When Nine Inch Nails announced that their only North American performances of the summer would take place at a theatre in America’s most depraved city, we didn’t blink. Since their 2014 run with Soundgarden, NIN had settled into a state of dormancy, only re-emerging briefly to play eight shows in 2017. Fast-forward, and this mini-residency at The Joint, which would presumably serve as a warm-up for a leg of looming high-profile European festival dates, had lost its exclusivity.
The band announced their ambitiously inconvenient Cold and Black and Infinite fall tour in May (on the backs of three new EPs, the last of which is set to be released on Friday) which will see the band step back from the arena circuit to play mid-size theatres. The ambition lies in the band’s spurning of conventional ticketing practices. So too does the inconvenience. In a rather valiant attempt to purge secondary-sellers and ensure that the best tickets for this intimate tour ended up in the hands of only the most zealous of fans, the band axed internet-ticketing. No presales, no back-door shenanigans, no bots, no bullshit. Fans queued at venues all over the country.
Frontman Trent Reznor’s sardonic misanthropy was palpable upon the press release: “All seats (including the best seats) will be available first come, first serve. You may actually encounter other human beings with similar interests likely wearing black clothing during the process and potentially interact with them.”
On the flip-side, out-of-market fans had the options of commuting to their city of choice to sit in line for hours (or potentially even days) to obtain their coveted tickets, or to stay home. The process was a mixed-bag. We remain ambivalent. But this bizarre policy made the Las Vegas performances all the more tantalizing. While originally only scheduled to cover the 2nd show, a narrative began to germinate when we conveniently found ourselves at the 3rd which became too significant to neglect. Enjoy AntiQuiet’s two nights in Sin City with the best in the business.
Technical Difficulties & Strident Revelry: Friday
Having circumnavigated the endless hoards of day-drunks, slow-walkers, hedonistic weekend warriors and wayward souls, we hopped into the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino and were quite abruptly amongst our own. Black was the new black. Imagine four-thousand obsessed mega-fans who look just like this. Reznor mostly ditched the goth regalia forever ago, but that hadn’t stopped fans from keeping the dispirit of 1995 alive and unwell.
The Joint seemed an apt locale. Its steel girder ceiling, exposed concrete flooring, and dark crevasses gave it the air of an abandoned rust-belt factory, its assets long-since liquidated.
High-powered fans gave flight to smoke that billowed out from the fringes of the stage as Nine Inch Nails took their stage with Branches/Bones. Dissociative epileptic strobes pulsated behind the band during Wish, the smoke now pouring out over the audience as Reznor dove into his microphone shouting “Wish there was something real, wish there was something true.” Already? It was on now.
Nine Inch Nails spent the majority of their post-2005 touring years redefining the possibilities of concert lighting and visuals, birthing symbiotic sensory overloads that would later become benchmarks in the industry. Bearing that in mind, this was a relatively bare-bones setup. A patchwork of dim flood lights was mounted on mobile walls that appeared to be arranged with symbolic intent, at times being pulled towards the backdrop to create an open concept, and at other times, such as during Less Than, surrounding the band, appearing to pack them tightly in the center of the stage.
By this time the territory was already uncharted. This setlist bore no resemblance to that of their first show two nights prior. This arrangement was not formulaic. The unpredictability, the awareness that they could unearth any song at any time, was exhilarating. If there was a constant, it was the eruptively placed stop/start fury of March Of The Pigs as sections of the floor became a human funnel breaking through to violent cauldrons of flailing appendages and intemperate jubilance.
And then shit went south. During The Frail, the house mix was lost to us. The band, either unaware, or more likely undeterred, continued to play on and into The Wretched. This went on for several minutes. Just as the band veered into the final chorus of the song, the audio faded back in giving fierce impetus the slogging gang-vocal scream-along of “now you know this is what it feels like.”
Attempting to extrapolate where this was headed was a fool’s errand. The driving hi-hat sibilance and lascivious lyrics of Closer were followed by the meandering fuzz-guitars of 1,000,000 amid blinding backlighting and furious strobes. Finally taking a moment to breathe, Reznor appeared humbled and appreciative. “It’s good to get back into our groove” he exclaimed. “Thanks for being here with us. We’re gonna do a mood shift. I don’t think we’re gonna do this many more times, but we want to do it tonight. This is for our dear friend David Bowie.” They then proceeded to pay tribute to the fallen rock archetype and former collaborator by unpacking a desolate rendering of his late-career track I Can’t Give Everything Away with Reznor’s calculated vibrato giving way to wails of anguish.
The insidious, unhurried construction of The Background World followed, augmented by guitarist Robin Finck’s curious abstractions. Further hiccups then ensued briefly during The Great Destroyer. Reznor was wholesale and uncharacteristically out-of-key during the opening verse, leading to the assumption that there were issues with the monitor mix as well. More to come on this track during the Saturday write-up.
The Hand That Feeds would then send jolts through the masses until intermittent technical issues again reared their ugly head and Finck’s guitar cut out on two separate occasions. As brilliant as the performance was, this was becoming trying. Warm-up gig indeed. Head Like A Hole mercifully marked the end of the difficulties though. Silhouettes of Shawshank-arms outraised to the air were joined by the roaring, predominantly baritone audience shouting out “bow down before the one you serve, you’re going to get what you deserve.”
Following a brief encore break, they returned with the frantic twofer of Only and Survivalism as sweaty bros (a couple now wearing blood with their smiles) pounded on each other in the moshpit below.
“Don’t think we don’t appreciate you comin’ out” Reznor then apprised. “We may fuck this song up because we haven’t rehearsed it at all.” It was The Day The World Went Away and it was everything. Hurt (of course) then served to conclude the turbulent 1h 40m performance; the audience hushed to near silence, singing along in a reverent murmur.
“See you tomorrow” Reznor assumed, as the band took their leave. It would be a misrepresentation if the impression was given that the show was defined by the technical issues, but these issues did put a damper on the evening. The strained connecting threads between the first two setlists left us utterly baffled as to what they would decide to perform at the final show. We wandered through the Hard Rock, past scantily clad aerial-swing-dancers and remarkably brazen coke dealers, into the lawless saturnalia beyond, eager to discover what Saturday evening would bring.
Mercurial Supremacy: Saturday
The final night of Nine Inch Nail’s Vegas residency was unrestrained, rapturous perfection from the opening swish-percussion and forsaken cracking vocals of Somewhat Damaged. The potency, the power, the rage, the fervor…all were immediately intensified. The mix was clarion, the audience elated. The air was electric with a visceral surge of impending brutality.
This night would be heavy on The Fragile, sprinkled with covers, and full of surprises.
This time around The Wretched wasn’t marred by uncontrollable externalities. But something appeared to be up with Reznor’s guitar as they commenced with a vengeful Terrible Lie. Within moments the guitar was unstrapped and airborne, smashing into the floor on stage right. His indignation was emboldening. All the while, drummer Ilan Rubin’s scrupulous fills were a spectacle; like a firework factory explosion set to a metronome.
There was just something about this night. A feeling. Each song felt personally gratifying, as if selected specifically for the most ardent of fans. The forlorn keys and brooding internalized torment of Something I Can Never Have acted as an unsettling counterpoint; master-manipulator Atticus Ross’ white-noise incursions accompanied Reznor’s fading cadences as the song’s destruction bred creation.
The irksome, avant-garde, knob-and-dial noodling and sporadic falsetto vocals of Me, I’m Not carried the vibe of a slow-dance during some not-so-distant technological apocalypse as strobes front-lit the band, leaving ephemeral shadow impressions on an otherwise nondescript backdrop.
“How are you guys tonight?” Reznor queried. “We have a new album coming out next week and we’re gonna punish you by playing a couple of the songs.” Enter the world debut of Ahead Of Ourselves. Indecipherable, bit-crushed vocals careened into frantic chorus roars about a “celebration of ignorance.” The jazzy discordance of God Break Down The Door then followed. Ross, working in tandem with multi-instrumentalist Alessandro Cortini, built an elaborate, synergic sonicscape, vexing in its urgency.
“We’re gonna mix it up a little bit for you” Reznor indicated before going on to muse about their 2007 dystopian concept album Year Zero. “We thought it was a science-fiction cautionary tale. But as fate would have it, it’s reality.” With that came the insurrectionary call-to-arms of The Great Destroyer, take two. The throbbing synths and droning guitar played second-fiddle to a tale of a reactionary surveillance apparatus run amok. This was Atticus Ross’ moment. Reznor exited leaving Ross to infuse ping-pong delayed audio samples of the bloviating bastard that saw fit to salute the North Korean military last week AKA the leader of the free world. It was analogous to endless reflections of our collective insanity. Trump’s inane snake-oil seeped into the calamitous mix with disquieting cohesiveness.
The dust settled during The Good Soldier but the theme remained. “This song we did…with our friend and hero David Bowie” said Reznor, prefacing the euphoric prescience of I’m Afraid Of Americans. The rudimentary industrial swing of The Big Come Down was followed by the punk minimalism of Joy Division’s Digital. This pace of this show was unfuckingrelenting.
“We’re actually sad it’s our last night here” remarked Reznor following a short break. “I recognize a lot of you. We really appreciate your support. It’s what keeps us going.” They then introduced ageless new-wave pioneer Gary Numan for a triumphant performance of his track Metal.
Then it was back to The Downward Spiral for the night’s penultimate song. Raw. Defiant. Reptile. The choir of the disaffected then sang along to Hurt once more as the show reached the 2-hour marker.
These intimate gigs proved to be a showcase for Nine Inch Nails’ enduring versatility, ferocity and relevance. While most bands are leaning towards repetition at their shows, NIN’s new format appears to be an outright rejection of this banal homogeny. Is this what fans will have in store when the band returns to North America in the fall? Tough to say.
What I will say is get out and see it if you can. As I put the finishing touches on this review at the airport, an elderly lady died of a heart attack a few seats away. YOLO yo. Do all you can today, because tomorrow may never be.
***Photos are from Friday night’s performance