Trent Reznor now looks like Greg Dulli acts. Dude is buff all of a sudden -- BALCO'd out and shit. Towering over his adoring legions Thursday night at the Warfield, the Nine Inch Nails frontman's muscles glistened with pro wrestler intensity and confidence. A momentary triumph of animal lust over superhuman self-loathing, he has mastered the art of disguising the latter as the former.
Mr. Reznor has somehow managed to become Alternative Nation's most believable and ludicrously unbelievable icon, rising to prominence via industrial angst-rock as cartoonishly melodramatic as Puffy Amiyumi is cartoonishly joyous. The classic '90s albums on which his empire is built -- Pretty Hate Machine (profoundly well titled) and The Downward Spiral (ditto) -- are howling, soul-baring screeds so outsized they might as well have been performed by satanic Pokémon characters.
In high school, The Downward Spiral was my ultimate spazz-out headphone album, describing every pang of confusion, depression, and rage I felt or ever would feel, personified by marching pigs, venomous reptile women, unfeeling (if not entirely nonexistent) gods, not particularly vague odes to suicide, and above all, a perverse sort of self-confidence -- the album's constant refrain was Nothing can stop me now. Trent understood me, man.
With the benefit of hindsight and cynicism, I now find Spiral hilarious. But although altered, my vast affection for it remains. The record still holds up. It put a song with the chorus I want to fuck you like an animal on mainstream radio. And Trent is still standing, and standing onstage at a packed SF club in 2005, pounding a piano and wailing You can have it all/My empire of dirt/I will let you down/I will make you hurt as his disciples wave lighters overhead like baptismal flames, reveling in a sonic guilty pleasure crafted by a man who feels guiltier than all of his fans combined.
He is here to pimp With Teeth (With-tha! Teeth-tha!, as he sings it), six years after his highly experimental, unfairly maligned two-disc monstrosity The Fragile. To complement the Superman physique, Reznor is eager to show he has gone back to the basics: beans, meat, cheese, and fury. NIN gigs are notoriously shrill, violent, and essentially atonal, blunting the impact of Trent's carefully layered Teenage Symphonies to Manson. Thus the Warfield gig was all guitar pummeling and blaring testosterone, with the keyboard trickery and prerecorded loop action still there but significantly diminished. Leading a quintet of goth-lookin' badasses (he must get a bulk Sam's Club discount), Trent flaunted With-tha Teeth-tha's finer moments, from galloping space-hardcore blasts such as "You Know What You Are" and "Love Is Not Enough" to brighter, poppier moments like "The Hand That Feeds," an absurdly catchy disco-metal single that makes you wanna grit your teeth and jab your finger at your car stereo in 4/4 time. Delightful.
Like all NIN hoedowns, Teeth can drone on a bit, but its tunes mixed in well with the hit parade the Warfield crowd eagerly anticipated. Downward Spiral's "Piggy" is still fantastic, a fuzz-bass film-noir lullaby with an uneasy tension that proves Reznor is no steakheaded hack. "Closer" (the bestial sex one, eh) is still alt.rock's unlikeliest mega-anthem. The band's more vitriolic moments, both old ("Wish") and newish ("Starfuckers Inc."), are good both for a laugh and an elbow to the head from your wildly gesticulating Concert Neighbors. But the crowd went craziest for "Terrible Lie," a Pretty Hate Machine highlight that combines dizzy dance-pop with gothic menace far better than his endless stream of imitators -- Gravity Kills, Stabbing Westward, Prick, Orgy, Filter, God Lives Underwater -- ever did. Yes, it's all a guilty pleasure to be sure, and a bit whiny and ham-fisted, but then, doesn't it make you feel better?
Speaking of Trent's army of imitators, it would've been easy to dial one up as the show's opener, but instead we got a drastically divergent act that better illustrates the legacy Nine Inch Nails will leave behind: the Dresden Dolls. The Boston duo keeps returning to SF for increasingly populous shows, and it's easy to understand the gothic drama club appeal -- she (Amanda Palmer) pounds a piano and moans Poe-inspired poesy in a husky voice, while he (Brian Viglione) pounds the drums in a surprisingly expert manner whilst looking like a combination of Marcel Marceau and Crispin Glover.
The band's own descriptor -- "Brechtian punk cabaret" -- works as well as anything. It's over-the-top stuff, what with Crispin Marceau's wide-mouthed cymbal-bashing and Amanda's splay-legged piano humping -- which made the Warfield Dude Quotient's collective bow tie spin. (She posted a lengthy "Do I love or hate Tori Amos" tract on the band's Web site, ultimately settling on love.) But it isn't just frivolous Beach Blanket Bingo camp: "Coin-Operated Boy" is a clever enough vibrator ode to barnstorm steakheaded rock-radio, and though this is the second keyboard-and-drums duo with a vague interband romantic history to cover "War Pigs" recently (Quasi did it too), the Dolls delivered it with a touch less self-indulgence.
This was certainly a radical departure from the usual Reznor-inspired hoo-hah. Trent is usually pilloried for his role in the whole Nü-Metal Atrocity, but the Dolls posit another way to view his legacy: He inspired legions of outcast drama-club geeks to indulge their own bombastic, outlandish, over-the-top artistic impulses -- a voice to the voiceless, blah blah blah. If it's all too corny for ya, fine, but the world is a far more interesting place with these people in it.
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