What came to be called industrial music took shape in the late 80s, ushered in by a handful of postpunk avant-noise bands like Throbbing Gristle, Chrome, and Cabaret Voltaire. Less a school than a style, and heavily weighted toward the tougher end of the dance world, industrial interlaced machine sounds with brittle synth loops, and then overlaid the whole mess with distorted vocals droning on about violence and void, passion and aggression. It was pop music for the Blade Runner set, the perfect sound track for the roiling angst of high-tech adolescents. But while groups as diverse as Front 242, Coil, Ministry, Nitzer Ebb, Skinny Puppy, and Tackhead have all at one time or another managed to find an audience, the music has yet to really break commercially. Distinguished at first by its sonic force, industrial was undercut by the rise of grunge and the general resurgence of live guitar rock. Forced to adapt or die, much of it has died. Skinny Puppy has turned tail. Nitzer Ebb has ebbed. And while Al Jourgensen’s sociopathic explorations continue to enliven the genre–witness the methodical madness of Revolting Cocks’ cover of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”–the single greatest force sustaining the waning Industrial Revolution may just be one-man band Trent Reznor, aka Nine Inch Nails.

Reznor first appeared in 1989 with his debut LP Pretty Hate Machine. Working with such accomplished producers as Flood (U2, Depeche Mode), John Fryer (Erasure), and Adrian Sherwood (Tackhead), the rural Pennsylvania wunderkind polished and refined his home tapes–created with a Macintosh and an Emax keyboard–and produced one of the more impressive first splashes of the decade. Pretty Hate Machine tugged on a relatively small number of thematic strings–hate, sex, and sexual hate, with a dollop of spiritual rot for good measure–but it tugged with an able melodic sense, yielding two bona fide hits in “Down in It” and “Head Like a Hole” while gesturing toward a wider range with sophisticated (even subtle) Sturm und Drang workouts like “Sin” and “The Only Time.” Showered with critical acclaim, Reznor rustled up a band for the first edition of Lollapalooza, and to his studio-whiz identity added a rep as a live threat who put his songs across with scorched-earth intensity. But Reznor failed to capitalize on his debut. Though there was talk of a follow-up album as early as summer 1990–Flood would produce, and the sound would be harder than hard, adamantine–Nine Inch Nails generated nothing new in 1990 or 1991. Just when the constant stream of remixes started to lose its appeal, Reznor resurfaced with an uneven EP, Broken, late in 1992. He’s finally reappeared in full force with a second album, The Downward Spiral.

Both an expansion and a consolidation of the promise of his debut, The Downward Spiral, largely coproduced with Flood, hammers home Nine Inch Nails’ trademark themes with a growing musical confidence. “Mr. Self Destruct” kicks off the effort, its menacing verses modulating into a fiery chorus; its fury, however, is a bit perfunctory. After that though, the album flows confidently, from the twisted lounge crooning of “Piggy” to the calculator funk of “Closer,” from the punky bounce of “Big Man With a Gun” to the ambient harmonics of “A Warm Place.” Voluptuous and layered, The Downward Spiral rewards careful listening. Often Reznor deploys multiple approaches in a single song; the lyrics of “March of the Pigs”–which seem mannered or worse on the printed page (“Stains like the blood on your teeth / Bite chew suck away the tender parts / I want to break it up I want to smash it up I want to fuck it up”)–are put across with the song’s breakneck pace and a quiet, sardonic piano diminuendo (“Now doesn’t that make you feel better?”).

Throughout, the lyrics toe the line between affecting looks at disaffection (the spooky title track, which anatomizes a suicide, and the man-is-machine lament of “The Becoming”) and moments of cartoonish torment. “I want to fuck you like an animal” (from “Closer”) and “I want to fuck everyone in the world” (from “I Do Not Want This”) are only two of the many instances in which Reznor’s narrators detail who, what, and where they’d like to fuck. When the songs avoid the macabre cliche, they manage a sort of limited poetry, and Reznor’s musicianship elevates even the flattest lyrics–there’s something seductively grim about the surging chorus of “Reptile” (“Oh my beautiful liar / Oh my precious whore / My disease my infection / I am so impure”). What emerges, ultimately, is the sense of a brilliantly calculating craftsman; Nine Inch Nails may be pushing the envelope, but it’s stamped and self-addressed.

As accomplished as the record is, there’s still the matter of delivering the goods live. For his latest tour Reznor retained longtime drummer Chris Vrenna and keyboardist James Woolley along with guitarist Robin Finck and bassist Danny Lohner and hit the road running. Feverishly anticipated–the May 7 show at the Riviera sold out in four minutes, less than the length of an average NIN song–the tour has demonstrated the band’s growing appeal: Reznor’s managed to keep up his credibility with the metal, dance, and college crowds alike. Where Pantera meets the Cure, that’s where you’ll find the diehard fans, holding hands, wearing black, everyone eager to get Nailed.

And nailed they are, starting at eight sharp Saturday night, when the Riviera house lights dim and an ominous white vapor rises from center stage. After 15 long but dramatic minutes of steadily mounting beats, the curtain suddenly falls away with a blast of electronic bass; a constellation of floodlights over the band assaults the audience. The early going sustains this initial rush. Dressed in black shorts, shirt, and gloves, Reznor lashes out with excoriating vocals as Vrenna pounds away and Finck dispatches meltdown solos. The show peaks with a frenetic rendition of “March of the Pigs”; thrashing, trashing, Reznor owns every corner of the theater, stalking the stage with a jittery menace. Though the show sags somewhat in the middle–a set of mid-tempo numbers, while ably done, can’t heat the beats–the band soon returns to high-decibel carpet bombing, pummeling the air with their strongest songs: “Closer,” “Down in It,” “Head Like a Hole,” and a driving cover of Queen’s “Get Down, Make Love.” The crowd pumps fists, screams along, moshes no matter how far from the pit. When the show ends, it does so abruptly, like a light switched off.

With music as fierce as Nine Inch Nails’, it’s practically reviewer boilerplate to talk about the “catharsis” of the experience. Certain aspects of the show suggest this might be naive. While performing is no doubt cathartic for Reznor–offstage he’s calm and contemplative, no GG Allin–the rage and danger he projects can be misunderstood; the same energy that rouses an audience to stomp approvingly behind a chorus of “God is dead” or “fuck you” can be scary when directed elsewhere. The crowd displayed an alarmingly high amount of intolerance; two women in separate conversations commented gleefully on the lack of black faces in the crowd, each with her racial slur of choice. And at the end of the show, as the mass pushed and snarled its way out of the theater, one stocky man jostled the woman ahead of him. When she turned to protest, he raised a fist, and from the look on his face it was clear he was still taken by Reznor’s amplified fantasies, still stuck in the middle of “Big Man With a Gun” (“Got me a big old dick and I / I like to have fun / Held against your forehead / I’ll make you suck it”). Reznor of course isn’t responsible for the idiocy of his audience, and there’s no indication that he cultivates any of the Nine Inch nazis. But when it comes to downward spirals, there are few more downward than narrow minds infused with new energy, missing any irony, dreaming of unconditional power.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin–Photo Reserve.