At Rogers Arena on Thursday, November 21
Kanye West ought to take notes from Trent Reznor. On Thursday night, the Nine Inch Nails frontman proved that it’s possible to hit the road with a full band and a jaw-dropping array of lights and audiovisual equipment and still actually show up for your concerts.
Mind you, Nine Inch Nails did a lot more than simply show up. From the moment the house lights went out without warning and Reznor and company kicked things off with the recent single “Copy of A”, to guitarist Robin Finck’s final sustained chord on the always-devastating “Hurt” roughly two hours later, the current touring version of Nine Inch Nails proved itself worthy of the rapturous response it received at Rogers Arena.
Sure, you could quibble that the set was weighted a little too heavily with songs from the new album, Hesitation Marks, at the expense of a few certifiable NIN classics (“Closer”? “Happiness in Slavery”? Not at this show.) Other than that, it would be hard to find fault with the concert, which started with the band, all dressed in black, playing under stark white lights.
It wasn’t long before Reznor was digging deep into his catalogue for a selection from the first NIN album, Pretty Hate Machine. “Terrible Lie” was reinvented as a triple-guitar assault, which ended with Reznor knocking his microphone stand over with his axe. This would be the only such display of spontaneous destruction during an evening that otherwise unfolded with clockwork precision, but no matter. The full-metal-jacket onslaught of the song that followed, “March of the Pigs”, brought its share of sonic destruction. It also gave powerhouse drummer Ilan Rubin his most vigorous workout of the night—with “Wish” running a close second—and it caused me to momentarily regret my decision to leave my earplugs in my pocket.
Speaking of regret, you have to wonder if Pino Palladino ever wonders what the hell he’s gotten himself into. The veteran bassist is a master of his craft, but given that his CV includes stints with John Mayer and Simon and Garfunkel, he might not immediately spring to mind as the go-to guy for the world’s most successful industrial-rock band. Paul Simon never wrote a couplet quite like “Poisoned to my rotten core/Too fucked up to care anymore.”
The spare simplicity of the staging was soon revealed as merely an opening gambit. By the time the band was playing “Came Back Haunted", a see-through scrim had descended at the front of the stage, upon which various amorphous, flashing images were projected. This meant that visuals were happening in front of the musicians as well as behind them, but you could still see them playing. Not bad. Take that, Yeezus!
Musically, the highlights were many. They included a radically reworked “Sanctified”, which was played as a slow-building synth-droner with a machine pulse, a percolating fretless bass part, and full-gospel backing vocals from the duo of Lisa Fischer and Sharlotte Gibson. Best of all, though, was “Hurt”. The acoustic-guitar-based lament about the steep personal costs of drug addiction might not have been the most upbeat encore, but it may just be the finest, most affecting song Reznor has ever written.
Opening act Explosions in the Sky specializes in a guitar-centric brand of instrumental postrock that is often predictable, but that's not always a bad thing to be. It’s not that all the songs the Texas quintet played sounded the same, more that they all seemed like different movements of one awesome rock symphony. Passages of chiming, pastoral beauty invariably gave way to ones of blaring, but always coherent, sound, and they always hit exactly when you knew they would, but there's something to be said for a band that delivers.
It should be noted, however, that Explosions in the Sky’s most recent album—the score to the film Prince Avalanche—doesn't follow the above formula at all, but instead features dreamy ambient numbers and a lot of acoustic instrumentation. It’s all very subtle, and therefore not the sort of thing that would be likely to win over an arena crowd waiting for Nine Inch Nails.