Nine Inch Nails—either to the dismay of “hardcore” industrial fans or the delight of fans who’ve followed the band—is a household name for metalheads everywhere. For almost thirty years now, Trent Reznor has been making music that has paved the way for future industrial metal and electronic rock bands to succeed. He has been able to (paradoxically) put genuine human emotion into what is usually a very cold sounding genre, and do it with great success.
Here, we celebrate Reznor’s work under the Nine Inch Nails moniker, by going through his entire discography. While not everyone is a fan of every NIN album, there is no doubting that each release has been solid enough and received with enough acclaim to keep Reznor on the map as one of the most important musicians in the modern era.
Pretty Hate Machine (1989, TVT)
Nine Inch Nails’s debut finds Reznor working with the synthpop/New Wave sound of the 80s and combining it with light industrial sounds. (In fact, Pretty Hate Machine’s liner notes list Prince, Public Enemy, and This Mortal Coil as some influences on the album.) Essentially, Pretty Hate Machine reinterprets New Wave; instead of embracing the cheery and, admittedly, cheesy, synths that the 1980s are known for, Reznor manages to inject a sense of darkness into each track, both lyrically and sonically. “Head Like A Hole”—still one of NIN’s most popular songs—talks about the immorality that capitalism brings, but also has an extremely aggressive chorus to boot that seems to set the tone for the morbid sounds to show up on future releases. Even other tracks like “Sin” and “Terrible Lie” still remain fan favorites to this day. While this album hasn’t aged like some of the band’s other releases—in all honesty, it’s probably the odd man out of the Nine Inch Nails discography considering its overall sound—Pretty Hate Machine is still an interesting and foreboding listen that’s a must-have for any big fan of Trent Reznor.
Broken (1992, TVT/Nothing)
Despite being an EP, Broken is probably the single most important early NIN release (i.e. before The Downward Spiral hit shelves two years later). Reznor progresses his sound, completely abandoning synthpop and New Wave for what we view now as a traditional industrial rock/metal sound—heavy distortion, creative use of noise, and some intense drumming, with tracks like “Pinion” and “Suck” sounding like they’ve come straight of Hell itself. “Wish,” in particular, received critical acclaim, even taking home the Grammy for Best Metal Performance in 1993. Lyrically, Reznor begins to explore grimmer themes, like hopelessness and depression, while “Happiness in Slavery,” with its rather disturbing music video (warning, extremely NSFW), exemplifies Reznor’s growing criticism of the music industry. But despite its relatively short length, Broken still stands as a significant output by Reznor during this time.
The Downward Spiral (1994, Nothing / Interscope)
Although now considered one of the seminal albums of the 90s and among the greatest industrial metal albums ever made, The Downward Spiral comes from a time of intense dysphoria in Reznor’s life, who suffered from severe depression and drug addiction during its recording. The album’s sound matches his life at the time, with intensely distorted instrumentation and an overall nightmarish feeling, as it follows the story of an unnamed man who eventually attempts suicide near the album’s end. “Piggy,” despite its light, tambourine-filled beginning, takes a pseudo-nihilistic tone as it progresses (“nothing can stop me now/ because I don’t care anymore”), and “Hurt” remains one of the most emotional songs ever recorded (and perhaps made even more famous by Johnny Cash’s 2003 cover of it).
Yet the controversy that sprang up from the release of The Downward Spiral—some right wing politicians found the album offensive, and Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold was reportedly a fan of the album and Reznor—did little to mar its overall reception. “Closer” became Nine Inch Nails’s most well-known song—in no small part to its accompanying video, which is still considered one of the strangest music videos to date—and arguably the band’s signature song, until the release of “The Hand That Feeds” in 2005.
The Fragile (1999, Nothing/Interscope)
Reznor’s first double album takes the depression- and drug-fueled darkness of The Downward Spiral and brings it to new heights, experimenting with a lot of different musical ideas along the way, including more ambient, piano-driven tracks (“La Mer”) and even some light rapping on “Where Is Everybody?” (The Fragile is also the last major release by Reznor, as he dove deeper in his drug addiction and depression until his recovery and the release of 2005’s With Teeth.)
However, this wasn’t as well-received in the long run by fans, with a big criticism by fans against The Fragile is, essentially, the fact that it isn’t The Downward Spiral, which is a bit inaccurate, as most of the elements present in that album can be found here. Reznor still uses heavy industrial sounds and noise in tracks like “Pilgrimage,” “No, You Don’t,” and “The Big Comedown,” all of which sound like they were arc-welded together in a factory. The emotional darkness present in The Downward Spiral is peppered throughout the album as well. While there aren’t tracks that hit as deep as “Hurt” in The Fragile, there is more going on, both musically and lyrically. “Somewhat Damaged” and the verses of “Starfuckers, Inc.” go, in my mind, above and beyond the brutality and sheer creepiness that songs like “Reptile” and “Closer” have. And while The Downward Spiral deals with one man and his depression, The Fragile deals with entropy—rather than one person suffering, we’re experiencing an entire world with the frailty of glass rotting away molecule by molecule within the 105 minutes of the album.
With Teeth (2005, Nothing/Interscope)
Nobody could’ve expected something as clean-sounding as With Teeth, considering the albums had preceded it. Musically, Reznor strips down the dense, noisy sound he’d been known for and incorporates more electronic elements, essentially making this more of an industrial rock/electronic rock album than industrial metal. Even his vocals change from their previous coarseness to something with a little more clarity.
But to say that With Teeth is a “sellout” album is simply not true. Yes, singles like “The Hand That Feeds” and “Only” brought a new sound forth for Reznor and put Nine Inch Nails more into the ears of mainstream music fans, and the album as a whole is much more catchy than previous releases. But deep cuts in the album, however, prove to be very interesting musically, such as the jumping industrial sound of the title track, or the electronics used on “Beside You in Time” that can seem pretty alienating upon first listen. Lyrically, Reznor touches upon themes relating to his recovery from alcohol and drugs, whether it’s the ennui that seems to come with a life of sobriety (“Every Day Is Exactly the Same”) or the pressures of trying to quit (“Love Is Not Enough”). And finishing off the album is one of the most beautiful and emotional tracks Reznor has ever written, “Right Where It Belongs;”maybe not one of the most popular songs of the Nine Inch Nails project, but nonetheless an exquisite, heartbreaking song to cap off Reznor’s return to music.
Year Zero (2007, Interscope)
Up until the release of Ghosts I-IV the following year, Year Zero was Reznor’s most ambitious project to date. The music takes a sharp turn into even more electronics, utilizing a lot of glitch music and beats that almost seem inspired from microhouse, along with vocal contributions from slam poet/rapper and friend of Reznor Saul Williams.
But what makes Year Zero even more interesting is how far Reznor goes with the concept of the album, which describes a dystopian America essentially ruled by its Bureau of Morality. Spectrograms of songs like “My Violent Heart” and “The Warning” actually show the strange hand from the album cover as part of the literal sound of the album, while the CD version of Year Zero features heat-sensitive discs that turn from black to white when played, exposing binary code that computes into a phone number as part of the alternate reality game Reznor had designed around the album as well. All in all, Year Zero is an album that took risks in every facet but ended up paying off, considering the warm critical and commercial acclaim the album received upon release.
Ghosts I-IV (2008, The Null Corporation)
While Year Zero was ambitious in its sound, Ghosts took it to the next level, featuring two discs worth of pure instrumentals from Reznor and collaborators such as Atticus Ross and Adrian Belew (both of whom have contributed to previous NIN albums). These instrumentals have no title except for their designation within the Ghosts collection (i.e. “9 Ghosts I,” “13 Ghosts II,” etc.), and vary from full-on industrial beats—some of which were later repurposed for use on The Social Network soundtrack—to minimalist, almost Eno-esque ambient sounds (like the marimba on “6 Ghosts I”), to darker, scarier ambient music. (Interesting also was the relative secrecy that was used during Ghosts I-IV’s recording. In a move no doubt inspired by the previous year’s surprise release of Radiohead’s In Rainbows, Ghosts had no real promotion—instead, it simply showed up on the Nine Inch Nails website.)
Ghosts is probably the most difficult NIN release to digest, just because of the size and type of music produced. The album as a whole accounts for close to two hours worth of material, some of which can sound repetitive if one is not used to a lot of ambient or electronic music.
The Slip (2009, The Null Corporation)
Reznor returns to the sound captured on With Teeth with the release of The Slip, albeit throwing in a little more Year Zero-esque glitch into the mix. “1,000,000” and “Discipline” are about as standard electronic rock as one will get from Nine Inch Nails, with each having a danceable, energetic beats and using some solid—albeit fuzzy—guitars (or are they synths?) to back the entire thing up. Still, The Slip has some cool moments of experimentation, like the jagged beat of “Letting You,” or the instrumental madness that is “The Four of Us Are Dying.”
Like Ghosts I-IV, The Slip was released without a whole lot of promotion, but unlike its predecessor, was also released as a completely free download via the band’s website (and still can be downloaded to this day)Also of note is the album’s artwork, which, thanks to contributions by NIN art director Rob Sheridan, utilizes a different image for each track.
Hesitation Marks (2013, The Null Corporation/Columbia)
The most recent album from Nine Inch Nails, Hesitation Marks is again an exploration into the vein of industrial and electronic rock that albums like With Teeth and The Slip had previously undertaken. To some fans who expected something more experimental—especially considering Reznor’s Oscar-winning work on the The Social Network—Hesitation Marks can be a bit underwhelming. The album isn’t bad, but rather just another NIN album, which, depending on one’s level of fanaticism for Reznor, isn’t necessarily a negative at all.
Some interesting deep cuts include “Everything,” which, while not the album’s best track, can throw people used to the NIN sound for a loop with its happy-sounding verses. The intro, “Eater of Dreams” makes use of some pretty cool amplifier feedback, as well as the outro “Black Noise”. Overall Reznor recorded the tracks of the album with more varied instrumentation and playing around with new things production wise, which, if one is a fan of the “new” sound the band has had since With Teeth, is enjoyable.
What remains in the future for Nine Inch Nails? Who knows? Trent Reznor recently announced a new album coming in 2016, and after the post-industrial darkness of his side project How To Destroy Angels and his mesmerizing soundtrack for Gone Girl, there’s no telling what he’ll bring forth here. Whether he decides to try something new or resort to his now-traditional electronic rock sound is to be determined, but in any case it will be interesting to see what he has up his sleeves.