Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor never really went away. For Reznor, a hiatus amounted to soundtrack work, subsequent awards glory, marriage, kids, a healthy side project and the small matter of recording a new Nine Inch Nails album and rehearsing for a massive tour in clandestine fashion. With Hesitation Marks just around the corner, NIN have been whetting appetites across the globe with a series of festival dates and one of the most visually arresting shows of their storied career. Would it all come together in Belfast?
Opening honours go to Little Matador, aka Nathan Connolly of Snow Patrol’s new venture. It’s not every band that can say that their third-ever gig was supporting Nine Inch Nails, but Connolly and his multitude of black-shirted colleagues can deflect accusations of industry nepotism by pointing to a tight, energetic set that gets by on charm even if a signature sound fails to fully establish itself. Falling somewhere between Zeppelin and the National for now, Connolly’s side project is already more interesting than his day job.
Always interesting are local heroes And So I Watch You From Afar, clearly loving every single minute of the occasion. Custom House Square may not be stadium-sized but it’s a big stage and ASIWYFA look and sound right at home on it. ‘Big Thinks Do Remarkable’ makes for a perfect start, the confidence and invention of All Hail Bright Futures encapsulated in its celebratory sing-a-long. Much has been said about ASIWYFA’s recent use of vocals, and while it appears to simply be another texture for them to use , it’s one worth continuing to pursue, even if this tight, 45-minute set is largely wordless.
A shorter run than usual leads to something of a greatest hits run-through, with ‘BEAUTIFULUNIVERSEMASTERCHAMPION’, ‘Set Guitars to Kill’ and ‘Search: Party: Animal’ leaving their usual blistering impression. A rain-soaked finale presents a euphoric visual that rivals anything the main event has to offer. Almost.
Ahead of these dates and the forthcoming North American Tension tour, Trent Reznor took the time to pay tribute to David Byrne, noting that he took strict inspiration from Talking Heads’ 1983 tour that wound up filmed as Stop Making Sense. He wasn’t kidding. Come show time, the first thing we see is a uniformed stage-hand (one of many who will be kept busy) carefully placing a solitary microphone stand and single synthesiser in the middle of the stage.
Enter Reznor, clad in body warmer, skin tight black t-shirt and three quarter length shorts that seem to double as a makeshift skirt. It works, of course. No words, just teasing bleeps and bloops, and then ‘Copy of A’ starts, Reznor alone for the first verse before further stage hands bring out another device and another member, Alessandro Cortini this time, joins in. The process is repeated in time for the first chorus as Ilan Rubin, Josh Eustis and Robin Finck complete the line-up.
It’s a simple but hugely effective start; shadows and projections cast with increasing frenzy as the song rushes to its climax. Then it’s back in time for a rejigged ‘Sanctified’, the beats sounding like an especially aggressive Matthew Dear, Reznor sounding especially focused in his own right. ‘Came Back Haunted’ brings us right back to the modern era and it’s in a live setting where the song truly demonstrates its power. The crowd are up for it too, making the track feel like an old favourite. Speaking of, the sound of acoustic drums kicks off ‘1,000,000’ as screens are dismantled to reveal Rubin, belting away in a more familiar look for him. Momentum well and truly seized, it’s ‘March of the Pigs’ time and the first hint that the crowd are struggling with the whole ‘clapping along in time’ thing. To be fair, ‘March’ is hardly the most straightforward of time signatures. “It’s good to finally get here”, Trent notes during the pause for breath, a rare moment of crowd interaction in a gig that never really needs it.
‘Closer’ brings the most arresting visual of the night as Trent, behind the screens, goes all virtual, his features an unnerving splice of Tupac hologram and The Lawnmower Man. Most people are too busy losing their minds to notice. Closer to God, indeed. Unfortunately, most people are also too preoccupied to give their full attention to quieter efforts. Mercifully, their inane prattle fails to overpower the final couple of minutes of ‘Find My Way’ as the build swarms beautifully without screaming. So too the spell-binding ‘What If We Could?’, one of the highlights of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo OST which, again, provokes noise but wins the day even as Trent abandons ship right at the death, – play the last note, man! – confessing a mistake and apologising for seemingly jumping the gun and inadvertently re-arranging the set in the process. With precisely zero flubs or panicked faces on display; it’s safe to say that nobody noticed.
A final act run of ‘Wish’, ‘Survivalism’, ‘Only’ and a particularly intense ‘The Hand that Feeds’ leaves no room for wandering attention spans, however. There’s really no flab here, no sense that Reznor has lost a step. Everything clicks, musically and visually, the atmosphere genuinely something else. Seeing a band in the latter stages of their career is always dangerous, but this is a flawless flexing of considerable muscle. ‘Hurt’ closes, as only it can; that great powerhouse of emotion lent extra grace tonight as it descends, quietly, on thousands of awestruck souls.