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Nine Inch Nails
Live at the O2 Arena, 23.05.14

Having waved goodbye in 2009 and going on an indefinite hiatus, it was a surprise when Trent Reznor announced a new Nine Inch Nails album and tour. It took a while for the Industrial titans to reach the UK but boy was it worth the wait. It was also their first proper UK tour in a long time, with several gigs across the country and a different set list every night. Bringing as much of their full US stage with them as they could fit in the venues, this gig is mesmerising both musically and visually, with the band often obscured by digital patterns and images projected on the screens and a blinding light show.

Trent has never been a performer to allow his own ego to dominate the music on stage and this is evident tonight when, after the intro tape fades, the band appear and open their set with Me, I’m Not a very downbeat number from Year Zero. They follow this with Copy Of A, the keyboard-heavy opening track from Hesitation Marks and another slow burner, although catchy as hell. The appreciative, the crowd don’t really kick off until the blue touch paper of 1,000,000 is lit, quickly followed by the frenzied punk spit of March Of The Pigs. It is these two faster, heavier songs that really get the evening going. Trent is a master of pacing a set, playing slower, subtler songs after the fast and the furious, giving the audience time to recover. The languid Piggy, The Frail and The Wretched are no less intense but slightly calmer in their delivery, whilst the audience reacts in delight when the opening electronic squelches of The Becoming slither slowly out across the arena.

The pace is picked up again with Gave Up and a funked up Sanctified. This is one of the beauties of a NIИ live show. The songs, especially as a slimmed down four-piece, take on a life of their own quite different from their studio counterparts. Always greeted with a cheer, the sleazy Closer has been reinstated to the revolving set lists for this tour, although I would have preferred for them to play something else, having heard this song live so many times. It seems mandatory when played live now to add the non-album coda to the song.

Then comes a section where the screens and lighting rig descend and the band play several new songs, mostly in silhouette as the patterns both in front of and behind the band weave their mesmerising magic. Even without their full US stage set this is probably the most interesting and cutting edge live show ever seen on these shores as Mr Reznor once again pushes the boundaries of live performance. An updated version of their Lights In The Sky stage, the patterns, shapes and colours enhance the music with the band being happy to be behind the layers of screens and play second fiddle to both the visuals and the music.

Technology has moved on in leaps and bounds since that tour and full use is made of the advancement. There's one section where the patterns and colours follow the movements of Reznor's arms, which is very clever. This innovation is typical of Trent, a maverick who has always looked to do things differently. Suffice to say the new songs from Hesitation Marks are greeted like long-lost classics by the crowd and dovetail beautifully into the set with the numerous older songs. A melancholic Find My Way the skittering, eccentric Disappointed and the eerie Came Back Haunted are all played in this section, showing Trent has just as much faith in new compositions as in the old.

The screens rise and the slow, dirty opening crawl of Eraser, one of The Downward Spiral's most evocative numbers, echoes around the vast arena. Taking an age to gradually build to a climax, there's something so cathartic about screaming the lyrics out at the top of your lungs as a thunderous, hateful peak is reached... we chant "Erase me, Kill me, Kill me..." in unison.

The sound tonight is excellent. I'm sure the cavernous O2 must be an absolute nightmare for sound engineers, with the echoing arena gobbling up and spitting back amplified sound but everything tonight is crisp and clear, unless of course, it's meant to be distorted. We are treated to another slower song from Year Zero tonight, The Great Destroyer, with its mainly synthetic drum beat, weird keyboard noises and low key vocals it signals the end of another quieter section. The concert hurtles to a climax with the trio of Wish, incendiary as ever, The Hand That Feeds and traditional set closer Head Like A Hole, all of which get the crowd bouncing like loons. As Head... reaches its conclusion it’s hard to see the band for the blinding white lights being shone into the audience.

Mention must be made of the touring musicians, all of whom are multi-tallented instrumentalists, and they certainly need to be with only the three of them accompanying Trent. It is no surprise that eventually he fell back on tried and trusted companions in Robin Finck, Alessandro Cortini and Ilan Rubin, all of whom sing backing vocals, play guitar, keyboards and bass at various points during the show. Ilan is the only one allowed behind the drum kit though as he channels the spirit of Animal from the Muppets and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, flailing away at his relatively modest kit. Despite the looseness of the songs in a live setting compared to the studio versions, the band are tight and never less than totally in control.

Returning for an encore armed with guitars, all four crank out the massive repeating riff from The Day the World Went Away. The song sounds monsterous with them all strumming away at the beginning and end of the song, greatly enhancing the ‘quiet bit’ in the middle. This is followed by Hurt. There is no other song that could close a NIИ gig, especially as Trent has stolen his song back from Johnny Cash and is playing it the Downward Spiral way again. The traditional video that accompanies the song with the snake, the dying flowers and the human detritus plays on the screen behind the band as they end on the same subtle note that they began with. The band exit to rapturous applause and cheers for a superb show from a band who never disappoint live and who I thought we had seen the last of. There is, apparently, life in the old dog yet!
Set List: Me, I'm Not / Copy of A / 1,000,000 / March of the Pigs / Piggy / The Frail / The Wretched / The Becoming / Gave Up / Sanctified / Closer / Find My Way / Disappointed / Came Back Haunted / The Great Destroyer / Eraser / Wish / The Hand That Feeds / Head Like a Hole / Encore: The Day the World Went Away / Hurt
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