The industrial revolution, musically speaking, has been touted as a potentially all-consuming force for more than 20 years now. Ever since the first Moog analog bleeped and gurgled its way onto the stage in the early 1970s, there has been some Herbert with a keyboard or a computer waiting to drive the final nails into guitar rock's coffin.
Funny, then, that most in the last big wave of industrial saviors -- Ministry and Nine Inch Nails and all of their multitudinous offshoots -- feature the guitar. It's usually played so loud and thick it could bury the entire new wave of British heavy metal under just one riff. Even alternative rock (a.k.a. industrial lite), plied there for a while at the end of the century, had as much to do with riffs 'n' dimples (a.k.a. rock 'n' roll) as it did with synths and ghostly visages.
In the end, we're right back where we started. Some rock bands use technology, some techno bands use guitars, and a bunch of purists still labor under the industrial flag and wander off into obscurity. But as happens with every cycle in pop culture's ever-turning wheel, somebody or some band eventually comes out on top. These days, when the words "industrial" and "rock" come together, that band is Nine Inch Nails.
In the studio, NIN has always followed the singular vision of leader Trent Reznor. Yet when on the road, the band is never just a solo artist and a faceless pack of backing musicians. It's an actual functional, organic group. There has also been far less personnel turnover in NIN than in many other stereotypical "bands." It's one of the many riddles surrounding Reznor: He runs his band as a monarch runs a kingdom, yet retains a devoted cadre of some of best musicians on the scene.
"When it comes to playing the songs live, Trent very much does not want to dictate what comes out," says longtime Reznor cohort and programmer Charlie Clouser. "He wants us to find the way we're most comfortable presenting them. He doesn't mind if we completely remove parts. I think it's kind of a relief for him to just be able to say, 'Guys, figure out how you want to play these songs. Listen to the CD. Here's the multitrack so you can analyze whatever part. I'll try to remember which guitar pedal I used on a given sound or whatever. But go and work it up, and let me know when you've got something we should listen to.' "
The challenge of reducing songs that are occasionally "a hundred tracks deep" to something that "five guys can plunk their way through on stage" is welcomed by Clouser, judging by his animated descriptions of the topic. "It's like you've got a skeleton, and you're sticking it in a pot of acid and boiling off all the extraneous bits of flesh."
The "accumulated debris" of two years in the studio has already been shaken off, Clouser says, just 14 shows into the tour. But the musicians now have to attend to other problems: Clouser reports that his "joints are creaking a little bit," and that he's got a nick or two. Still, his aches and pains are nothing next to Reznor's onstage whipping boy of choice, guitarist Robin Finck, who has ten stitches in his head after two separate accidents at the hands of Mr. NIN. Bassist Danny Lohner and drummer Jerome Dillon have so far managed to stay out of harm's way.
Wounds aside, NIN's onstage chemistry has spilled over into the recording studio, where the music has become decidedly more collaborative. "The first two or three Nine Inch Nails records, Trent played virtually every instrument and wrote virtually every note of music," says Clouser. "After The Downward Spiral [tour] ended, he invited Danny and I and the rest of the band to join him in New Orleans and participate collaboratively in the next album."
In the end, Lohner and Clouser were the only two who stayed, because of, according to Clouser, "an over-riding desire to be part of what we thought was going to be a fantastic process and a fantastic album."
The studio in New Orleans was set up in such a way that Clouser, Lohner and Reznor could each work in his own space and then, using an intranet network and a series of file servers, swap half-finished songs back and forth. "Trent would say, 'Hey, I've been working on this drum-and-bass groove, but I don't really know what to put on top of it. Why don't you guys do some overdubs and see what you can come up with and drop it on the server.' And that sort of thing wouldn't have happened in any sort of conventional studio environment, or any environment where Trent would have had to literally step aside and let me step up to the computer," says Clouser.
In addition to roughing out song ideas, the players used the system effectively in polishing the finished product. Clouser admits that it wasn't the most efficient way to record -- since experimentation was paramount, things that should have taken a day took a week -- but there can be little arguing with the resulting album.
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The Fragile is a piece of music that is simultaneously grandiose and immediate, abstract yet tactile. Human emotions are exposed and examined, and, in the end, a journey of some sort is completed. Get on wherever you want, ride however long you want. The effect is never diminished. Like Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, Fragile is not in any literal sense a concept album, yet it is communicating something large. "We all listen to Pink Floyd every week," Clouser says. "And we all listen to The Wall virtually daily. Because that's an extremely rare moment in music where the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts. If you break it down, it's just Roger Waters with a damn acoustic guitar and some of Dave Gilmour thrown in there. But it just transcends to some other level. And you're not quite sure why."
Programming, Clouser's forte, has as much to do with math and painting as it does with music: math, in that everything must be plotted precisely; painting, in that layers must be added one by one until a greater whole is accomplished. The ultimate goal, however, is making the machine sound natural. "There is also a conscious effort to try and make things so that they can't be reverse-engineered," says Clouser. "So that you can't figure out how the hell they did that. And it's not just to confound and confuse the listener, but rather to satisfy ourselves."
Clouser has been at this for so long -- he got his first synthesizer in 1978 -- that the challenge is now "creating a sound today that I've never heard before." "Or," he adds, "better yet, that nobody's ever heard before." And unlike any traditional air-vibrating instrument, you're not going to create that noise by accident. You've got to go in there and find it. "The focus in Nine Inch Nails is on some abstract whole, not on 'What do you mean there's no bass in this song?' Picture having a Rob Zombie song with no bass. It's not gonna happen. But in Nine Inch Nails, sometimes there're no drums. Sometimes there's no bass. Sometimes there're no vocals. The playing field is wide open."
Nine Inch Nails performs Monday, May 22, at Compaq Center. For more information, call (713)629-3700.