Nine Inch Nails 'Lights In The Sky' tour in Montreal, Quebec
Waiting in line to pick up my presale tickets, I happen to be standing next to the biggest Nine Inch Nails nerd ever spawned (and I say this in a good way). How long have I been a fan? he asks. Pretty much since I borrowed a copy of The Downward Spiral off the brother of a friend of mine, when it first came out. (You know the saying ‘everyone and their little sister’? Yeah, that was me.) I was fourteen, I had just come out of an 80’s pop-driven music embargo into the perfect storm of punk, nihilism, innovation and politics that brewed in the early nineties and spread across the globe. The Downward Spiral was like nothing I’d ever heard, and it kicked open a door that had only been hinted at in my self-imposed limited association with pop culture.
Fast forward fourteen years, and I’m in line waiting for the coat check at the Bell Centre to open, which it does at the same time that openers Boris hit the stage. (Note to Bell Centre people: GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER. Note to anyone else attending shows here: take a backpack, stuff your coat etc. in that and check it, it’s way quicker.) But I digress.
From the coat check lineup and through the thick concrete walls, I can hear what sounds like a bagpipe screech amidst heavy drums and wails, and like the many strange noises I’ve heard through walls, it makes me wonder what the fuck is going on behind them. I soon get my answer after I pay for my ridiculously expensive beer and head down into the floor.
"..the air is suddenly pierced by a banshee wail from the other guitarist; it sounds more like an accident more than an instrument."
This is the first I’ve ever heard Boris, and they’re not that bad – the songs that I hear tonight are in the same moody experimental vein as Sigur Ros, albeit a bit more gloomy. It’s all in Japanese, so I have no idea what’s being said, either by the lead singer or the female guitarist. She’s in the middle of singing an intense, yet subdued song when the air is suddenly pierced by a banshee wail from the other guitarist; it sounds more like an accident more than an instrument. There’s no control in the distortion, it seems like its only mission is to slash the air and pierce eardrums, and it lasts far longer than it really needs to. Other than that, the band is pretty passable, minus the occasional vocal distortion thrown in to make the lead singer sound like he’s gargling blood, which just sounds kind of ridiculous. (Was that supposed to be a growl?) The guitars spend most of the set begging for mercy, right until the gong-filled end. It wasn’t a bad set, despite the occasional smoke-detector-wail mimicry, and I have to say the double bass brings a smile to my face with the inevitable Simpsons quote, courtesy of Otto (“Can we get one of those guitars that’s like, a double guitar?”) Clearly, I amuse far too easily.
The floor is packed solid with sweaty, angsty bodies by the time the lights go dark and the opening hum of 999,999 drifts through the air. This tears straight into 1,000,000, the second track off of The Slip. As an opener, it shifts the crowd’s energy into high gear immediately, and keeps it up right through the next few tracks from The Slip.
Some of the first few songs sound a bit off to me, but if Reznor is half the perfectionist he seems to be, this frustration just gets channeled back into the performance, which gets louder and more furious as they pummel through March of the Pigs. I had missed the first few songs at the last NIN concert I saw, back in Calgary – “Sure, we have time for another beer,” – tearing into the Saddledome just as March was ending, so I’m glad I get to hear it this time around. It has a ferocious rhythm that lives in the deepest recesses of the heart, and to see it run wild in a crowd is a terrible beauty unto itself.
The reputation that the light show alone has garnered will surely live on long after the tour’s end. The constantly shifting curtain of lights is set up as a giant screen, behind which the band occasionally disappears leaving a silhouetted Reznor singing directly into a camera that projects his face, partially obscured and melding into a bubbling blue cloud as with The Greater Good. The display for Survivalism brings to life the concept used in the music video, showing different surveillance-type shots of the crowd, authoritarian logos, or various acts being committed in a public washroom – here, it’s a couple having sex against a sink before making a hasty exit. Thankfully the elaborate set-up doesn’t slow down the pace of the performance, and adds some stellar visuals on a technical level I have yet to witness elsewhere. (Others that come close: Pink Floyd in ’94, if it hadn’t been an outdoor stadium in the middle of the summer, or really any Tool show.)
"...it’s a credit to NIN’s diverse musical tangents that an industrial act can rock out the xylophones and chimes in the middle of a show and not lose momentum..."
Also a vital inclusion to the visuals is Rob Sheridan’s stunning black and white photography. Three songs off of Ghosts are played against the sparse backdrop of Sheridan’s imagery for that album: there’s the bleak sand dunes accompanying the song that always reminds me of Twin Peaks (5 Ghosts I) converging into swamp trees hanging with moss and Southern gloom, which gradually gets obliterated by a monsoon-like downpour that could almost turn into TV-screen static. Speaking of Ghosts, it’s a credit to NIN’s diverse musical tangents that an industrial act can rock out the xylophones and chimes in the middle of a show and not lose momentum; these songs took nothing away from the set, even if it changed the tone a little.
But the all-out favorite of the night for me has to be Reptile: yes, I can have a uterus and still like this song. With the lights glowing green, the chilly opening abruptly gets crushed by a pounding guitar that sounds like a giant trashing its way through an emotional wasteland. It is as coarse a rebuke as you’re likely to find, punctuated by Reznor pleading,“Please don’t hurt me,” at the end. Utterly wrenching.
"I’m left with the final sight of Reznor alone, dimly lit and on piano...it’s a fitting bit of melancholy at the end, and tempers the ferocity of an incredible show."
Crowd sing-along fave Hurt gets its maudlin turn, lighters all a-flare, before the screen turns into a Texas skyline, replete with oil refinery smoke stacks as In this Twilight closes out the show. It’s the two last songs off of Year Zero – In This Twilight and Zero Sum – that I find are two of the most depressing of his more recent work. Its something about the empty regret of every missed opportunity pissed away, and the bleak destruction of the world left behind that gets me about them both. I’m left with the final sight of Reznor alone, dimly lit and on piano, playing the final notes as the other band members have left the stage that drives this feeling home. It’s a fitting bit of melancholy at the end, and tempers the ferocity of an incredible show.
For the music nerds out there – oh yes, I know you’re out there - the set list: (yes, I even got the tracks from Ghosts right):
© Elizabeth Keith
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