Nine Inch Nails strip it down, wake us up

Nine Inch Nails headlined Monster Energy Music Festival on Oct. 21. Photo by Steve Thrasher

Eerily setting the mood with a rendition of Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks track, “Fireman,” Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor kicked off the night with “Branches/Bones” and lit the crowd on fire. Sullenly shimmying and gripping his mic, Reznor ‘s massive, black silhouette hovered over 50,000 people Oct. 21 at Monster Energy Aftershock Festival in Sacramento. And as each note synched with bursts of bright light, I reveled in a sweet dopamine high.

But something was different that night. NIN sets are always beautifully aggressive, but Reznor’s carnal presence was more unforgiving than usual. The music was stripped down, invasive and raw. Wide-eyed and impatient, I let its sharpness crawl up my arms.

NIN frontman Trent Reznor at Monster Energy Aftershock Festival on Oct. 21. Photo by Steve Thrasher

Maybe it was because he played a Vegas show the night before, just weeks after 59 people were murdered at a music festival. The city is also a reminder of the late concert photographer Andrew Youssef, who Reznor paid tribute to during the last week of his life by FaceTiming him on stage in 2013.

Whatever it was, it was powerful. It wasn’t until mid-set that Reznor slowed it down a bit, playing “Until the Frail” followed by “Something I Can Never Have.” Every time I hear that song I let the lyrics flood my body, rekindling lost pieces of my childhood that sometimes only music can mend.

“My favorite dreams of you still wash ashore

scraping through my head ‘till I don’t want to sleep anymore

you make this all go away

I just want something

I just want something I can never have.” — “Something I Can Never Have,” Pretty Hate Machine (1989)

People danced to “Closer,” got nostalgically broody to “Head Like a Hole,” “March of the Pigs,” and “Reptile,” but they also soaked in newer release, “Burning Bright.” A fire-red glow illuminated the stage while Reznor screamed into a megaphone and brought back the animalistic feelings of the good-ol’-days.

NIN frontman Trent Reznor played for nearly 50,000 people in Sacramento. Photo by Steve Thrasher

Reznor was joined by collaborator/co-writer Atticus Ross — with whom he crafted numerous movie soundtracks (Gone Girl, Before the Flood) — and longtime touring NIN guitarist Robin Finck and drummer Ilan Rubin. Touching on material from EP’s Not the Actual Events and Add Violence, they also played a track or two from each studio album in NIN’s notable catalog except the 2013 album, Hesitation Marks.

I’ve often thought about what I’d say to Reznor if ever given the opportunity. It’s a complicated beast explaining how or why you love what you listen to.

My unrelenting admiration of NIN started when I was a kid. I’d play Downward Spiral in my bedroom, stand on a chair, close my eyes and try to touch the ceiling with my fingertips. Sometimes I’d lay in bed with headphones on and wonder if I’d ever find a sustainable emotional balance within myself.

My already-absent father had died, there was a lot going on at home, and not unlike many of us, I felt alone. I fiercely sought acceptance in music, and NIN uncovered my pain. But his cocktail of noise also eased that suffering and gave me permission to feel.

“You extend your hand to those who suffer

to those who know what it really feels like . . .

and maybe this is all I have

and maybe this is a cry for help

I do not want this” — I Do Not Want This, Downward Spiral (1994)

NIN also headlined FYF Fest in Los Angeles (pictured above) earlier this year. Photo by Nicole Baptista

NIN isn’t just the soundtrack of much of my life — it offered understanding at my most crucial turning points.

I daydreamed of being a fiercely independent non-conformist while listening to “Heresy” at 10 years old. I danced in my kitchen with my roommate to “Hand That Feeds” before hitting the bars on Friday nights. I listened to “Afraid of Americans” and read intimate interviews about Reznor’s relationships with David Bowie, drugs, alcohol, and recovery. I flew to Colorado to see the Hesitation Marks Tour at Red Rocks just before leaving my last love, hitting bottom and getting sober myself. Reznor’s music always has something to offer — mostly love and acceptance.

It’s why the crowd stood in silence during the mournful tribute to his idol, David Bowie on Saturday night. You could hear the flickering of thousands of lighters during Reznor’s poignant cover of the Blackstar cut, “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

NIN and Bowie teamed up for a tour in the summer of 1995 and later, Reznor talked about how Bowie inspired not only his music but his sobriety in an issue of Rolling Stone: “It feels like the loss of a mentor, fatherly figure, someone looking out for you, reminding you that in a world where the bar keeps seeming to be lower, where stupidity has got a foothold, there is room for excellence and uncompromising vision.”

So, if I could say anything to Reznor it would be, thank you.

Photo by Steve Thrasher

We all understand a song or an album in a different way. It’s the beauty in loving art. Our interpretations lead us to better understandings of ourselves. And Aftershock offered so many different experiences to do just that; my favorites being Mastodon, A Perfect Circle, Run the Jewels, and Eagles of Death Metal. Even after Marilyn Manson dropped off the bill, audiences came out in droves to see everyone from Ozzy Osbourne to Power Trip on Sunday. A perfect bill fit for any metalhead, industrial/goth kid, or hard rock fan out there.

Setlist:

Fireman (Angelo Badalamenti cover)

Branches/Bones

Wish

Letting You

March of the Pigs

The Frail

Reptile

Closer

Less Than

Gave Up

I Can’t Give Everything Away (David Bowie cover)

The Background World

1,000,000

The Great Destroyer

Burning Bright (Field on Fire)

The Hand That Feeds

Head Like a Hole

Encore:

The Day the World Went Away

Hurt