Woodstock ’94 plucked its emblem from an unlikely quarter: Not from the live- or-Memorex? motions undertaken by ’69 veteran acts, nor the calculated homages sprung by neo-hippies, nor even the MTV angst riffed out by neo-punks. Rather, the Return-to-the-Garden found itself on a descent into Hell. As a neon-blue glow blotted out Hudson Valley’s stars, mud-glazed Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor carved a mega-decibel anthem for the ’90s when he howled, ”I want to f— you like an animal!!”
At that moment Reznor, 29, reacquainted rock & roll with terror, and marked himself as the incarnation of cutting-edge music — a shaman as intimate with technology as with alienation. ”I am the voice inside your head … I am the hate you try to hide,” his electronically bruised voice growls on ”Mr. Self Destruct,” the
first song on his masterful, platinum-selling exercise in self-flagellation, The Downward Spiral. And indeed, the abrasive furnace blasts of feedback, screams, and RAM-beats hurled forth on Nine Inch Nails albums (which so far have been essentially one-man studio projects, with musicians hired for touring) snuggle against the psyche like a nightmare.
Which explains why his first album, 1989’s industrial disco epic, Pretty Hate Machine, has sold over a million copies and topped Billboard‘s pop catalog chart, why 1992’s nail-bomb EP Broken won a Grammy, and why Spiral — Reznor’s first full-length release under his agreement with Interscope Records — stands as possibly the most chilling album ever to debut at the No. 2 spot on the album chart. Not surprisingly, Reznor recorded that album at the L.A. mansion where actress Sharon Tate and her friends were killed 25 years ago.
The magnitude of Reznor’s talent reveals itself in his side projects — a collage soundscape for Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers; assaultive videos that milk art from perversion (including one, for ”Down In It,” that sparked an FBI investigation because it so closely resembled a snuff film); and his and his manager’s own label, Nothing, whose roster includes eviscerating industrial-influenced acts Marilyn Manson and Pop Will Eat Itself.
But it’s Reznor’s live show that has graduated the black-clad Pennsylvania country boy from cult figure to idol. Pounding keyboards to dust with his mike stand, ricocheting off his oft-bloodied bandmates, and roaring with the fervor of a prophet or a psychopath, Reznor unstrings rock to its horrifying, melodramatic core — an experience as draining as it is exhilarating.
”Your world changes,” murmurs Reznor, who is producing an abstract Spiral film as well as a live video while wrapping up Nine Inch Nails’ yearlong tour. ”You’re surrounded by people that treat you like a freak, that cater to your every whim and treat you like a god and look at you like you’re not the same anymore. And if you never did fit in, now even though you’re the president of the club, you’re that much more alienated in a strange way.” That’s why he’s been elected.