Hurt

REVIEW: Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral (1994)

NINE INCH NAILS – The Downward Spiral (1994 Interscope) halo eight

“Trent is God!” shouted the chorus of ’94 kids.  Who, Trent Reznor?  From that electronic band?  Why was he God all of a sudden, and what happened to Eric Clapton?

The Downward Spiral happened, and Trent Reznor had a legitimate claim to genius now.  Though not as immediate as Pretty Hate Machine, nor as heavy as Broken, The Downward Spiral was complex and layered beyond those other two albums.  At 65 minutes it was ambitious, stratified and diverse beyond Reznor’s earlier works.  It is an angsty semi-autobiographical concept album about a literal downward spiral, through drugs, religion, violence, ending with nothing left.  Most importantly it was magnetic.  You could not stop listening to it.  Its impact was inevitable.  Angry young kids got it.

Opening with the sound of a severe beating from the movie THX-1138, “Mr. Self Destruct” soon explodes with guitars, static, whispers, and vocals buried deep in the mix.  All ingredients expertly mixed in a jarring cacophony that is anything but.  Whatever is going on in this song, the riff kicks ass and the soupy mix just makes it heavier.  Then suddenly, everything drops out and Trent whispers “You let me do this to you (I am the exit),” an abstract lyric that still manages to chill the bones.  It all explodes again, with layers of heavy building and building until once again they suddenly stop, and loops of guitars take you out.  Adrian Belew contributed guitar.

The most minimalist song in construction was also one of the more popular:  “Piggy”.  It’s a sparse construction of bass and beat, with some adornment from keyboards and samples of what sounds like screaming.  This song increases in tension.  There’s no serious release of the tension until “Heresy”, which explodes once more with heavy.  A distorted, underwater Reznor sings in a creepily catchy falsetto while the fattest of synth beats pound in behind.  Then suddenly he bellows, “God is dead, and no one cares!  If there is a hell, I’ll see you there!”  And the 1994 children of nihilism raised their fists in gleeful despair.  An album highlight.

First single “March of the Pigs” is sloppily heavy; a staggering beat and a lot of distorted yelling.  A big fat keyboard lick in behind, and suddenly the tune just blows up.  The samples create the ambience of a screaming audience.  Trent’s distorted singing (different on every song) is strangely compelling and it makes it that much more powerful when he sings clean.

We arrive at the most irritating song, and also one of the most popular:  “Closer”.  Notable only for the chorus of “I wanna fuck you like an animal”, it has a danceable quality but this song is really only for the novelty.

“Ruiner” is an interesting deep cut with a solid beat and catchy synth.  Trent seems really pissed off, just before the song transforms into a synthy anthem of destruction.  A cool distorted backwards-sounding guitar solo defies convention.  The refrain of “nothing can stop me now” recurs from “Piggy”, reminding us that this is indeed a concept album.  Then the sound of screaming backs “The Becoming”, another deep cut with intense lyrics of internal struggles.  There’s a haunting acoustic chill-out, but it doesn’t last.  This is some of Trent’s most twisted and brilliant production.

Drums, piano and heavy riffing create an uncomfortable balance on “I Do Not Want This” and Trent’s chorus of “Don’t you tell me how I feel!” resonated.  A wild drum beat and another guitar riff brings on “Big Man With A Gun”, the shortest song at only a minute and a half.  But it’s a hell of a minute and a half.  A bit heavy on the phallic references, but hey.  Then suddenly everything cools down on the instrumental “A Warm Place”.  Truly one of Reznor’s greatest constructions, “A Warm Place” quietly comforts us after all the shouting and screaming.  The layers of audible warmth have melody and delicacy that other songs tend to avoid.

“Eraser” spits and whines, before the drums wake the dead and some odd sounding guitars make their entrance.  “Eraser” slowly builds, until Reznor comes in screaming with a riff from hell.  There is so much going on in some of these songs that it is easy to forget how riff-heavy they can be.  On Broken, the riffs were often the main feature.  On Downward, the riffs are accompanied by other major parts to the whole construction.

The lengthy “Reptile” uses the sound of a Polaroid camera to great rhythmic effect.  This sound is a pounder with a nasty bite.  “You have the blood of reptile, just underneath the skin,” accuses Reznor to someone he clearly does not care for anymore.  It’s an angry song among many angry songs, but also a clear standout.

A familiar melody from “Closer” recurs on the acoustic portion of “The Downward Spiral”.  To say “acoustic” is of course silly; that refers only to the acoustic guitar sitting among the Beatles-esque soundscape of loops.  Just past halfway, the song goes completely nuclear with screams, whispers and distorted instruments, all buried as if underwater.

This symphony of cacophony transitions into the most famous song.  Reznor once acquiesced  that “Hurt” was now Johnny Cash’s song, but they can certainly co-exist as uniquely brilliant, each in their own way.  Nine Inch Nails utilize piano, strange guitars that sound out of tune, and wind-like samples that make it sound as if you’re on the surface of Mars.  Like many of the songs on The Downward Spiral, “Hurt” builds and builds and builds like a tantrum.  Reznor’s pained lead vocal is only one of many enticing pieces of the whole.  What Cash did, remarkably in fact, was to take “Hurt” and figure out how to make it work as an acoustic ballad.  What Reznor did was conclude his magnum opus with its best song, and most impactful.

On a personal anecdote, The Downward Spiral was one of the more irritating albums for us to stock as a used CD back in the day.  It is housed in a slimline CD single case with its own inner sleeve, and outside that was a different cardboard sleeve and a gorgeous lyric book.  The lyric book itself is loaded with cool imagery, but it seems a lot of people lost or tossed it, along with the outer cardboard sleeve.  We had two or three different price points for the album depending on how complete it was.  The worst were the customizers who would cut out the outer sleeve to fit it inside a standard jewel case.  Eventually we just started to pass on copies that didn’t come with all the stuff.

The Downward Spiral is industrial music, progressive rock, heavy metal, and punk rock filtered through the unique ear of a man getting out some serious deep-down kind of stuff.  There’s a lot of audible pain.  Yet it is certainly more complex than that, both lyrically and sonically.  Is Trent God?  No — but he is an artist and this is a brilliant piece of art.

5/5 stars

The Downward Spiral is also available in a 2 CD deluxe edition that we will look at in the future!

Epic Nigel Tufnel Top Ten Cover Tunes Lists!

“I think it was safe to say that was by far my most favourite show.” – Chris T

Thank you Rob, Aaron, T-Bone, Harrison and Meat Man for tonight’s amazing panel.  The theme was Nigel Tufnel Top Ten Cover Tunes, brought to you by Meat.  Six lists, 66 songs, and very little overlap.  Having said that, there was one tune that made three lists, from an album that made four lists.  Watch the show to see what it was, or read Aaron’s notes below!

The lists commence at 0:20:30.

Incidentally, this show was record setting in terms of audience participation.  So many amazing picks and comments — most of them made in on screen, so check them out.

Once again your panel for this show was:

REVIEW: Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around (with DVD, 2003)

For Lara, and Rob.
CASH FRONT

JOHNNY CASH – American IV:  The Man Comes Around (2003 American)

I have published over 300 reviews here at mikeladano.com (use the search button on the top right to look up anything you want).  Yet, I still hadn’t got around to Johnny Cash!  That’s strange, because Johnny Cash is very special to me.

Everybody “says” they love Johnny Cash.  Many of them jumped on board when he died and became “cool” again.  Take Dandy, for example, a trend chaser who inked Johnny’s face on his arm a few months after he died.  But hey, if you’re on board now, that’s cool.  There’s plenty of room for everyone.

Johnny Cash was my first concert.  In Canada in the early 1980’s, Johnny had an endorsement deal with Canada Trust, where my dad worked.  Their brand new ATM machines were called Johnny Cash machines, and my dad even had some promotional Johnny Cash bills, a cool marketing gimmick.  He went to see Johnny, his idol, when Johnny came to town.  The first night of a two-nighter, my dad met him.  On the second night, he brought me along (I didn’t get to meet him).  Johnny modified his original concert opening by saying, “I’m Johnny Cash, 24 hour money machine” (in reference to the ATMs).  I still remember June kicking off her shoes!

The Man Comes Around is my favourite of the American Recordings, helmed by Rick Rubin.  It was also the last one released in Johnny’s lifetime.  It is, all at once, extremely powerful, morose, joyful, and catchy.  All filtered through Johnny’s unmistakable baritone, worn and weary but no less strong and expressive.  Like other American albums, it is a mixture of originals and covers, oldies and more recent fare.

The most well-known song on American IV was “Hurt”, the Nine Inch Nails cover.  It is remarkable by being so different, yet true to the spirit of the original.  I prefer Johnny’s take on it to Trent’s, truthfully.  “Hurt” is only one of many remarkable covers on this album.  Johnny and Fiona Apple tend “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, with quiet mellotron in the background.

My favourite song is Sting’s “I Hung My Head”.  I couldn’t believe the credits when I read that (having skipped Sting’s Mercury Falling album).  I thought for certain this had to be a new Cash original.  Lyrically, I was convinced this tragic tale came from the mind of the Man in Black, but I was wrong.  It’s a spellbinding song, painting a clear picture, and Johnny’s delivery is perfect.

“In My Life” is the favourite of Mrs. LeBrain.  She’s a huge Beatles fan.  We selected this song for the signing of the register at our wedding.  I received kudos on the musical selection from Tom Morwood and Jen’s Uncle Rick, who loved the Johnny.  While very different from the Beatles version, I think I can safely say I like both equally.

I’m not too keen on the Depeche Mode cover (“Personal Jesus”), but I don’t like Depeche Mode much.  I know some who think the cover is brilliant, so we’ll go with that.  Johnny and Rubin tranform the song into a dark acoustic stomp.

Other highlights include the classic “Sam Hall”, which Johnny also performed on his 1965 album, Johnny Cash Sings Ballads of the True West.  I love Johnny’s energetic delivery on this traditional.  We enjoyed this one at the record store, a lot.  “Danny Boy” is another from 1965 (Orange Blossom Special) that Johnny takes a second crack at.  This time it’s a more intimate affair without the backing vocals.  Johnny compensates with his rich storyteller’s voice, each flaw telling a story of its own.

Elsewhere, I love “Desperado”.  And that’s interesting because like the Dude, I hate the fuckin’ Eagles.

The album closes with “We’ll Meet Again”, the Vera Lynn classic.  I always think of Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove) when I hear this song.  So for me, I can hear a sly wink in “We’ll Meet Again”, a hint of humour, as if Johnny knew this would be the last song on the last album released in his lifetime.

HURTBut it’s not really the last song.  On my wishlist is the vinyl edition, which had two bonus tracks: Marty Robbins’ “Big Iron” (another personal favourite) and an exclusive version of “Wichita Lineman”.

My copy of the album came with a bonus DVD.  Nothing to get excited about, it’s just the music video for “Hurt”.  Granted that’s a great video, but the DVD is less special in 2013 than it was in 2003.  Now, everybody Youtubes.

Wow, I just used “Youtube” as a verb.

Anyway.  5/5 stars!