By Rick Polo (Editor-in-Chief)
By 1994, a paradigm shift took place in popular music, particularly that of rock and roll. Alternative music went mainstream, and Gen X music was at the forefront. Where acts like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and AC/DC that once reigned supreme had now fallen into parents’ record collections. New acts like Nirvana, R.E.M., Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam were among the crop of new “rock heroes,” all containing the same punk rock ethos and anti-establishment philosophies. And at head of this movement in 1994 was none other that industrial crossover act, Nine Inch Nails.
Lead primarily by the project’s mastermind, Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails had firmly established themselves within the alternative scene by the early 90’s. Taking influence from industrial pioneers Ministry and Skinny Puppy, and infiltrating alt-rock audiences like that of Jane’s Addiction and The Cure, NIN had carved out a very particular niche in the scene. Their debut, 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine, along with show-stopping performances at the inaugural Lollapalooza Festival tour, had landed them a large crossover audience between the industrial and alternative scenes. However, it would only prove to a glimpse of what was to come.
After the release of the Broken EP in 92, NIN clearly proved to be the darkest and heaviest of their peers with still a glimmer of commercial appeal. After breaking from their former label, TVT Records, Reznor and co. landed on the relatively new Interscope Records. Their new found freedom would prove productive, as the music had taken a turn in a much darker, menacing, and ultimately more satisfying direction for Reznor.
Relocating to Los Angeles and renting the infamous house where the Manson family had murder Sharon Tate and her entourage nearly two decades prior as a recording studio, NIN’s follow-up was shrouded in darkness and mystery from the get-go. From these sessions, The Downward Spiral was conceived and birthed. Where Pretty Hate Machine was still minor key yet up tempo and laid with pop hooks, The Downward Spiral was bleaker and far more experimental in sound.
The Downward Spiral is one of the heaviest albums ever made, yet has little to do with metal in a traditional sense. Sure, grinding distorted guitars are present and strung throughout. But the overall sound, the wailing atmospherics and layers of indefinable samples, only add to the noise, creating a mood that is often heavier than metal itself.
Opening with a sample from George Lucas’ THX 1138, the album kicks off with the industrial-metal slammer, “Mr. Self Destruct,” setting the angst-ridden and nihilistic tone of the album. After descending into pure noise, the drum and bass lead “Piggy” creeps a bit slower but equally effectively into the psyche of the listener. Reznor lifts the “God is dead” mantra of Nietzche as a line in his bleak railing against Christianity and organized religion on “Heresy,” and offers one of the most memorial slamming percussive assults ever recorded on the punk-ish “March of the Pigs.”
The album then takes its first of two dynamic left turns, going into the danceable Goth anthem, “Closer.” One of the only songs on The Downward Spiral to feature a notable hook, “Closer” may have had the naughtiest one of all time: “I want to fuck you like an animal, I want to feel you from the inside.” Despite this, the song became an unexpected hit, and the highest charting single for the band for the next 11 years. A very artistic video was directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) and featured heavy overtones of the juxtaposition of sex and religion in various manners. An edited version became a hit and went into regular rotation on MTV.
The album continues the angst and nihilism, painting the picture of an individual who is strung out, finished with love and religion, and in the throws of madness and addiction. Tracks like “Ruiner” (featuring one of the best guitar solos of the era), “The Becoming” and “I Do Not Want This,” indicate the character’s transformation, slipping further away from who they once were. The controversial “Big Man with a Gun,” pokes fun at male misogynist portrayals in pop-culture while reaching a new extreme of sonic and lyrical torment. The quieter and peaceful instrumental, “A Warm Place,” breaks the wall of noise only briefly before leading into the creeping “Eraser.” The sludgy Godflesh-like “Reptile” best portrays the anguish in Reznor’s voice before leading into the title track, leaving the listener to question whether the album’s character had actually committed suicide or just slipped completely,
Finally, it concludes with the second and final left turn, the relatively quiet and folk-sounding “Hurt.” Somber and gentle, yet painful and confessional, “Hurt” provides a look through the eyes of an addict, who as Reznor had explained is “left with only themselves at the end of the day.” The song would prove to be a popular hit among NIN fans, but would even see a far broader and unexpected audience when it was covered by Johnny Cash in 2003 as one of the last recordings he chose to make before passing away.
Despite its overall intensity and austerity, The Downward Spiral had helped break Nine Inch Nails into the mainstream. A few months following it’s release, the band took part in the 25th anniversary of the Woodstock festival, playing live to an estimated 5 million viewers and 100,000 in attendance. Their popularity soared, and the following Self Destruct tour, as well as the Outside tour with David Bowie only expanded their reach. By the end of the decade, The Downward Spiral would go on to sell over 5 million copies.
The pressure for a follow up proved to be a bit overwhelming for Reznor at the time. As he succumbed to the demons he addressed on The Downward Spiral, Reznor spent the most of the latter half of the 90’s battling depression and addiction. It would be 5 long years before The Fragile was released, and the music scene had drastically changed. The core audience was there, but the mainstream attention had mostly disappeared. By 2005, Reznor had kicked his demons once and for all and released the mega successful With Teeth, bringing the band back as one of the most important acts of the alternative and industrial genres. Their success would continue as the release of three more albums followed through the end of the 00’s. In 2013, Nine Inch Nails released their eighth album, Hesitation Marks, to positive reviews. The band, now 25 years into their career, still remains relevant and powerful despite entering into what’s quickly being considered classic rock.
20 years after its release, The Downward Spiral still holds up, and will still ruin your day if listened to in its entirety, almost like the Dark Side of the Moon for Gen Xers. It’s influence has stood the test of time, and it still remains a key gem of the band’s now massive discography. Tracks like “March of the Pigs” and “Reptile” are still staples at live shows, and it’s hard to find a “Greatest Albums of the 90’s” list without seeing it in a relatively high position. The underground appeal is still in tact as well, with an array of new post-hardcore, post-industrial, metal and Goth acts citing it as a key influence. And at the rate NIN are going these days, more of their records are bound to reach the level of iconography The Downward Spiral has.