Aftermath: Nine Inch Nails at Toyota Center

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Photos by Mark C. Austin

Let’s get the obvious complaints out of the way. At 43, Trent Reznor has been selling angst since the late 1980s. It’s not exactly a revolutionary formula, and there probably were probably some original fans in the audience; think over-the-hill Goths wearing 20-year-old tour T-shirts. That said, Saturday night Nine Inch Nails delivered a damn good show with possibly the most innovative lighting design in the business.

Brooklyn-based openers A Place to Bury Strangers, kicked off the evening with their self-described “total sonic annihilation”. The three-piece took the opportunity to memorably assault listeners with about five minutes of pure, atonal distortion at the end of their set.

Is pain-punk a genre? If not, APTBS may have just created it. Frontman/guitarist Oliver Ackermann concluded with an exclamation point: ripping the strings out of his guitar and slinging it around before exiting the stage.

At that point, the Toyota Center looked only half full. As the tech crew revealed an elaborate wall of lights, a small cheer arose from the audience. Sometime during this transition, the crowd doubled. Perhaps the latecomers were getting “primed” outside.

NIN took the stage with a blitz of four songs from recent album The Slip - available as a free download at www.nin.com - “999,999,” “1,000,000,” “Letting You” and “Discipline.” Crowd-surfing began immediately, as did the fans’ assistance with smoke effects. (The latecomers had arrived.)

NIN's current touring lineup consists of Reznor, guitarist Robin Fincke, bassist Justin Meldal-Johnson, drummer Josh Freese and Alessandro Cortini, who stands in what looks like mission control and operates synths, soundboards, guitars and probably a NASA satellite somewhere. Cortini’s contributions are essential to the band’s ability to reproduce the complexity of its records live. In person, NIN sounds just as multi-layered as its albums and twice as intense.

The set, a whopping two hours of nearly 30 songs, continued with older material (“March of the Pigs,” the obligatory “Closer”) and songs from 2007’s Year Zero (“The Warning,” “Vessel”). Fans responded with a shirtless shoving match in the center of the pit. For all the testosterone-fueled aggression, though, the faux fights seemed more friendly than angry, and a three-song instrumental from this year's Ghosts I-IV calmed the rage.

The interlude was enhanced by projections of sand and moving clouds on triple-layered screens, which somewhat resembled chain-link fences and were raised and lowered throughout the concert either to surround or frame the band. It’s a difficult effect to describe.

To say there were rippling red bull’s-eyes, pulsing blue cells, snowy static and designs the humans onstage seemed to manipulate doesn’t really do those images justice. It was mind-bending, and elevated the music as a visual expression of NIN's industrial severity.

Reznor did not speak between songs until the encores (of which there were five). “I’m feeling shy tonight. I don’t feel like talking too much,” he said, before singing “Hurt”. Despite lyrics in which Reznor professes indifference, detachment, and complete lack of feeling, the energy of his performance could convince anyone that the exact opposite is true. - Linda Leseman

Note: a setlist from the show is posted here.

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