The SBR Guide to Nine Inch Nails

Like The Cure and Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails have established a throne in goth culture without being a goth band. They brought industrial music into the mainstream without being an industrial artist. Many metalheads expanded their horizons beyond loud guitars thanks to Trent Reznor’s experiments with chugging riffs and bubbling synths, yet they’re not a metal group despite winning a Grammy for Best Metal Performance in 1992. Indeed, they spearheaded the alternative music movement of the 1990s and co-existed with grunge and rap metal as easily as France and Luxembourg, yet Nine Inch Nails are a genre unto themselves.

Coming out of the 1980s with a warped idea of blending synth music and pop structures, Trent Reznor built up his following through angst-ridden anthems and gruelling tours at the dawn of Lollapalooza. By the time he moved into heavier guitar-led music in 1992, the landscape had moved with him. You could argue that he was the most important artist in alternative music in the period 1994-2005 after the critical and commercial success of 1994’s The Downward Spiral. An enemy of the music business that benefitted from his special connection with the dark sub-cultures and alienated youth hiding in plain sight before Nirvana’s Nevermind, Trent went out of his way to antagonise the suits and rip up the rule book. People bought his music in droves despite him showing no interest in writing catchy songs for most of the 1990s. How many major label artists would be allowed to follow a triple platinum record like The Downward Spiral with a double album like The Fragile?

The first decade of the twenty-first century saw Trent cement a place in pop culture as an uncompromising artist with insurgent power in the industry. 2005’s With Teeth album landed him his second number one on the billboard charts before he foresaw the disruption of the corporate musical landscape and released 2008’s album, The Slip, under a creative commons licence. Since then, the Pennsylvania native has ventured into film scores, won golden globes and academy awards, and continued to produce Nine Inch Nails music, including a brief contractual relationship with Columbia Records for 2013’s Hesitation Marks album.

For this discography review, we’ll exclude official live recordings. The same goes for remix albums. Fixed, Further Down the Spiral, Things Falling Apart and Year Zero Remixed are nothing but major label cash grabs and have little artistic merit. Likewise, the three instrumental records – Ghosts I-IV (2008), Ghosts V: Together (2020), and Ghosts VI: Locusts (2020) – are beyond the reach of this reviewer and are so leftfield that they take the Nine Nails catalogue in a direction that is not representative of their core sound. Including these is like asking a reviewer of novels to give an appraisal of a poetry anthology.

There’s a common consensus as to which are the untouchable Nine Inch Nails records and which ones are open to more criticism. We’ll try to be as objective as possible and avoid sycophancy, but that’s almost impossible with albums like Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral, both of which deserve their adoration.

Watch our video below to get the most out of this discography review. This is the Scream Blast Repeat guide to Nine Inch Nails…

Pretty Hate Machine (1989)

How many superlatives can we use to describe the genius of the debut Nine Inch Nails record? Perhaps a better description is the most aggressive synthpop album ever released. Aside from Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration, it might also be the darkest. Before Kurt Cobain awakened the angst of teenagers and twenty somethings, you had Robert Smith of The Cure and Morrissey of The Smiths. In between them, you had a young Trent Reznor.

There’s a vulnerability and restlessness to this album. Pretty Hate Machine is gorgeous in its naivety and scary in its deliberations. Fuelled by rage at the corporate institutions dominating America; confused by the difficulty of holding down relationships; fascinated by the darker side of human desire; strung out by the pain of love sickness – this is the real deal. Almost every song has a fist-clenching verse or chorus and a memorable stanza that makes you take a step back and say, “Did I just sing along with that?”

‘Head Like a Hole’ and ‘Sin’ showed the likes of Skinny Puppy and Ministry how to craft orthodox songs out of unsentimental soundscapes and skull-crushing beats. ‘Terrible Lie’ rages against God in a squelching synth and bass attack; ‘Down in It’ uses breakbeats and rap vocals to articulate despair. But then there’s also the unsettling piano ballad, ‘Something I Can Never Have’, where even Trent says in the lyrics, “I’m starting to scare myself.” For most of this album, basslines slap and pop underneath loud kick drums and minimalist keyboard atmospherics. Vocal rhythms threaten to crack in self-destructive anger. Listen to Trent ad lib his vocal lines in a wonderful anguish of melody at the end of ‘Ringfinger’.

He abandoned the quirky synths in favour of heavy guitars in the next decade, but this is where it all began. The alienated youth of Generation X didn’t know it at the time, but their spokesman arrived onto the scene in 1989.

Broken EP (1992)

Those of you familiar with Scream Blast Repeat will know that we’ve already christened the 1992 Nine Inch Nails record the greatest EP of all-time in a previous video. There is nothing that can rival this record’s vitality, creativity, and originality. Trent did a hell of a job tapping into the zeitgeist despite going out of his way to be as uncommercial as possible after breaking free from TVT Records.

Broken is a radical departure from Pretty Hate Machine and a clear leap into industrial metal. Drop D guitars and thick distorted riffs beef up the Nine Inch Nails rhythms like an injection of steroids. Now, Trent is the sado-masochistic psychopath with a new-found aggression. He uses the synth presets sparingly, replacing the Human League with Helmet and OMD with Ministry. The anthemic words are even more engaging. “I’m the one without a soul / I’m the one with this big fucking hole,” he screams in ‘Wish’. The half-timing chorus and ringing power chords will make you want to open your lungs and shout into the sky. By contrast, the crunchy guitars in ‘Last’ will give you an incentive to bring out the air guitar and swing your head. Every industrial metal band of the 1990s would pay attention to the body-smashing grooves on show here.

This EP’s magic lies in its determination to treat the listener like an album consumer. The eerie instrumental minimalism of ‘Help Me I’m in Hell’ works perfectly as a transition to the industrial power electronics of ‘Happiness in Slavery’, which somehow rescues a catchy bridge and remorseful chorus from the chaos. Synths froth and pop in the background as guitars palm-mute their chords with metallic force. The rapid audio assault of ‘Gave Up’ is merciless in its fury and self-hatred. This is the record that introduced Nine Inch Nails to the heavy metal crowd and convinced the grunge acolytes that you could write a raw and heavy form of music with electronics as well as guitars.

The Downward Spiral (1994)

All great artists have a masterpiece. The Nine Inch Nails pièce de resistance arrived in 1994 with no discernible radio hits and no desire to play by the rules of the music industry. Recorded in the former LA mansion where the Manson family cult murdered Sharon Tate, the record follows one man’s descent into insanity and suicidal contemplation and touches upon themes of addiction, disease, and self-destruction. The music is dissonant and violent, yet spacious and comfortable in rare moments of solitude.

Reznor continues with the chunky guitars but brings back the synths from Pretty Hate Machine and continues the mood of alienation and despair. Songs like ’Mr Self-Destruct’, ‘March of the Pigs’ and ‘I Do Not Want This’ throb with murderous rage. Other cuts, like ‘Piggy’ and ‘A Warm Place’, find shelter in a blissful respite from the misanthropic torment. Reznor takes us on a sixty-five-minute journey through a self-imposed hell. It’s grim but relatable, as testified by the triple platinum sales that this album achieved. Yet there is so much that’s ground-breaking here. Who can forget the dark synth-funk thrill of ‘Closer’, with its disturbing erotic imagery and savage chorus line of, “I want to fuck you like an animal”? What about the complex offbeat rhythms and squelchy bass of ‘The Becoming’, or the crushing industrial doom of ‘Reptile’?

As experimental as a Coil LP and sometimes as heavy as a Pantera reckoning, the dynamic range and unorthodox arrangements make The Downward Spiral a landmark album. We didn’t need Johnny Cash to remind us that the vocal lines in ‘Hurt’ are the most poignant of the decade, but he did a great job ramming home the message for those on the outside ten years later.

This album is the most important record of the 1990s in alternative music. You could call it the definitive industrial LP and the most imaginative heavy guitar opus of its era. Or perhaps just the darkest studio recording in the post-Kurt Cobain epoch. Whichever way you look at it, this is a bona fide classic.

The Fragile (1999)

Following up on a record that achieves commercial and critical success is always difficult. Producing an album to follow The Downward Spiral is even harder. After the widespread acclaim and gruelling tours that went with it, Trent fell further into depression, drink, and drugs. He knew that the pressure would be immense from the label executives. The critics, the public, and the fanbase would be just as demanding. Everybody wanted a piece of Nine Inch Nails, yet he didn’t want to write the musical version of The Downward Spiral, Part II even if the lyrical themes and headspace would be a continuation of the predecessor record.

The Fragile is an ambitious double-album that retains the industrial metal distortion and yet moves away from it and into the realms of progressive rock, ambient soundscapes, and electronica. Many of the songs are instrumental compositions. Some of them are fierce rock scuffles with underdog chorus celebrations. Pianos often replace synths in moments of mournful introspection. Opener, ‘Somewhat Damaged’ is a hysterical car crusher that reveals its layers like a peacock widening its tail feathers. The angry anthems of disc 1 – ‘We’re in This Together’ and ‘No, You Don’t’ – rear their heads among progressive canvasses like ‘La Mer’ and ‘The Great Below’. Listen how the maudlin piano of ‘The Frail’ segues into the agitated industrial angst of ‘The Wretched’. The attention to detail is remarkable.

The main criticism of this record is the drop off in quality on disc 2. It’s true that ‘Where is Everybody?’ and ‘Please’ get to the finishing line on crutches despite their rich tapestry. You can detect an unwelcome intrusion of writer’s block in the way Trent struggles to finish the textured techno-prog of ‘Complications’. Likewise, the awesome potential of ‘The Way Out is Through’ never receives the expansion that its intro and build up deserve. But the classics of disc 2 are hard to ignore. ‘Into the Void’ and ‘Starfuckers, Inc.’ are strong singles. ‘The Big Comedown’ is a brooding piece of art rock with funky guitars, squelch bass notes, and muscular vocals that navigate their way to a wonderful melodic chorus. If ‘Ripe (With Decay)’ isn’t cinematic post-rock, what is?

The most anticipated album of 1999 in the entire music industry, The Fragile was always going to be up against impossible expectations. But listen to it twenty-five years later, and you’ll still discover things that were not there before.

With Teeth (2005)

Trent composed his 2005 album in a sober state of mind for the first time since his 1989 debut. Much had changed in the years after the tour for The Fragile wrapped up. Nu metal had peaked and burned out; tame indie rock was in the ascendancy; ironic synthpop showed signs of a resurgence. The geo-political landscape was also much more fractured in the post-9/11 age. Trent settled on George W. Bush as the nemesis of the era, yet the introverted themes on With Teeth had more to do with his recovery from addiction than a snarling critique of the times.

You could argue that With Teeth is the nearest thing to a conventional rock album in the Nine Inch Nails discography. Growling basslines and fuzzy guitars buzz through the mix like the toolkit of a master blacksmith. Dave Grohl’s pounding drum performances amplify the intensity. The songs set aside as singles are more obvious – ‘The Hand that Feeds’, ‘Every Day is Exactly the Same’, ‘Only’. All three are powerful yet quite conventional. You need to look deeper to appreciate the skill and sophistication of this record. Opener, ‘All the Love in the World’, is a predatory Massive Attack introversion that Trent ought to have explored more than once here to keep things fresh. The problems that beset disc 2 of The Fragile are in full view on ‘The Collector’ and ‘Love is Not Enough’, which harvest some mean bass riffs and spirited vocals but have no imagination beyond a verse-chorus structure.

Thankfully, the angular noise ritual of the title-track and the belting self-reflection of ‘The Line Begins to Blur’ save this album from mediocrity. Examining the songs in isolation reveals some festering shortcomings. Listening to them as a collective whole presents no such problems.

Year Zero (2007)

Sobriety brought a new productivity to Trent Reznor’s songwriting. We used to wait five years between albums; now he reduced it by half. Year Zero is the record Nine Inch Nails should have made as the successor to The Fragile, and Trent did not want to squander his antipathy for George W. Bush and neo-Conservatism. Yet he didn’t want to write simple protest music, so he came up with a concept record about a dystopian USA of the future governed by a theocratic regime. Or we might call it a society built on guns and bibles.

At sixty-three minutes in length and awash with crumbling machine noises and bleeping computer frequencies, Year Zero feels like a clean slate. Out goes the electronic garage rock after track two. In come the laptop electronics. You can feel Trent’s reinvigoration as a creative artist. Listen how the playful but sorrowful funk of ‘The Good Soldier’ transitions into the laser-synth splatter of ‘Vessel’. Go ahead and tap your foot to the retro pop beats of ‘Capital G’ while lamenting the fate of the little man who succumbs to the heel of authoritarian government. Somehow, it feels good to follow the protagonist into a remorseless world of murder and survivalism. See if the chorus to ‘Meet Your Master’ lets you do anything other than flex your biceps and stand tall. Your humanity is not quite extinguished. Regrets linger in the mighty electronic rock of ‘The Great Destroyer’ as the protagonist ponders over the things his government ask him to do in the name of patriotism.

A gargantuan wall of noise and squirming power tool effects, it’s not always possible for Trent to add illustrative vocal lines to these compositions, but he does a great job on ‘God Given’ and the poignant closing track, ‘Zero Sum’. This is the last great album in the Nine Inch Nails canon.

The Slip (2008)

Trent’s momentum and creative juices showed no sign of abating after rediscovering his zest on Year Zero. Starting 2008 with the day-dreaming instrumental album Ghosts I–IV, he surprised fans with another full-length only three months later when The Slip appeared as a digital release on the Nine Inch Nails website under a creative commons licence. Now severed from Interscope Records, Trent approached this studio offering with a new mindset – record an album of garage electronics in the shortest time possible. It took him three weeks.

You can hear the catchy hooks, anxious chorus remonstrations, and mischievous drumbeats of the classic period in the 1990s throughout most of The Slip. Trent’s idea of rock is a noisy affair with ugly guitar tones searching for melody in a wall of distortion. Fuzz bass and anxious vocal projections integrate to great effect in ‘1,000,000’. Likewise, frantic beats and piledriver guitars fight with a static-producing bassline in ‘Letting You’ as Trent sings with a sharp intake of breath before each line. But the standout track is the album’s sole single, ‘Discipline’. Is this a sequel to ‘Only’? If anything, it’s superior to the more famous single from 2005. Here, Trent’s voice dominates the mix in all its masculine fragility. Listen to the rolling bass grooves and danceable hi-hat manoeuvres. It’s also Trent’s last great vocal line that you can hum in your head.

The album loses a bit of momentum in the last third with an over reliance on edgy instrumentals for the music tech boffins. Let’s be honest, seven minutes is a tad excessive for the atonal sound design ambience of ‘Corona Radiata’, which only comes to life after five minutes. But the stripped-down piano introspection of Nine Inch Nails shows itself to be as poignant as ever in ‘Lights in the Sky’, and Trent reminds us on ‘Echoplex’ that he can still translate his words into melodies as if it’s 1989 again. Here, an Ultravox drum machine sound receives a post-punk bassline with plectrums scraping the strings like rakes through dried leaves. The Slip could well be the most underrated album in the band’s discography.

Hesitation Marks (2013)

Trent reverted to his normal five-year gap between albums after the creative burst of Year Zero and The Slip. In that time, he ventured into film scores with Atticus Ross and landed a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for his soundtrack to 2010’s The Social Network. He also did the unimaginable as the music world’s most famous loner in 2009 by marrying Mariqueen Maandig and starting a family. Together, they created a side project called How to Destroy Angels. The person who returned under the Nine Inch Nails name in 2013 had a different worldview, different priorities, and less to be angry about as a forty-eight-year-old man.

Despite this, Hesitation Marks hovers in the same dark space as previous records. Guitars are sparse. Rumbling electro-bass patterns dominate. The synth arpeggiator button receives more attention as Trent’s piano motifs saunter in the background like unfinished eulogies. ‘Copy of A’ and ‘Came Back Haunted’ sway among unmelodious groove frameworks and come to life in the trademark anxiety of their creator. Listen how he gets intimate with the microphone in the chorus to ‘All Time Low’ as a choppy synth rotation clears the way in the bridge. The levels of rage synonymous with Nine Inch Nails are noticeable by their absence here, but that does not hold back this album. If anything, it’s the running time of sixty-one minutes that turns this into a chore near the end.

Yet fans will find a lot to engage with on Hesitation Marks. There is so much to dig into, and so little of it is abstract and unremarkable like the interlude tracks on the Ghost series of albums. The handclaps and hip-shaking rhythms of ‘Satellite’ are as catchy as anything you’ll hear in a monotone whisper. Your ears might need counselling after the power-pop surge of noise in ‘Everything’, but it’s a risk that deserves respect. ‘Various Methods of Escape’ shows that Trent still has the talent to mix programmed drums with a ruminating rock chorus.

Though not in the same league as The Downward Spiral or The Fragile, Hesitation Marks is a worthy addition to the Nine Inch Nails repertoire with as many surprises as treats for the faithful.

Not the Actual Events EP (2016)

After scoring the soundtracks to Before the Flood and Patriots Day, Trent Reznor returned with the first original material since 2013 and announced the full-time membership of long-time collaborator, Atticus Ross. The first in a trilogy of records, this EP is the weakest one in the Nine Inch Nails discography. Some people praise Not the Actual Events for returning to the industrial metal sound of the 1990s, but what record were they listening to? The vocal lines in ‘Branches / Bones’ are straight from With Teeth, the chorus a rip-off of ‘Getting Smaller’ but with an annoying inflection of the last word. ‘Dear World,’ starts well enough with exciting high-register synth loops, whispered voice, and a busy drumbeat. Trent shows here that he can still create a soundscape with electronics, but where is the chorus?

“Underwhelming” is the kindest thing we can say about this EP. Most of it sounds like leftover material from Year Zero. The offbeat staccato rock and menacing bass tones of ‘The Idea of You’ offer some interesting contrasts with discordant piano intervals, but Trent whispers the opening verses for want of anything more imaginative. The chorus is a simple yell you’d expect from a garage rock band. Has Trent forgotten how to sing? Is the idea of a singalong anthem now anathema to him?

The unpredictability of the song arrangements and sophistication of production will leave you returning to Not the Actual Events on the odd occasion to see if you can make sense of it with the passing of time. But you’ll need tremendous reserves of good will to see it in a new light after eight years.

Add Violence EP (2017)

Trent and Atticus remembered some of the features that made Nine Inch Nails great on the second instalment in their trilogy of releases. Add Violence doesn’t quite shake the tired garage rock electronics of its predecessor, but its opening track is a step up in quality. A dark disco affair with charming funk beats and glittering synths spearheading Trent’s sultry vocal approach, ‘Less Than’ contains memorable vocal phrasing and a clear bridge and chorus. The grungy guitars only add to the body-popping thrill. Likewise, the sombre sprinkle of piano over an introspective bass and drum combination in ‘This Isn’t the Place’ creates a sense of place the way a novelist does. This could be a disc 2 inclusion on The Fragile with Trent’s fragile falsetto cracking in trepid despair. You might even call it an atmospheric sequel to ‘Piggy’.

A few flaws remain from Not the Actual Events. The excessive use of a whispering vocal style in ‘The Lovers’ suggests that Trent could find no inspiration to articulate his lyrics. This feels like a Year Zero outtake; it searches for a gradual path to a climactic event but goes nowhere. Musically, ‘Not Anymore’ is what it feels like to be trapped in a mud hut that you’re free to leave at any time. The steaming bass and cautious drums of the verse parts find their true voice in the distortion of the chorus. It’s fascinating, but it wouldn’t make the cut for any of the first three albums.

Nevertheless, ending the record with the twelve minutes of ‘The Background World’ is a risk that pays off here. The last eight minutes of distortion and sabotage are thrilling to watch after the opening quarter of slimy synth-bass grooves and vocal arrangements from the Hesitation Marks era. The attention to ambient detail from Atticus Ross is impressive. Listen how Trent hangs his head over the mic stand like a marathon runner who stops for breath after crossing the finishing line. The stakes are not as high, but you could call this a return to form.

Bad Witch (2018)

This is the shortest album in the Nine Ince Nails discography with a running time of thirty minutes, and it feels like an EP. The weaknesses that plagued Not the Actual Events slip back in here. Opener, ‘Shit Mirror’, is more tried-and-tested electro garage punk with hand clap snares and angry vocals. ‘Ahead of Ourselves’ is what you get if you ask The Prodigy to remix one of your songs. In fact, it sounds like Trent asked them to remix ‘The Collector’ from 2005 as the vocal lines are near identical in the verse parts. Abrasive guitars in the chorus do little to enhance this song. Would it get any attention if this was a new band and not the mighty Nine Inch Nails?

Fortunately, things improve after the first two cuts, thanks to Trent’s long-awaited introduction of the saxophone into his music. ‘Play the Goddamned Part’ is the best composition on the album – listen to the saxophone notes crawl out of the morass of eerie noise sequences like rats from a New Orleans drain. Finally, we have something new and exciting and disdainful of boundaries. Listen how the cautious brass notes and squirming synths unite in a body-popping drum ‘n’ bass beat in ‘God Break Down the Door’. The swirling sonics threaten to warp your brain like a menacing QR code scanner that wants to put you on a factory setting. Hesitation Marks would have benefitted from a track like this. Why didn’t Trent and Atticus make this new sound the centrepiece of the album?

Perhaps the most important question is why does so much of this trilogy sound like material that would have made no difference to the quality of With Teeth? You’d be perplexed by people calling Trent a genius on the evidence of this music despite its risks and its willingness to experiment. “Time is running out / I don’t know what I’m waiting for,” he sings in closing track, ‘Over and Out’. Let’s hope it’s not a prophecy for the future of Nine Inch Nails.

Are you new to Nine Inch Nails or unfamiliar with their newer material? Start by watching their saxophone-infused video single, ‘God Break Down the Door’, from their 2018 album, Bad Witch.