mechanical corrosion has shifted into a more dance-rooted beat structure over the last decade, the catalogue-spanning live performance pulls all elements through a filter of now with an energy that’s equal parts sexual tension and oncoming obliteration.
The dance-punk of Less Than was received strongly by the packed crowd at Exposition park, though it seemed as if the sky tore open when drummer Ilan Rubin went full Animal on the kit for the unmistakable pulverizing-beat opening of March of the Pigs. Rubin appears to be reaching his percussive prime, holding down a redwood backbone rhythm as lead guitarist Robin Finck, keyboardist Alessandro Cortini and bassist Atticus Ross painted freshly-sharpened dystopian soundscapes to accompany Reznor’s drive.
Following a teeth-chippingly furious rendition of Gave Up, Reznor explained that he’d asked Bowie’s camp if he could rework a song from his late friend’s final album, 2016’s Blackstar, as a means of coping with the loss of an iconic comrade and dear friend. The result was a beautifully pained cover of I Can’t Give Everything Away, in which Reznor incorporated Bowie’s vocal track into his own for the performance.
Naturally, the boho goblins & mannequins of L.A. pumped their fists and spilled their cocktails as the crowd hit peak singalong for Closer, the fuck-along radio favorite from The Downward Spiral. It’s that rare pop culture bridge which makes soccer moms feel dangerous to shout along to, with 50 Shades muscle memories still dancing fresh in their heads.
For all the fire and fury, however, the most striking moments came at times of raw vulnerability. Something I Can Never Have, the slow-burn acidic heartbreak anthem of the band’s 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine, was nestled into the aggression like a landmine of sorrow. For casual listeners, this was a tune-out moment to head to the bar, try for a better selfie, plot a premature exit to beat the crowds. For fans, for those who’d given themselves to the moment, the song’s performance was an iron-fisted gut punch. The ending of the track has now become a monstrous mechanical sighing angel, fading into the night as the flood of our collective captivated energy swept back upwards.
In concluding juxtaposition, we all shredded our throats to set closer Head Like a Hole in unison with Reznor and Finck, a pit cauldron consuming the entire front section of the main stage. The encore icing of Hurt, which Trent will spend the rest of his career reclaiming from late superhero Johnny Cash, was a poignant razor beneath the skin of our pop culture nostalgia. We all knew the words, but how many could actually allow themselves to feel their impact?
This question encapsulates the live experience mandate. You can show up, rock out, get fucked up with your friends and call it a great time. Or, occasionally, you can red-pill your way into a fully committed experience of empathy and interconenctive transcendence that makes a live music experience the spiritually cathartic moment of release and fulfillment anyone who lives and breathes music exists for.
Either way, if you’re at a Nails show in 2017, you’re sure as shit not going to leave disappointed.
March of the Pigs
Something I Can Never Have
Copy of A
I Can’t Give Everything Away(David Bowie cover)
The Great Destroyer
Burning Bright (Field on Fire)
The Hand That Feeds
Head Like a Hole