By JOHN SHERIDAN
On Nov. 5, techno-industrial legend Nine Inch Nails appeared at the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville as part of the Lights in the Sky 2008 tour.
Concert material focused on the most recent albums, “Ghosts I – IV” and “The Slip,” both released in 2008, but spanned the entire NIN discography. As always, the band performed many old favorites in completely new ways, to the point where even a seasoned listener won’t recognize “Down In It” until the first verse starts.
The thing to understand about Nine Inch Nails live is that the show is just as fundamentally visual as it is audible. Never before have I seen such elaborate and unique uses of light, color and motion set to such a wide array of sounds. There were two curved screens, one behind the band and one in front, between the band and the audience
The front could be raised or lowered, depending on the desired effect, to hide the band or cloak them in some visual pattern. These screens were composed of hundreds of tiny LEDs, which appeared to be color-changing, light-sensitive and motion-sensitive, to unbelievable affect.
The show opened up with “1,000,000,” the second track from latest album “The Slip,” a fast-paced narrative romp into the remnants of the dystopian future described in “Year Zero.”
The lighting was nothing short of seizure-inducing; you know, if a seizure felt good. They played through various songs from the early pre-“The Fragile” period intermixed with tunes from post-“With Teeth” that had the same show-starting, beat-bashing feeling—the feeling of an old NIN show that just makes you want to break things and get arrested. Of course seeing “Closer” performed live is the closest I’ll ever get to a religious experience, and they mixed in the drum and synth lines from “The Only Time” flawlessly.
When the initial surge (I’m sorry Trent) seemed exhausted, the screen descended in front of the band and cast them in the image of some massive dead boreal forest as they began the first track from “Ghosts,” for which the guitarist lost his axe and picked up what I think was a flute of some kind. The “Ghosts” material is all instrumental, extremely melancholic, ethereal and beautiful. It was somewhat of an interlude, as the audience forgot about the band and was entranced by the images on the screen. As they cycled through the instrumental tracks, it started to rain on the forest, and it looked absolutely real. When the instrumental session was over, a technician came out and used a flashlight to literally erase the images off the screen, the LEDs going out wherever the beam of light passed over them.
When the song “Only” came on, I didn’t recognize it at first. Often considered too poppy for NIN, the version they played was so distorted and heavy it sounded brand new. The screen was still hanging in front of the stage projecting white static, and as he sang the song, Trent Reznor would run around the stage. Whenever he got close enough to the screen, the LEDs would somehow sense his proximity and turn off, so it was as if he was fading in and out of a field of static.
For the most part the audience had the strongest and most forceful reaction to the old industrial hits: “Gave Up,” “Terrible Lie,” and “Head Like A Hole.” I finally got to live out a personal fantasy of getting hurt in a mosh-pit to the song “March of the Pigs.” The few songs from “The Fragile” they played were my personal favorites, because in my previous two live NIN experiences, they played nothing from that album.
Before the encore began, Trent Reznor, the group’s creator and only consistent member, spoke a few choice words to the crowd. For the record, sometimes he never talks at a show other than to thank the audience and introduce his band, so this was a treat.
“As good or bad as we may be tonight, we have an impossible act to follow,” Reznor said referring to the election the previous night. “The impossible has happened.”
As they began the encore, someone in the audience shouted loud enough for everyone to hear, “I voted for you!” I don’t doubt that he did.