It’s the rare artist who doesn’t take an encore, rarer still one who skips one of the band’s biggest hits in concert. Nine Inch Nails did both on its surprise New York City club show Monday night (July 31) — a day after the group’s closing headlining set at the city’s Panorama Festival — but even without “Hurt,” an aching, intimate gem famously covered by Johnny Cash in 2002, NIN wowed the sold-out crowd in the steamy, 1,500-capacity venue.
Frontman Trent Reznor formed Nine Inch Nails nearly 30 years ago, and like Prince, initially played nearly all the instruments himself, NIN’s first three releases — 1989’s “Pretty Hate Machine,” 1992’s “Broken,” and 1994’s “The Downward Spiral” — establishing Reznor as a multi-platinum industrial-alternative auteur.
Songs from those early records though the July, 2017 “Add Violence” EP gave a depth and breadth to a 19-song-set that showcased Reznor’s deep catalog of darkly anthemic opuses.
As acrid smoke spewed from the simple, darkly lit stage, stage, NIN kicked off with a trio of propulsive songs: From 1999’s “Somewhat Damaged” to 2008’s “1,000,000,” Reznor’s cry of alienation — “I feel a million miles away/ I don’t feel anything at all” — clearly resonating with the shouting-along crowd.
The slow burn of “The Frail” and “The Wretched,” back-to-back tunes from 1999’s “The Fragile,” offered a musical breather from the kick-started set, delving into the cinematic side of Reznor’s writing. The group now includes Atticus Ross — with whom Reznor has scored the David Fincher films “The Social Network” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” winning an Oscar and a Grammy, respectively — as a fully-fledged member. Yet it’s guitarist Robin Finck — an off-and-on member since 1994 — who provides the perfect manic onstage foil for Reznor’s more controlled power.
Reznor has a powerful sense of dynamics and drama, both within his compositions and in the creation of a set list that ebbed and flowed, peaking with his grinding 1994 hit “Closer.” The 52-year-old singer spoke with the crowd only a few times during the set, once joking “sorry for f—ing up your Monday night plans,” thanking the crowd as it roared in approval.
If Reznor doesn’t say much from stage, his songs speak volumes, notably the edgy, energetic nervousness of “Survivalism.” It’s off NIN’s “Year Zero,” a Dystopian political concept album, where Reznor, seemingly prescient, sings, “I got my propaganda / I got revisionism / I got my violence, /In hi-def ultra-realism / All a part of this great nation.” Reznor did address the crowd post-song, noting, “I wrote this 10 years ago thinking it was science-fiction.” (If there was a time to make that shelved “Year Zero” movie, it’s now.)
“Less Than,” a new song from “Add Violence,” boasts an ‘80s-electronica propulsion so catchy it could be a pop-alt radio hit if covered by a twenty-something female, the bouncy mien undercut with pointed political lyrics: “Focus? / We didn’t even notice / We awake in a place / We can barely recognize.”
Nine Inch Nails have kept a low profile for several years, but with the release of two EPs (and a third on the way) and the promise of a 2018 tour, Reznor and Co. show signs of once again becoming ubiquitous. Closing with “Head Like A Hole,” the audience screaming along as one, “I’d rather die than give you control,” ended the evening on a high note. Even without the encore and expected “Hurt,” which has closed other recent gigs, the energized audience were left wanting little else.