Nine Inch Nails Exert Brutal Intensity at Troubadour Club Show: Live Review

Nine Inch Nails performs during the 2013 Budweiser Made In America Festival at Benjamin Franklin Parkway on September 1, 2013 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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"I almost forgot we have a new record out today..."

So exclaimed Trent Reznor midway through a private Nine Inch Nails concert held Tuesday night (Sept. 3) at Los Angeles' famed Troubadour club. Hosted by KROQ, with tickets distributed free to NIN fans, the event ostensibly celebrated the release of "Hesitation Marks" -- the first album put out under Reznor's NIN moniker in half a decade. However, the first new song played that night, "Disappointed," came 11 songs in -- one of just three "Hesitation Marks" tracks appearing in the entire 21-song set. Instead, the Troubadour show came off more as a rich, personal tribute to NIN's entire legacy than a mere promotional event.

Troubadour Setlist, September 3, 2013

1. Somewhat Damaged
2. The Beginning of the End
3. Terrible Lie
4. March of the Pigs
5. Piggy
6. The Line Begins to Blur
7. The Frail/ The Wretched
8. I'm Afraid of Americans (David Bowie cover)
9. Gave Up
10. Sanctified
11. Disappointed
12. The Warning
13. Find My Way
14. Came Back Haunted
15. Wish
16. Survivalism
17. Burn
18. The Hand That Feeds
19. Head Like a Hole
20. La Mer
21. Hurt

This was indeed no victory lap. The Troubadour show found the current unit -- including longtime Reznor foil Robin Finck handling primary guitar duties, Ilan Rubin on drums, Alessandro Cortini on synths/keyboards and Josh Eustis on bass (with all members switching roles and instruments at various times) -- as brutally intense as ever. With Reznor serving, naturally, as the passionate heart of the proceedings, NIN here set a new benchmark. NIN have a reputation as one of rock's greatest live bands, but this show found the group attaining new heights via a rare, vividly minimal approach. 

Reznor is renowned for the ambition of his multimedia live spectacles, and in 2013 alone -- five years after the allegedly "final" NIN performances -- he will have toured two different, elaborate stage productions: one for past summer festival dates, and another for the upcoming "Tension 2013" global jaunt kicking off September 28th in 18,000+ seat arenas. But here, stripped of all visual production save some strobe lights and smoke, Reznor's greatest special effect proved to be the utter commitment he brings to performance -- foregrounding the human element as much as NIN's brutal trademark technological precision.

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Inside the 400-maximum capacity Troubadour, NIN proved all about interplay -- between the band members, between the audience – the intimate setting making the performance almost emotionally overwhelming. Reznor hit the stage in a Rick Owens sleeveless black shirt and matching man-skirt, revealed a ripped physique that was glistening with sweat in no time. On opener "Somewhat Damaged" from NIN's 1999 masterpiece "The Fragile," Reznor headbanged and pogoed like a giddy madman. As such, throughout the set, Reznor proved the consummate frontman, banging a tambourine on "The Beginning of the End," giving a little boogie hip shake to the Berlin techno grooves powering another new track, "Disappointed." For all his angst, he seemed to be having a hell of a good time.

Most impressive was how the band transformed anew selections from the NIN catalogue, split roughly across the studio albums that defined the band's career: 1989 debut "Pretty Hate Machine," the 1992 follow-up EP "Broken," 1994's hit "The Downward Spiral," and "The Fragile," through 2005's "With Teeth" and 2007's "Year Zero" (but curiously omitting both NIN albums of 2008, "The Slip" and experimental instrumental opus "Ghosts I-IV"). Songs like "March of the Pigs," "Survivalism," and "Burn" highlighted NIN's punk vitality; often driven by a hardcore oompah beat, these songs became even more visceral in this setting, evoking a more digitally-driven Minor Threat at times. At others, the group revealed a surprising fluid swing. "Piggy" had a compelling, almost bluesy lurch that recalled The Birthday Party; Rubin in particular imbued "Wish" with a John Bonham-esque stomp, and gave "Terrible Lie" jazzy, Sabbath-style fills that provocatively contrasted the rigid industrial drum-machine thump, ramping up the spontaneity. In this context, moment to moment, seemingly anything could happen.

This might be the most exciting incarnation of NIN yet: the radicalism and fury that's always been Reznor's signature was here rendered with an assurance and, dare we say it, grace. Hearing the fresh tracks off "Hesitation Marks" against stone NIN classics demonstrated just how far Reznor has come. Putting current single "Came Back Haunted" in close proximity to NIN breakthrough track "Head Like a Hole" proved especially telling: both drew powerfully from the same cesspool of tortured introspection, yet "Came Back Haunted" expressed an insight and depth well beyond the brash expressionism of youth. NIN still remains all about release, but what's ultimately compelling is how Reznor expresses that in varied forms and dynamics. The most crushing moments in fact came via the quietest ones -- from the spare piano intro of "The Frail" and the xylophone-enhanced, atmospheric post-rock instrumental "La Mer," to the inevitable encore of NIN's dark, mesmeric ballad, "Hurt." It was a climax par excellence: following the preceding hour-plus of jackhammer guitars and scream therapy, on "Hurt," Reznor made clear he could devastate you with just a subtle piano line and a whisper.

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