Nothing Records

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!

REVIEW: Halford – Live Insurrection (2002 Japanese Import)

“Part 6 in a miniseries of reviews on Rob Halford’s solo career!  If you missed the last part, click here!”  That was a rhyme, that ain’t no crime…Breaking the Law!  Breaking the Law!

HALFORD – Live Insurrection (2002 Japanese Import)

Having a wealth of solo and Priest material to draw from, this seems like a good place for a double live album to drop.  And so it was; Live Insurrection, Rob’s first full-fledged live solo outing.  For me personally, this is the peak.  This Rob’s home run of solo projects.

Admittedly, there is a certain sense of Rob trying to bury parts of his recent past.  There are no songs from Two, and the set is Priest-heavier than prior tours.  I found the Halford band to be kind of faceless, a little devoid of personality.  They’re absolute pros and there is no question of them cutting it.  That’s not the issue, it’s just one of…I can’t hear the different personalities of the players, compared to Fight.

On the other hand, the setlist is so much richer than Fight used to do.  The songs are culled from the Halford album Resurrection, the Judas Priest back catologue, and the first Fight album, with a lot of added surprises.

These surprises include three studio tracks, two of which are tracks written by Judas Priest, but never released at the time! You also get Rob’s duet with Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, “live” (recorded during rehearsal I believe), and the two bonus tracks from the Japanese version of the Halford album, once again performed live. Rob even sings his first-ever solo track, “Light Comes Out Of Black” which was originally on the Buffy The Vampire Slayer soundtrack back in 1992. The Priest material is a great mix: old obscure stuff from Sad Wings and Stained Class, as well as more obvious stuff from Hell Bent and Screaming. Rob’s voice is in fine form, doing justice to the Priest and Fight material.

INSURRECTION_0004

Rob’s so hardcore, he stapled his fuckin’ forehead!

The Japanese bonus track is “Blackout”. Yes, the old Scorpions tune, and recorded here with a Scorpion: Rudolph Schenker! Halford easily handles Klaus Meine’s vocal part. It’s a great bonus track, easily worth the extra cash that I spent on this import version.  I got this from Amazon.com in 2002.

They give you lots of great packaging with this live album. Decent liner notes, lots of pictures, plenty to look at while you spend a couple hours listening to this platter of metal perfection.  Enjoy the feast.

5/5 stars

I’ll be taking a summer break from this series.  I’m a bit burned out on Halford albums now, and there are so many new arrivals to listen to!  But fear not.  I’ll be following this review with Crucible, another Japanese release, a box set, and more.

INSURRECTION_0003

REVIEW: Halford – Resurrection (2000)

Part 5 in a miniseries on Rob Halford’s solo career!  Missed the last part?  Click here!

HALFORD – Resurrection (2000 Japanese edition, 2008 remastered edition)

Note:  There have been several versions of this CD.  The original CD and Japanese import versions had a certain tracklisting, but the track order was changed up a bit for the Remastered edition (see tracklists at bottom).  Since that’s the version that’s out right now, that’s what I’ve decided to review.  I got mine in a combo pack with the DVD, Resurrection World Tour Live at Rock in Rio III.  Rob has also retroactively started to number his solo albums; as such the remastered version is technically Halford 1: Resurrection.

Voyeurs by Two was not a mega seller regardless of the association with Trent Reznor and Nothing Records.  Rob needed to return to heavy metal or risk alienating his fanbase.

RESURRECTION_0005I think pretty much everyone was enthused by the title track and lead off single, “Resurrection”.  This wasn’t techno wizardry with whispery vocals.  This was heavy metal, with screams!  Although Rob was already headed in that direction at the end of Two, while working with Bob Marlette, it is Roy Z that drives this one single home.  Yes, Roy Z, the Roy Z that Bruce Dickinson utilized to collaborate on many a great solo album.  With Halford now drinking at the well of riffage that is Roy Z, “Resurrection” was bound to smoke.  And it does.  Take the sound of classic Judas Priest circa Painkiller, adjust for 10 years of sonic trends, stir in Roy Z, and you have “Resurrection”.  Rob makes sure you know he’s serious from the very opening, screaming as only he can.

What I dislike are the lyrics.  “I walked alone into a Fight”?  Rob, you weren’t alone, you had Scott Travis with you!  “I tried to look too far ahead, and saw the road lead to my past instead.”  In other words, sorry about the Two album, this is what I really want to be doing.

The first three tracks totally smoke, all falling somewhere in a Defenders/Painkiller vibe of Priestly goodness.  At first I didn’t like “Night Fall”, the fourth track, too much.  Its redeeming value is a great chorus, totally in the Defenders mold.

“Silent Screams” is one of the songs that Rob was working on with Marlette at the end of Two.  Rob was especially proud of this lengthy number, and he released a demo version of it for free on his official website.  The demo version is an evolution from Two.  It has screams (appropriately enough) and heavy guitar riffs.  The album version has a more emotional lead vocal and tones down the keyboards.  The song is a bit slow and ploddy to start with but it is epic in quality and it sure does rock by the halfway point!

The big gimmick on the album was the duet with Bruce Dickinson, “The One You Love to Hate”.  The connection is Roy Z, but obviously a matchup like this would generate much hype.  Arguably the two best singers in metal, together at last.  Bruce sounds great, holding his own against the Metal God, who sounds vintage 80’s.  I have to say I enjoyed this one a lot.  Shortly thereafter, there were rumours of a coming supergroup called the Three Tremors – Rob, Bruce, and Geoff Tate of Queensryche.  All three artists were touring together at the time, but this idea was never meant to be taken seriously.

RESURRECTION_0002“Cyber World” is fast and heavy but unfortunately also boring and skip-worthy.  Likewise, the groovier “Slow Down”.  Dull title, dull song.  I tend to think of Resurrection as losing steam on side 2.  I guess that’s why the remastered edition inserts the Japanese bonus track “Hell’s Last Survivor” right here.  Sounding something of a Screaming for Vengeance outtake, I think this was placed here to compensate for some of the weaker tracks.

“Temptation” is a little on the boring side, so two new tracks are inserted at this point for the remastered edition:  “God Bringer of Death” and “Fetish”.  In my opinion it doesn’t sound like they belong here.  Rob’s voice had changed a lot in the 8 years since, and the sound is more like later Halford albums.  Neither song is particularly notable.

On the other hand, “Sad Wings”, which was previously only on the Japanese version, is awesome.  It has a sharp riff and a chorus that is designed to remind you what band he was the singer of.  This is followed by “Twist” which sounds like maybe it had its origins in Two, but I like it a lot.  “Drive” is also pretty decent, and the album ends with “Saviour” which has an anthemic chorus.

Bottom line:  Pretty decent if a bit safe comeback.  Rob wasn’t treading any new ground here musically, but Roy Z never fails to class up any album he’s on.  His tasteful and blistering solo work is just marvelous.

3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Two – Voyeurs (1998)

Part 4 in a miniseries on Rob Halford’s solo career!  Missed the last part?  Click here for Fight – A Small Deadly Space.

TWO – Voyeurs (1998 Nothing)

Fight was kaput.  Rob had a new band, a photo of whom appeared in Metal Edge magazine.  The band was called Halford, and although that would change, Rob used his surname for another band later on.  I remember a weird looking blonde dude wearing a silver skin tight suit of some kind (more on him later), and I thought, “Well, OK then.  This is going to be different.”  Soon after the Metal Edge photo, the name had changed from Halford, to Two.

I had a buddy, Nathan, who was really into Nine Inch Nails.  This Halford project was on his radar as well, due to Rob’s collaboration with Trent Reznor.  At the time, Rob Halford insisted that the resulting album, an industrial/rock hybrid, was the sound he was going for all along when he quit Priest in ’92 and formed Fight.

I don’t believe that, but they did come close on the Mutations EP. I think Fight was exactly what he wanted to do at that time. When the second Fight album fizzled I think Rob questioned his musical direction, hooked up with Trent, and did this experimental record.

Two (stylized as 2wo) were experimental by Halford’s standards, but not by industrial music standards in general. Voyeurs has all the expected bells and whistles, including but not limited to:  distorted vocals, the word “pig” in a song title, thumpy bass, ticky-ticky sounds, bloops, bleeps, and other stuff that sounds like broken machinery.

What does make this album special is that the band was “Two”, not “One”…meaning there is a second guy involved here, and what a talent he was. That guy was guitar player John 5. This was his breakthrough release. After this he hooked up with David Lee Roth, Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie, et al. John 5’s involvement means there is some wicked guitar work here, including “I Am A Pig” which features a solo that sounds like a mashup of Morello and Satriani.

Highlight songs include “I Am A Pig” (Reznor sure loves his pig imagery), “Stutter Kiss”, “Hey Sha La La”, “Water’s Leaking”, and the epic closer “Bed of Rust”.  “Bed of Rust” could have made a pretty cool Fight track.  I would say in fact that there are no throwaway songs here.  All of them have something worthwhile to offer.  Just don’t think too much about the lyrics.  Halford’s delivery is understated and, at times, whispery. No screams. At Reznor’s suggestion,  instead Rob explored other aspects of his voice.

Other notable names:  Bob Marlette plays bass and produces.  Dave “Rave” Ogilvie does some production work.  Trent Reznor “executive produced”.  I always wondered what that means.  I picture it meaning that Trent gives the project either a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down” when the real work is done.

JOAQIN

Of course many Priest fans didn’t get it, although a chunk of the Reznor fans (who at the time would buy anything on Nothing records) accepted and enjoyed the album for what it is.  I think if this was a release by a more popular band, like say Nine Inch Nails or KMFDM, it could have spawned two or three singles.

Japan had a bonus track called “In My Head” which is absolutely impossible to find, so good luck. I’ve never heard it.

3.5/5 stars

Postscript:

It was during this period, promoting the Two album, that Rob Halford came out.  People joked for a good number of years that Rob’s sexuality was the worst kept secret in rock.  That can’t negate the courage that it took for Rob to come out in a musical genre that isn’t always kind to anyone who’s “different” (hello, Blabbermouth!).

“I think it’s difficult for everybody, you know, in making the decision to come forward and be who you are, based on peer pressure, especially if you’re a teenager,” Halford said. “That’s where a lot of the anxiety begins, and so maybe people like myself and others that do step in front of a camera and let the world know, maybe it’s of some help, where there’s an individual that’s been successful, that’s been able to achieve dreams and visions and goals in life and not let the issue of sexuality be something to hold them back, so I think it’s an important thing.”

More:

LGTBICONS:  Rob Halford – Angel of Retribution

MTV News – Rob Halford Discusses Sexuality Publicly For The First Time