Whether or not Nine Inch Nails qualifies as an industrial band remains one of the dumbest debates ever undertaken in music. Reviled by anachronistic purists still grousing decades later over how the genre got away from its throbbing, gristly origins, Trent Reznor did his time in the Chicago trenches. With credits on records by Pigface and Revolting Cocks, there should be no doubt of his roots. And yet, as the mastermind behind the most successful musical act to ever be associated with industrial, he still gets selectively snubbed by latter-day scenesters who probably wouldn’t have heard of the EBM artists they purport to listen to without that initial Reznor exposure.
Who needs ‘em? With two Billboard 200 chart-topping albums and three RIAA multi-platinum certifications for full-lengths, Nine Inch Nails (frequently abbreviated to NIN by fans) clearly captured a broader and more appreciative audience. While Reznor has collaborated over the years with legends like Adrian Belew, Dr. Dre, and Adrian Sherwood, the project has largely served his singular vision, one that is both darkly intimate and fundamentally apocalyptic. With a live band in tow, NIN persists as a powerhouse, letting his often maximalist works fill enormous spaces that typically host pop stars and sports teams.
Such a limiting term and framework as industrial undermines and underestimates the range and quality of Reznor’s music. While he’ll never get the credit that, say, Radiohead received for subverting genre while still entertaining the masses, there’s nonetheless a breadth to the band’s catalog as it approaches the thirty year anniversary mark next year. In light of this imminent event, now seems an entirely appropriate time to help guide you into the NIN discography.
So you want to get into: Hedonistic Heavy Metal NIN?
Twenty five years ago, industrial music changed forever. The September release of the Broken EP shoved all of that leather-clad nastiness and rubbed raw flesh of that truly subversive alternative scene into the oily faces of teenage American suburbanites like a stranger’s filthy unmentionables. After an alternating intro of static and drum, the jarring single “Wish” exploded like a nailbomb with its opening line—this is the first day of my last days—and mangled riff, only to detonate a secondary charge with its epic metal chorus. Taken from a subsequently banned longform video that seemed to portray a grisly murder, the song’s accompanying clip featured the band caged and writhing in performance while a surrounding horde of neo-neanderthals attempted to break through and tear the gents asunder. This display was unsettling even by MTV Headbangers Ball standards of the day, and it laid the groundwork for Nine Inch Nails’ imminent full-on mainstream breakthrough.
The sadomasochistic concerns of Broken and its even more depraved remix companion Fixed were not new ideas in metal specifically or in music generally. Yet rarely had the metaphors been so simultaneously overt and grave as on flagellants ode “Happiness In Slavery.” Continuing that shadowy sexuality, 1994’s The Downward Spiral opened with the sound of a literal beating, leading into the devastating and dogmatic “Mr. Self Destruct.” Recorded at the former home of Manson family victim Sharon Tate, nihilistic numbers like “Heresy” and “Reptile” exude dread and terror even as they appropriate metallic tropes including gratuitous soloing on the latter.
Yet all these brutal guitars existed to mask extraordinary pain, with painstakingly confessional lyrics both whispered and screamed. Never known for poetic qualities, heavy metal has rarely matched the topical tenor of “The Becoming” or with anything resembling Reznor’s grace. While later records considerably dialed back the aggression, NIN always seemed to leave a little room for it to return.
Playlist: "Wish" / "Mr. Self Destruct" / "The Idea Of You" / "Last" / "Heresy" / "Survivalism" / "Somewhat Damaged" / "March Of The Pigs"
So you want to get into: Naughty New Wave NIN?
Like scene progenitors Ministry before them, NIN didn’t start out as an industrial band, all gnashing gears and percussive pistons. Drawing obvious influence from the new wave and new romantic likes of Adam Ant, Depeche Mode, and Gary Numan, Reznor followed the synthpop path set by Al Jourgensen’s early gothy groover With Sympathy on 1989’s full-length debut Pretty Hate Machine. Some real NINcompoops will try and convince you that the Purest Feeling demos are worth tracking down, but the official versions of cuts like “That's What I Get” should suffice.
Though the genre often gets stereotyped for having an artificially bright sound, genuine darkness prevails with some of its finest practitioners. Numan’s Tubeway Army provided the necessary connective tissue between glam and new wave, and the connection between that group’s “Are Friends Electric” and “Down In The Park” with NIN’s “Closer” and “Every Day Is Exactly The Same” should be apparent to even the laziest of ears. While Reznor lacks the pipes of Dave Gahan or the idiosyncrasies of The Cure’s Robert Smith, he shares their glamorous glum on Pretty Hate Machine’s “Sanctified.”
Even as Reznor’s career progressed into the 21st century, a nostalgic appreciation for the purer electronics of his youth persisted. In recent years especially, the synthesizer freak has doubled down on these sounds for atypical singles like “Copy Of A” and deep cuts like Not The Actual Events’ “Dear World.”
Playlist: "That's What I Get" / "Less Than" / "Copy Of A" / "Every Day Is Exactly The Same" / "Dear World" / "The Wretched" / "Closer" / "Sanctified"
So you want to get into: Aggro Arena Rock NIN?
If the first time you ever saw NIN live was from the elevated VIP pavilion with a craft cocktail in hand at one of the big corporate American music festivals like Coachella, chances are you’d be into the more rockin’ stuff in the band’s catalog. While more conventional hard rock had crept its way into the fatty folds of lardaceous double disc set The Fragile, it took centerstage on 2005’s perfectly-titled comeback With Teeth. Guitars had regularly played a role in Reznor’s discography, but comparatively meatier bits like “The Collector” and “The Hand That Feeds” seemed to match the once wiry frontman’s now noticeably musclier beefcake image.
After years of terrifying stadiums with nightmarish noise, the more palatable fare of With Teeth and its dystopian 2007 follow-up Year Zero no doubt reflected a maturity for an artist on the so-called wrong side of 40. Ever the studio whiz, nuanced compositions like “The Beginning Of The End” and “1,000,000” offer sonic depth and even surprise, hardly the lumbering lunkhead rockers of your standard Nickelback clone or aging arena axeman. Strip away a few layers of distortion and an arty indie vibe emerges amidst some of this tougher material. Case in point: 2013’s critically-acclaimed Hesitation Marks showed off an unlikely angular approach with the boppy “Everything.”
Playlist: "1,000,000" / "The Collector" / "The Beginning Of The End" / "We’re In This Together" / "Everything" / "Discipline" / "The Hand That Feeds" / "Where Is Everybody"
So you want to get into: Tortured Torch Songs NIN?
A most improbable balladeer given the violent tendencies of much of the NIN discography, Reznor has been crooning since those Pretty Hate Machine days. The pining of “Something I Can Never Have” provides a suitable introduction to this satisfying section of his oeuvre.
Led by Reznor’s vulnerable voice, these tracks showcase a pensive sensitivity that generally gets buried in the waves of electronics and guitars. Most proper NIN albums boast at least one such example, as do the EPs. So impactful is this material to the fandom that the band could confidently choose the drumless “The Day The World Went Away” as The Fragile’s lead single, an otherwise audacious move in the five year album gap following The Downward Spiral. It peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, NIN’s best ever showing there.
Not surprisingly, these are the songs that provide respite from the fury evident during the band’s live shows. An indisputable classic, “Hurt” remains a showstopper, its heartrending contents proving eternal relatable to those whose lives his NIN’s music has touched. Worth noting: it even garnered a cover version by none other than The Man In Black himself, Johnny Cash.
Playlist: "Something I Can Never Have" / "Right Beside You In Time" / "Find My Way" / "The Fragile (Still)" / "The Day The World Went Away" / "The Great Below" / "Lights In The Sky" / "Hurt (Live)"
So you want to get into: Moody Ambient NIN?
Much like the noteworthy industrial musician Graeme Revell of SPK before him, Reznor made a fruitful transition into soundtrack work. Even before becoming director David Fincher’s go-to guy alongside partner Atticus Ross, that penchant for evocative sound design manifested both inside and apart from NIN, from the spare piano-led drone of “Another Version Of The Truth” and the delicate shoegaze of “Beside You In Time” to his discomfiting score for the PC video game Quake. Listening to The Downward Spiral’s beauteous breather “A Warm Place,” one might be bold enough to draw comparisons between Reznor and ambient pioneer Brian Eno.
Those who really want to bliss out or sulk should seek Ghosts I-IV, a nearly two hour long collection of original instrumentals. While some of the material spread across these four contained volumes recalls more song-oriented NIN material, a great deal of it truly celebrates serene motifs and clandestine diversions. Though considered primarily for completists, it could perhaps serve as a less caustic entry point into Reznor’s vast sonic worlds.
Playlist: "A Warm Place" / "13 Ghosts II" / "Another Version Of The Truth" / "Beside You In Time" / "Hand Covers Bruise" / "30 Ghosts IV" / "Adrift & At Peace" / "Videodrones; Questions"
Gary Suarez is a writer in New York. He's on Twitter.