I never considered myself a Nine Inch Nails fan; listening to The Downward Spiral reminds me of the unhappy coincidence of noise that hits me when the Federal Express trucks start rumbling past my bedroom window at the same time the ratty static from my clock radio alarm blares into my sleeping ear. It's not a happy association.
But when cartoon angst of this caliber decides to show up in Houston on Halloween night, of all times, at the Summit, of all places, there's not much a self-respecting music critic can do but go see what all the fuss is about. Fuss there was.
Approaching the Summit, the first thing you noticed was the muffled roar rumbling in the night air, the sound of thousands of gasping fans reacting to the opening act Jim Rose Circus' Mr. Lifto and his nipple-stressing antics. The second thing you notice, upon walking in the door, is the Halloween crowd: white-faced males costumed as Brandon Lee's character in The Crow, females decked out in various getups sharing one commonality: tasteless display of breast. It's a holiday, hoo boy....
But when NIN frontman Trent Reznor finally took the stage, the only thing worth noticing about the crowd was the fact of an honest-to-God, long-time-no-see stage rush. Flimsy barricades fell to the ground, security guards toppled and a tide of the black-clad flooded out of the seats in a steady bleed that didn't let up until the Summit floor was packed like a ham. It was a beautiful thing to see, though it must have felt like a claustrophobic hell to those unfortunates with legitimate front row tickets.
Reznor and band conjured their own claustrophobic hell through the course of a two-hour show that featured as much gale-force noise, instrument destruction and hole-in-my-soul angst as the Summit has likely ever seen. NIN switched gears from pummeling triple guitar attacks to danceteria disco beats -- all spiced with Reznor's croon-and-bark vocals, and all in the midst of a wasteland stage-set that featured some of the finest lighting design of the season (very theatrical, get it?). A big-screen movie projector shot images of decaying animals, time-lapse landscapes and television static (which, God help us, drew cheers) onto a scrim fronting the band. It was the most powerful goddamn thing I've ever seen at an arena show, and while I still doubt I'll be listening to The Downward Spiral with any frequency, I'll say there's no better rock show on the road. Sometimes you're best impressed when you don't expect to be.
Afterward, like every other alt-rock groupie in town, I rushed over to Numbers to catch Courtney Love's Hole. I still maintain that Love's one hell of a songwriter, but on this night anyway, she was also a fucked-up histrionic twit with a shot-to-hell voice and an inability to generate excitement over anything but the titillating prospect that she might show the crowd her tits. The evening's two shows were staggered, ostensibly so that the presumed crossover crowd between NIN and Hole could spend money on both, but the opportunity for comparison did Hole nothing but harm. Reznor was powerful and, in his way, professional. Love was just pathetic.
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Halloween proved to be the "alternative" rock event for live music fans, so isn't it handy that programmers chose that very day to change the format at Shamrock Broadcasting's 107.5 FM from the "Classic Rock" it's been peddling for too many years now (since 1986, actually) to a new alt rock format described in the press release as "exclusively dedicated to artists such as Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Green Day, Smashing Pumpkins and others...." (Does anyone notice the cementing of the next decade's classic rock pantheon? Or find it odd that it's comprised, again, of male groups?)
You won't hear it on the slick new promotional spots, but program director Dan Michaels, news director Jackie Robbins, morning show host Mark Kessler, morning show producer David Webb and promotions coordinator Charlie Chow got canned in the transition to the progressive format, renamed Rocket 107 with call letters KRQT pending and seemingly modeled on alternative rock stations like Z-100 in New York.
How different is the new station going to be? Recent samplings indicate that the programmers' dedication to "new" music doesn't stretch far beyond the bands listed above (though I did hear a welcome Morphine track), but the classic rock that fills out, say, KLOL's part-time-modern programming is here replaced with what I'll call classic college rock -- Psychedelic Furs and the like. And the Rocket isn't pulling any punches when it comes to beating up on the competition. One recent promotional spot reads: "Hey KLOL, here's a lesson in music 101: play some new music." Of course the spot was followed with R.E.M.'s "What's the Frequency, Kenneth," which KLOL has had on heavy rotation for weeks, so I'm still waiting.
Cassette of the Week: Canvas' the summer edition is a five-song tape by the four-man band that mixes your standard guitar/bass/drums lineup with a violin. It turns out to be something that aspires alternately to thrashy metal and pensive art-rock. On the metal side, a lack of production values mars the proceedings, and few things sound more anemic than badly produced metal records. But don't hold that against Canvas, since this feature is dedicated to exclusively low-budget product anyway, and try to move on to the music -- basically, competent drumming and bass and an over-reliance on twiddly-twiddly metal guitar solos. On the more eclectic end of the Canvas spectrum, the violin screws up the metal formula at the same time that it adds a potentially interesting element to the stew. Kinda schizo. Opening track "Voyage of the Beagle" sets a sarcastic Rush-meets-some-band-with-a-violin tone, but like "Smoker's Anonymous" and "But I Can Hate Too," the mebbe-funny attitude fizzles in the title. "!Cancion!" shows off the fiddle in an oddly placed Latinesque instrumental, the balladish "Myself" fills out the tape, and that's that. can't really say that it's all pulled together into something with real punch, and the vocals have almost no impact, but Canvas is a little too willing to mix it up to write it off. Water's warm, but it may be a little while before it boils.